Sociology 250

March 5 – 7, 2003


Micro Approaches and Simmel


These are discussed by Adams and Sydie in chapters 8, 13, and 20.  For this semester, we will examine the perspectives of Simmel (chapter 8), Mead (chapter 13), Goffman, and Hochschild (chapter 20).


1. Macro and microsociological approaches


The sociological approached of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber are primarily concerned with large scale, macrosociological, and structural social phenomena.  These theories were developed in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries in Europe, by social theorists who attempted to understand the new social world of a modern, industrial, secular, and urban society.  These classical theories established sociology as an academic discipline, their definition of the social world established the scope of sociological study, and their methodologies determined how sociology would be studied and applied.  While Weber examined social action at the individual level, much of his writing was concerned with structural phenomena – status, patriarchy, rationalization, and the development of capitalism.


In North America a different set of questions occupied late nineteenth and early twentieth century sociologists, and a different sociological tradition became established.  North American writers were more concerned with understanding the bases of social action and interaction among individual members and small groups in society.  Since it is these interactions that define the social world, underly social structures, and create and maintain societies, sociologists need to examine and understand these.  These microsociological or interaction perspectives are of several main types, and they draw on the perspective of the European theorists Weber and Simmel.  Symbolic interaction examines meaning, action, and interaction at the micro level, and was developed by United States sociologists George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer, with Erving Goffman, a Canadian, being one of its primary practitioners.  A related approach is that of ethnomethodology, originally developed by Harold Garfinkel.  These sociological perspectives are sometimes referred to as interpretive sociology or interpretive analysis, in that they examine social action of individual social actors and adopt an interpretive or understanding approach. 


Some of the ideas that led to the these microsociological theories are examined in the following sections.  A summary of some of the different aspects of the two levels of sociology follows.


a. Structures or action / macro or micro.  The subject of macrosociological theory of society as a whole is the structures of society, how those emerge and change, and how they affect social action of members of society – social class, division of labour, power, forms of authority, rationalization, norms, systems of solidarity, and historical developments.  In contrast, the subject of microsociology is the individual social actor interacting with other individuals, often in small group settings.  Where the settings are within larger scale structures, the micro focus is still on how individuals interpret the situation and interact with other individuals in these settings. 


Classical approaches involve microsociological concepts, but use these to develop macrosociological theories of social structure.  For example, Marx begins with a micro concept, the commodity, but derives this from a study of capitalism as a whole, and uses it to explain the structure of and changes in the capitalist system.  Weber examines the sources and meaning of social action, so his approach spans macro and micro level aspects of society.  While Weber’s social action and social relationship might be used to construct a theory of social interaction, he does not develop this implication.  His writings are devoted to groups, organizations, history, and structures of power. Macrosociological approaches concentrate on average action and the regularities that are common to large numbers of social actors.  The micro focus tends to be more on individual action, its meaning, how interaction occurs, and the uniqueness of individuals and the self.


b. Determined or creative.  The macro approach to social action tends to examine structural features and the cultural and value systems of society.   In these theories, norms, cultural values, laws, religion, social class, consciousness, and ideology are determining of social action of individuals and small groups.  The effect of these macro forces on social action is determinate and can be examined empirically in sociological studies (e.g., Marx’s study of capitalism, Durkheim’s analysis of the division of labour and suicide, Weber’s study of rationalization).   In these approaches, members of society have few choices, act much the same as others, and cannot be very creative in their interaction with others. 


In contrast, the interaction approach considers humans to be creative, with unique selves and individual forms of interaction.  Interactionists examine how members of society adjust to each other, how people are pragmatic in dealing with problems they face, and how people accomplish tasks.  For these sociologists, social action and interaction involves studying ways that symbols, structures, and organizations are understood by individuals and how different individuals come to interpret interaction differently.  It is the repeated and regularized interactions of members of society that construct and maintain social institutions such as families and peer groups.


