Behaviorally, dehumanization describes a disposition towards others that debases the others' individuality as either an "individual" species or an "individual" object, e.g. someone who acts inhumanely towards humans. As a process, it may be understood as the opposite of personification, a figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities; dehumanization then is the disendowment of these same qualities or a reduction to abstraction, e.g. Technology revolutions cause the dehumanization of labor markets to the point of antiquation.
In almost all contexts, dehumanization is used pejoratively along with a disruption of social norms, with the former applying to the actor(s) of behavioral dehumanization and the latter applying to the action(s) or processes of dehumanization. For instance, there is the case of dehumanization for those who are perceived lacking in culture or civility, which are concepts that are believed to distinguish humans from animals. As social norms define what humane behavior is, reflexively these same social norms define what human behavior is not, or what is inhumane. Dehumanization differs from inhumane behaviors or processes in its breadth to include the emergence of new competing social norms. This emergence then is the action of dehumanization until the old norms lose out to the competing new norms, which will then redefine the action of dehumanization. If the new norms lose acceptance then the action remains one of dehumanization and its severity is comparative to past examples throughout history. However, dehumanization's definition remains in a reflexive state of a type-token ambiguity relative to both scales individual and societal.
Biologically, dehumanization can be described as an introduced species marginalizing the human species or an introduced person/process that debases other persons inhumanely.
In political science and jurisprudence, the act of dehumanization is the inferential alienation of human rights or denaturalization of natural rights, a definition contingent upon presiding international law rather than social norms limited by human geography. In this context, specialty within species need not apply to constitute global citizenship or its inalienable rights; these both are inherit by human genome.
It is theorized to take on two forms: animalistic dehumanization, which is employed on a largely intergroup basis, and mechanistic dehumanization, which is employed on a largely interpersonal basis. Dehumanization can occur discursively (e.g., idiomatic language that likens certain human beings to non-human animals, verbal abuse, erasing one's voice from discourse), symbolically (e.g., imagery), or physically (e.g., chattel slavery, physical abuse, refusing eye contact). Dehumanization often ignores the target's individuality (i.e., the creative and interesting aspects of their personality) and can hinder one from feeling empathy or properly understanding a stigmatized group of people.
Dehumanization may be carried out by a social institution (such as a state, school, or family), interpersonally, or even within the self. Dehumanization can be unintentional, especially on the part of individuals, as with some types of de facto racism. State-organized dehumanization has historically been directed against perceived political, racial, ethnic, national, or religious minority groups. Other minoritized and marginalized individuals and groups (based on sexual orientation, gender, disability, class, or some other organizing principle) are also susceptible to various forms of dehumanization. The concept of dehumanization has received empirical attention in the psychological literature. It is conceptually related to infrahumanization, delegitimization, moral exclusion, and objectification. Dehumanization occurs across several domains; is facilitated by status, power, and social connection; and results in behaviors like exclusion, violence, and support for violence against others.
“Dehumanisation is viewed as a central component to intergroup violence because it is frequently the most important precursor to moral exclusion, the process by which stigmatized groups are placed outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply.”
David Livingstone Smith, director and founder of The Human Nature Project at the University of New England, argues that historically, human beings have been dehumanizing one another for thousands of years.
In Herbert Kelman's work on dehumanization, humanness has two features: "identity" (i.e., a perception of the person "as an individual, independent and distinguishable from others, capable of making choices") and "community" (i.e., a perception of the person as "part of an interconnected network of individuals who care for each other"). When a target's agency and community embeddedness are denied, they no longer elicit compassion or other moral responses, and may suffer violence as a result.
Fredrickson and Roberts argued that the sexual objectification of women extends beyond pornography (which emphasizes women's bodies over their uniquely human mental and emotional characteristics) to society generally. There is a normative emphasis on female appearance that causes women to take a third-person perspective on their bodies. The psychological distance women may feel from their bodies might cause them to dehumanize themselves. Some research has indicated that women and men exhibit a "sexual body part recognition bias", in which women's sexual body parts are better recognized when presented in isolation than in the context of their entire bodies, whereas men's sexual body parts are better recognized in the context of their entire bodies than in isolation. Men who dehumanize women as either animals or objects are more liable to rape and sexually harass women and display more negative attitudes toward female rape victims.
Martha Nussbaum (1999) identified seven components of objectification: "instrumentality", "denial of autonomy", "inertness", "fungibility", "violability", "ownership", and "denial of subjectivity".