The Sociology of Georg Simmel

georg-simmel1A German philosopher and sociologist, Georg Simmel (1858-1918) is frequently cited as one of the founders of sociology. His work is at times impressionistic, covering a wide range of issues and ideas. His most consistent and rigorous development of a sociology is known as formal sociology. In it he studies the forms that govern diverse social relationships (such as triadic and dyadic relationships, or relationships of superordination and subordination). The study of forms extends to the examination of various types or roles under which humans are labelled and organise their actions (such as the stranger, the adventurer, the miser, the prostitute) and looks at diverse phenomena of contemporary social life, including fashion (Simmel 1957), the city (Simmel 1950b) and sexuality (Oakes 1984). Because many of his finest and most insightful writings are in essay form, rather than in the form of extended and rigorously defended treatises, his foundational position is more contested than that of Marx, Weber or Durkheim. Simmel has, however, much to offer, particularly in understanding the experience of the individual in contemporary society.

At the centre of his approach to sociology is the question: ‘How is society possible?’ (Simmel 1959). Society is made up of a large number of individuals, all pursuing their own interests and concerns, with minimal attention to the interests of others (beyond, perhaps, close friends and regular acquaintances). Yet, the result of all these individual actions is a stable, organised and generally quite predictable social whole. Simmel therefore wants to account for this stability. The philosopher Kant had posed the question ‘How is nature possible?’ in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). His solution had involved arguing that nature is actually unified only by the human observer. In effect, all the diverse bits of nature are brought together into an ordered and predictable whole by the human mind. Simmel points out that the unity of society need not depend upon any external observer. Rather, society’s unity depends upon the active participation of all its members. More concretely, he argues that the organisation of society is not the result of planning or of a conspiracy by some elite. Thus a bureaucracy, for example, is a very untypical form of social organisation. He observes that the elements that make up society (human beings) are conscious and creative beings. Human beings expect society to have order and stability, and even a predestination, as if society had been made especially for them. In addition, human beings come to social relationships armed with a wide range of skills and concepts (or types and forms) that allow them to find and create coherence in those situations. Humans therefore continually work hard — although perhaps without noticing it — in order to create and maintain at least an appearance of the order that they expect to be there.

Human beings do not have a grasp of society as a whole, but they are generally knowledgeable of the rules and conventions that govern their relationships with and behaviour towards others. He gives the example of a game of chess. To an outsider, unfamiliar with the rules, the movements of the players are mysterious. While seemingly coordinated and structured, they have no meaning. It could all be a strange ballet, choreographed by some third party. To the chess player, the movements are not simply meaningful, but are meaningful because each player is responding to his or her opponent’s acts, through the common recognition of a set of rules. The players can anticipate and interpret the (immensely subtle) actions of their opponents. Simmel therefore anticipates much that comes to fruition in symbolic interactionism and phenomenological approaches to society.

For Simmel, human beings are not necessarily comfortable in the society in which they live and which they create. His most profound and moving writings concern what he calls the tragedy of culture (1968). The activities of human beings are initially subjective. They are full of the intentions and meanings that the individual subject ascribes to them. Yet, in giving public meaning to these actions (and thus in coordinating them with the actions of others), the subjective becomes solidified as objective. The products of human action (and thus culture in all is most diverse manifestations, from agriculture, through economic activity, to high and popular art) take on a momentum or logic of their own. The product of human action comes to confront and constrain the human being. Simmel gives an acutely disturbing illustration of this in his essay on The Stranger (1950c). In the first stage of passion, erotic relations appear to those involved to be unique (and thus uniquely subjective, for what is more subjective than erotic passion?). ‘A love such as this has never existed before.’ Gradually, and for Simmel perhaps inevitably, this relationship becomes increasingly routine and humdrum. An estrangement sets in, and the relationship ceases to appear to be so unique. It is, after all, the general destiny of human beings to fall in love and marry (or at least, that is how our culture would portray matters). At this point, each partner realises that some other individual could have acquired exactly the same meaning for them. The unique, predestined and passionate relationship is merely an accident (to which we have ascribed its deep significance). In practice, we are all threatened by the thought that each of us is eminently replaceable, not just in contractual relationships, such as our work, but also in our most intimate and passionate relationships. Thus, for Simmel, as social beings, humans occupy roles, and while we imbue these roles with meaning and subjectivity, ultimately we are all fragments. Simmel’s point is not simply that the potential of an individual can never be exhausted by the few roles that they play in life. It is rather that even in thinking of ourselves as ‘individuals’, individuality becomes one more type or role, and we become mere ‘outlines’, constrained by the limits of the culture within which we (must) live.


Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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