The development of the child, socialization, and the formation of self and individual identity are subjects that are part of the interaction perspective.  In this perspective, personality and identity are not determined biologically, but are developed actively within the social environment.  While the symbolic interaction approach identifies symbols as important, these are not so determined as the values, norms, or consciousness of the classical theorists.  Rather, sociologists working within the interaction perspective argue that the basis for social interaction is “a common set of symbols and understandings possessed by people in a group” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 191).  These are developed through socialization and continual interaction with other individuals.  The sociologist must also understand how the development of the self occurs as children and adults “interpret, evaluate, define, and map out their own action” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 191), rather than merely being “passive beings who are impinged upon by outside forces.” (Wallace and Wolf, p, 191).


c. Decision or practice.  A third difference is the underlying approach to social action.  The theories of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim tend to consider social action to result from a conscious and considered decision on the part of the individual actor.  This approach to action may derive from the enlightenment view of individuals as rational decision makers, weighing alternatives, and deciding on the best course of action.  In contrast, interaction theories tend to focus more on activities and actions of people in social situations.  Whether or not such action is consciously considered and aimed at achieving a specific goal is not the focus of the interaction approach.  Rather, interaction theorists examine the experiences, practices, actions, situations, and contexts of people to see what they do, and then attempt to understand how these features occur.  Everyday life, ordinary experiences, and asking how the generally accepted features of society emerge, are the focus of interaction studies. 


Interaction theorists usually do not develop an overall theory of society, so that their claims are less sweeping and grandiose – they do not attempt to explain the broad historical developments of traditional and modern society.  On the other hand, classical theory has little analysis of social interaction, so it is also incomplete.  Both perspectives have been accused of ignoring women and gender issues, and having inadequate analyses of power in society.  In order to understand contemporary sociology, it is necessary to study all of these sociological approaches.


d. Weber


Since Weber defined sociology as the study of social action, with the sociologist developing an understanding of how individuals act, how actions consider others, and how the actor is oriented toward reaching some goal in his or her social actions (see definition of social action).  As a result, his theory is one forerunner of interaction approaches.  For Max Weber, each social action has meaning associated with it, in the sense that the individual does not act as automaton or robot, or merely on  instinct.  Some of the acts carried out by individuals are conditioned or automatic, but individuals consider a situation, think about how to approach the situation, contemplate the possible actions of others, and act in a way that the individual thinks will best meet his or her goals.  This may be a conscious process, but to be considered as social action, there must be some meaning associated with the action.  The task of the sociologist is to attempt to see how people interpret and attribute meaning to the situation.


Consider the situation of workers in a job as an example (quote 17 from Weber).  Marx assumed that the situation of workers was structurally determined to be in opposition to that of the employer.  But in practice, in actual work situations, workers may accept the authority and power structure of the employment situation, perhaps because they need to support themselves and their families, and wish to create a reasonably comfortable life for themselves.  When considering their options in a work situation, they may view acceptance of the organizational structure in which they work as their best option, or they may hope to improve their individual situation by working within the existing structure.  For Weber, domination within an organizational structure is often legitimate, in that it is generally accepted and part of a rational-legal authority.  If an employment situation becomes intolerable for workers, this may create more active struggle, perhaps with workers combining to form a trade union.  But Weber would say though that the latter does not necessarily result.  As a result, a sociologist must evaluate each situation through the eyes of the actors, in order to determine what meanings they take out of the situation, how they assess alternatives, and how they decide to act (or not act).


The interactionist approach can be connected to Weber, although the interaction perspective was more influenced by philosophical pragmatism, psychological behaviourism, Simmel, and some early United States social science approaches.


2. Simmel – Adams and Sydie, chapter 8


a. Introduction


Simmel is not generally regarded as being as influential or as much a founder of sociology as were Marx, Weber, or Durkheim.  At the same time, his writings have a similar or broader scope than these three founders – at the macrosociological level he examed issues of rationalization, industrialization, conflict, exchange, money, progress, and modernity.  At the microsociological level he “focused primarily on the individual experience of modernity, especially the experiences of the modern city dweller” (Adams and Sydie, p. 197) and on the nature of social actions and interactions.  By examining the “inter-subjective nature of social life” (Cohen in Turner, p. 45) he attempted to link the experiences and ideas of the individual and social interaction with the larger structures that characterize modern societies.  Several early United States sociologists studied with or were influenced by Simmel.  This was especially true of those who developed the symbolic interaction approach, including writers in the Chicago school – a tradition that dominated United States sociology in the early part of this century, before the theories of Talcott Parsons became dominant.  


b. Life


Georg Simmel (1858-1918, Germany) was born in Berlin and received his doctorate in 1881.  Given these dates, he was a contemporary of Max Weber (1864-1920) and Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and was a friend and associate of the Webers.  He was of Jewish ancestry and this was one reason that his career was marginalized in the German academic system.  Only in 1914 did Simmel obtain a regular academic appointment, and this appointment was in the provincial city of Strasbourg, not in Berlin, the centre of German academic life.  In spite of these problems, he wrote extensively on the nature of association, culture, social structure, the city, and the economy.  His writings were read by Durkheim and Weber, and Simmel made a major contribution to sociology and European intellectual life in the early part of this century.    One of his most famous writings is “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) and his best known book is The Philosophy of Money (1907).  Simmel’s ideas were very influential on the Marxist scholar Georg Lukacs (1885-1971) and Simmel’s writings on the city, money, fashion, and other issues are used by contemporary sociologists.


Simmel was influenced by Hegel, Kant, and Marx and developed a sociological analysis with ideas similar to the three major classical writers.  When Simmel discusses social structures, the city, money, and modern society, his approach is similar to that of Durkheim (issues related to the connection between the individual and society), Weber (effects of rationalization), and Marx (alienation as part of capitalism and modern society). 


c. Perspective


Simmel defined the study of sociology differently that the other major classical theorists.  Rather than identifying sociology as the study of society sui generis (Durkheim) or examining the structures of modes of production (Marx), “Simmel regarded sociology as the study of social interaction” (Adams and Sydie, p. 200).  This was closer to Weber’s approach (verstehen or meaning associated with social action), but Simmel focussed more on structures and forms of social interaction.  For Simmel, society is an association of free individuals, and he argued that it could not be studied in the same way as the physical world, i.e. sociology is more than the discovery of natural laws that govern human interaction.   “For Simmel, society is made up of the interactions between and among individuals, and the sociologist should study the patterns and forms of these associations, rather than quest after social laws" (Farganis, p. 133).  He analyzed individual behaviour “because some crucial decisions are made on the individual level, among the ‘atoms of society,’ which can cause reverberations throughout an entire nation” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 193). 


Simmel refers to social interaction as “sociation” (Adams and Sydie, p. 202), the ways that individuals interact with each other.  “The meaning of social actions and interactions is the significant subject matter of sociology” (Adams and Sydie, p. 202).  While these interactions may be haphazard or temporary forms of interaction, many such interactions are repeated and regularized.  It is these regularities that become the institutions and forms that Simmel regards as characterizing society.  Simmel was further concerned with the incompleteness of interactions, how individual personality is developed and expressed in interaction, but also how institutions and structures affect these.  This emphasis on social interaction at the individual and small group level makes Simmel’s approach different from that of Marx and Durkheim, who primarily examined structures. 


d. Forms of social interaction


Simmel attempted to distinguish form and content as a way of explaining the “underlying forms of human association” (Plummer in Turner, p. 229).  Adams and Sydie (p. 198) note that the form taken on by social interaction were a major concern of Simmel.  These could not be separated from the sociological content of different social institutions and settings, and the interest, purpose, or motives of social actors (Adams and Sydie, p. 200).  At the same time there were general forms such as conflict and cooperation,  centralization or decentralization, and subordination and superordination (Adams and Sydie, p. 201) in different situations.  At the same time, “the sociologist needs to know … how these forms are manifested in reality” (Adams and Sydie, p. 201) in order to understand the manner in which these are involved in social life.


One example is “the newcomer-oldtimer relationship, or the newcomer as a social type, can be understood as a particular form that can be studied through abstraction from the various concrete social situations that are being observed” (Coser).  For example, an immigrant to Canada may encounter similar situations, problems, and forms of social interaction as newcomers to Regina from rural areas or northern Saskatchewan. 


e. Size of group


It is Simmel’s attempt to integrate analysis of individual action with the structural approach that make his writings of contemporary interest. 

Simmel began his inquiries from the bottom up, observing the smallest of social interactions and attempting to see how larger-scale institutions emerged from them.  In doing so, he often noticed phenomena that other theorists missed.  For example, Simmel observed that the number of parties to an interaction can effect its nature.  The interaction between two people, a dyad, will be very different from that which is possible in a three-party relationship, or triad.   (Farganis, p. 133)


Simmel noted that the number of individuals in a group in which social action takes place affects the form of group interaction.  Relationships in a two person group, what Simmel called a dyad, are relatively straightforward, in that each individual can present themselves to the other in a way that maintains their identity, and either party can end the relationship by withdrawing from it.  When a dyad changes to a triad, a three person group, the form of interaction may alter.  In the triad, there may be strategies that lead to competition, alliances, or mediation.  The triad is likely to develop a group structure that is independent of the individuals in it, whereas this is less likely in the dyad (Ritzer, p. 166).


As group size increases even more, “the increase in the size of the group or society increases individual freedom” (Ritzer, p. 167).  The small circle of early or premodern times,

firmly closed against the neighbouring strange, or in some way antagonistic circles ... allows its individual members only a narrow field for the development of unique qualities and free, self-responsible movements. ... The self-preservation of very young associations requires the establishment of strict boundaries and a centripetal unity.  (Simmel, pp. 416-7).  

As the group grows in numbers and extends itself spatially, “the group's direct, inner unity loosens, and the rigidity of the original demarcation against others is softened through mutual relations and connections” (Simmel, p. 417).  This implies much greater possibility of individual freedom and flexibility, with the common culture and form of association greatly weakened.  Simmel’s argument is similarity to Durkheim’s description of organic solidarity, where the social facts of modernity are constraining but provide increased individual autonomy and freedom.  At the same time, Simmel’s approach to group size is dialectical in that there are contradictory forces of domination and freedom.  That is, as group size expands, so does objective culture and the various ways it is manifested.  While the individual may be “alienated” from these, the same forms provide the opportunity for individual freedom and flexibility.


f. The metropolis and mental life


One of Simmel’s best known works is a short essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”  As with other classical sociological writers, Simmel analyzed the differences between traditional and modern life, with his focus being the individual and interaction, how these were expressed in modern, urban life, and how individuals responded to these new forms of interaction.  This essay was originally one of Simmel’s lectures in 1903 although it is not clear what the circumstance of the lecture were.  Page references in these notes are to the version of the lecture in Kurt H. Wolff, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, pp. 409-424. 


In the essay, Simmel analyzes individual life in the context of modern, metropolitan life, contrasting the social forces and structures of urban life with those of traditional rural and small town settings.  In describing and analyzing these, Simmel adopts a dialectical approach, outlining both the constraining and liberating forces at work in the modern city.  In his discussion of how the metropolis affects the individual and how the individual adapts to the metropolis, Simmel’s arguments reflect ideas from each of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber.


Simmel characterizes traditional rural and small town society as having “deeply felt and emotional responses” as a result of the regular and extended contact of individuals with each other over long periods of time in these settings.  Further “the rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly” in small towns and rural settings.  Simmel argues that “lasting impressions” are part of individual psyche and personality, so that social relationships tend to be “unconscious relationships.”  (references in this paragraph from p. 410 of Simmel).


In contrast, urban or metropolitan life is associated with “momentary impression,” “rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.”


With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life.  The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. (p. 410)


At one level the metropolis is a site or location for social life where the larger structures, forms of contact, and forces such as the money economy threaten “the autonomy and individuality” (Simmel, p. 409) of the individual.  Each of these differs from and is more comprehensive than in traditional settings, leaving individuals more dependent on others and more subject to impersonal exchange values and markets, with objective culture – institutions, technology, urban structures – exerting a strong force.  Together these alter the individual personality, creating a modern urban, metropolitan personality type that differs from the traditional, rural type. 


At another level, Simmel looks on the metropolis as a site where personal freedom and flexibility can expand, so that individuals are less constrained by the limiting aspects of small, closed, traditional social forms such as communities.  Rather, prejudice and pettiness can be eliminated and there is greater freedom for individual action and thought, and greater possibility of social mobility.  At the same time, Simmel considers it important that individual “particularity and incomparability, which ultimately every human being possesses, be somehow expressed in the working out of a way of social life” (Simmel, p. 420).  The metropolitan setting both allows and develops this.  As a result, for Simmel, the modern setting is both more constraining and more liberating.


The metropolis or city is the location where the division of labour is the greatest and where this individuality and individual freedom is most expanded.  At the same time Simmel notes that for the individual this creates the “difficulty of asserting his own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life”  (Simmel, p. 420).  The growth of the city, the increasing number of people in the city, and the “brevity and scarcity of the inter-human contacts granted to the metropolitan man, as compared to the social intercourse of the small town” makes the “objective spirit” dominate over the “subjective spirit.” (Simmel, p. 421) 


Adams and Sydie (pp. 209-210) note that the conflict between objective and subjective culture was a major theme for Simmel.  Objective culture is the “works of art, machinery, tools and books” (Simmel, quoted in Adams and Sydie, p. 209) that humans produce through their subjective culture, that is through “intentions, purposes, and desires” (Adams and Sydie, p. 209).  But “the sheer proliferation of objective culture overwhelms the individual” (Adams and Sydie, p. 210).  That is, modern culture in terms of language, production, art, science, etc. is “at an ever increasing distance.” (Simmel, p. 421)  This results from the growth of the division of labour and the specialization in individual pursuits that is a necessary part of this.  Subjective culture is “the capacity of the actor to produce, absorb, and control the elements of objective culture.  In an ideal sense, individual culture shapes, and is shaped by, objective culture.  The problem is that objective culture comes to have a life of its own” (Ritzer, p.162).   “The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of objective life”  (Simmel, p. 422).  This sounds much like Marx's alienation, Durkheim’s anomie or Weber’s rationalization, although Simmel associates this with the city, rather than with the society as a whole, as do the other classical writers. 


Where Simmel differs from these other classic writers, is that Simmel returns to the individual, analyzes how the individual deals with the developments of modern society, and considers how the individual personality is developed in these circumstances.  Simmel notes that one way individuals assert a personality is to “be different,” to adopt manners, fashions, styles, “to appear concentrated and strikingly characteristic.” (Simmel, p. 421)  The brevity and fleetingness of contact in the city mean that lasting impressions based on regular and habitual interaction with others cannot be developed.  In these circumstances, obtaining self-esteem and having “the sense of filling a position” may be developed by seeking “the awareness of others” (Simmel, p. 421).  This means that individuals may adopt some characteristic fashions and in their personal mannerisms may try to appear “to the point.”  


For Simmel, the personality is not an isolated entity but also is a social entity, one that depends on interaction.  Social interaction, considering reactions of others, and seeking the recognition and awareness of others is an essential aspect of individual personality.  Adams and Sydie note that there is a personal self and a social self (p. 204).  This means that we look on ourselves in a particular way, have one that we may react among close friends and family, and a personality that emerges “when the individual participates in the modern economy” (Adams and Sydie, p. 204).  In this way Simmel ties together the individual and the social, and each requires the existence of the other.


Another aspect of the response of metropolitan individuals is to develop a blasé attitude or response (Adams and Sydie, p. 210).  New form of personality and subjectivity emerges within the metropolitan context.  The interactions, rapidity, contradictions, etc. lead to a new form of personality.  One aspect of this is “an incapacity  … to react to react to new sensations with the appropriate energy” (Simmel, p. 414).   Exchange, the money economy, the rapidly changing circumstances, the multiplicity of interactions lead to this blasé attitude and inability to react to the variety of stimulations.  While Simmel’s notes that “money becomes the most frightful leveler” (Simmel, p. 414) may be reminiscent of Marx, he also foreshadows some of the postmodern approaches by noting how excessive stimulation results in its opposite, the “refusal to react to their stimulation.” (Simmel, p. 415)


Nerves cannot react to stimulation and self-preservation leads to devaluation to feelings of worthlessness.  This leads to reserve, which seems cold and heartless (Simmel, p. 415).  There are many contacts in the city – if inner reactions to each, would be unimagineable psychologically.  Again, new material conditions, and new forms of association (praxis) lead to new psychic states and new selves.  Some characteristics are impressions of indifference and what appears as dissociation is one form of socialization.


Further, the intellect and personal psyche develop in a different way in traditional and in modern society.  In rural and small town settings, impressions of others are built up gradually, over time, on the basis of habit.  Many of these impressions are less conscious and are built on more deeply felt and emotional relationship.  In contrast, in the city, there is sharp discontinuity, single glances, a multitude of quick impressions. 

Thus the metropolitan type of man – which, of course, exists in a thousand individual variants – develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him.  He reacts with his head instead of his heart.  ....  Intellectuality is thus seen to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life, and intellectuality branches out in many directions and is integrated with numerous discrete phenomena.  (Simmel, p. 410)

Thus Simmel views objective culture as having an effect on the individual, but at the same time considers how this alters the development of the individual, how the individual understands this and develops in this context, how the individual interacts with other individuals, and how these interactions form the social life of the city. 


Simmel concludes his essay by noting how the city influences individuals and provides the “opportunities and the stimuli for the development of ... ways of allocating roles to men.  Therewith these conditions gain a unique place, pregnant with inestimable meanings for the development of psychic existence” (Simmel, p. 423).  Note “allocating roles to men” rather than “men to roles” as the structural functionalist might describe this process.  While Simmel is concerned with the possible negative effects of objective culture, he considers it possible for personalities to develop within these conditions.


g. Individual and Society.   For Simmel, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and society – individuals are free and creative spirits, yet are part of the socialization process.  Simmel was troubled by this relationship.  He viewed modern society as freeing the individual from historical and traditional bonds and creating much greater individual freedom, but with individuals also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life.  Simmel notes:

The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of external culture, and of the technique of life.  (Simmel, p. 409).

Simmel makes three assumptions about the individual and society. (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 312).   These are:


     Individuals are both within and outside society.

     Individuals are both objects and subjects within networks of communicative interaction.

     Individuals have the impulse to be self-fulfilling and self-completing, that is, they seek an integrated self-concept.  Society also tries to integrate itself (like Durkheim noted), although the effect of this may be in opposition to individual integrity.


In the social world, the various forms and styles of interaction are brought into existence by people and the above assumptions are realized as individuals interact with one another.  Humans possess creative consciousness and the basis of social life is “conscious individuals or groups of individuals who interact with one another for a variety of motives, purposes, and interests” (Ritzer, p. 163)   People are conscious and creative individuals and the mind plays a crucial role in this mutual orientation and social interaction.  This creativity allows for flexibility and freedom on the part of the individual, and at the same time helps to create the structures of objective culture that may constrain and stifle this freedom.  That is, social interaction becomes regularized and has patterns to it, and these become forms of association.  These patterns and forms, regardless of their content, is what sociologists should study.


This means that society is not a separate reality of its own, but “society merely is the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction  ...  society certainly is not a ‘substance,’ nothing concrete, but an event:  it is the function of receiving and affecting the fate and development of one individual by the other.”   For Simmel, society is nothing but lived experience, and social forces are not external to, nor necessarily constraining for the individual, rather it is individuals who reproduce society every living moment through their actions and interactions.  Simmel disagreed with Durkheim that “society is a real, material entity” and did not view society as merely a collection of individuals.  Rather, he adopted the position of "society as a set of interactions” (Ritzer, p. 170).


The individual in a social unit must be an entity or constituent part of the unit, and Simmel distinguishes between a personal self and a social self.  If  there is no self-consciousness, symbolic interaction would disappear and human experience would just be the responses to stimuli.  Instead, we live and die in terms of what is intersubjectively meaningful – i.e. we view ourselves in terms of responses of others – even others who we have never met. 


h.  Fashion.  An example of how Simmel examines some of these connections in a concrete connection is his discussion of fashion.  (Ritzer p. 161; Ashley and Orenstein, pp. 314-5).   Simmel notes that fashion develops in the city, “because it intensifies a multiplicity of social relations, increases the rate of social mobility and permits individuals from lower strata to become conscious of the styles and fashions of upper classes” (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 314).  In the traditional and small circle setting, fashion would have no meaning or be unnecessary.  Since modern individuals tend to be detached from traditional anchors of social support, fashion allows the individual to signal or express his or her own personality or personal values.  Simmel noted that fashion provides

the best arena for people who lack autonomy and who need support, yet whose self-awareness nevertheless requires that they be recognized as distinct and as particular kinds of beings.  (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 314).

Ritzer notes that fashion can be considered to be a part of objective culture in that it allows the individual to come into conformity with norms of a group.  At the same time, it expresses individuality, because the individual may differ from the norm.  Fashion is dynamic and has an historical dimension to it, with acceptance of a fashion being followed by some deviation from this fashion, change in the fashion, and perhaps ultimate abandonment of the original norm, so that a new norm is established.  This is a dialectical process, with initial success, widespread acceptance, followed by eventual abandonment and failure.  Leadership in a fashion means that the leader actually follows the fashion better than others.  Mavericks are those who reject the fashion, and this may become an inverse form of imitation.


In summary, fashion allows personal values to be expressed at the same time as norms are followed.  The two exist together, and the one without the other would be meaningless.  In all of this, social interaction is of the essence – what others think, what one thinks that others think, and how one conceives of fashion.


i.  Philosophy of Money.   Simmel’s major work concerns money and the social meaning of money.  In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel is concerned with large social issues, and this book can be thought of as on a par with The Division of Labour of Durkheim, although not as extensive and thorough as Marx's Capital or Weber's Economy and Society.  See Adams and Sydie (pp. 206-209) for a discussion of money and exchange relations.


For Simmel money is a part of objective culture, created through the basic form of human interaction, that is, exchange, but also acquiring an independence and power that transforms social relationships.  He considers money as a symbol, and examines some of its effects on people and society.  In modern society, money becomes an impersonal or objectified measure of value.  This implies impersonal, rational ties among people – ties that are institutionalized in the money form.  For example, relations of domination and subordination become quantitative relationships of more or less money – impersonal and measurable in a rational and calculated manner.  The use of money distances individuals from objects and also provides a means of overcoming this distance.  The use of money allows much greater flexibility for individuals in society – to travel greater distances and to overcome person-to-person limitations. 

Simmel thus suggests that the spread of the money form gives individuals a freedom of sorts by permitting them to exercise the kind of individualized control over “impression management” that was not possible in traditional societies. ...  ascribed identities have been discarded.  Even strangers become familiar and knowable identities insofar as they are willing to use a common but impersonal means of exchange.  (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 326)

At the same time, personal identity becomes problematic, so that development of monetary exchange has both positive and negative implications.  That is, individual freedom is potentially increased, but alienation and fragmentation may occur. 


j.  Conclusion.  In some senses, Simmel's sociology is similar to that of the other classic writers, although he had less to say about social structure or its dynamics than did Marx, Weber, or Durkheim.  He discussed objective culture and his writings on money have some affinity with Weber's rationalization.  Simmel’s emphasis on social interaction and the resulting social world provide a unique contribution to the interaction perspective from the European classical period.  His analysis of fashion, money, and the city also make his writings worthwhile reading.






Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory, Thousand Oaks, California, Pine Forge Press, 2001.

Ashley, David and D. M. Orenstein,  Sociological Theory: Classical Statements, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1990, second edition.

Coser, Lewis, “Formal Sociology,” 1977, from http://www2.pfeiffer/edu/~lridener/DSS/Simmel/SIMMELW2.HTML, March 6, 2003

Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993.

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Turner, H. H., The Structure of Sociological Theory, Wadsworth, Belmont, California, 1991, fifth edition.


Last edited on March 7, 2003


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