February 3, 2003
The reading for this section is “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from Kurt H. Wolff, editor, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York, The Free Press, 1950, pp. 409-424.
1. Life and approach
Simmel is generally not regarded as a founder of sociology, as were Marx, Weber, Durkheim, or even Parsons. At the same time, his writings have a similar or even broader scope – at the macrosociological level he examined issues of rationalization, industrialization, conflict, exchange, money, progress, and modernity and 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 the twentieth century, before Parsons. As Plummer notes, Simmel “anticipates a great deal of latter-day interactionist writing” through his “vignettes of social life” and attention to social “detail, not abstract generalization” (Plummer, p. 199).
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 his career was marginalized in the German academic system. While Simmel was a popular lecturer at the University of Berlin from 1885 through 1914, he was either unpaid or paid only from student fees. He was able to support himself as a scholar because of a fortune left to him by his guardian. Only in 1914 did Simmel obtain a regular academic appointment, and this appointment was during the first world war in Strasbourg, on the frontier with France. In spite of these problems, he wrote extensively on the nature of association, culture, social structure, the city, and the economy. He was sometimes considered more a philosopher than a sociologist and his wide-ranging writings included works of religion, psychology, ethics, art, music, culture, and philosophy. He was a critic of society and was associated with socialist writers and activists through much of his life.
Simmel’s 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. Some of his essays were translated into English and published as early as 1896 in American Journal of Sociology, thus making him one of the most influential European sociologists in the early development of North American sociology. 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 (not published in AJS until 1957), and other issues have influenced contemporary sociologists. Some of Simmel’s analysis foreshadows a postmodern sociological approach, for example, the blasé attitude associated with urban life.
Influences on Simmel include Hegel, Kant, and Marx and he 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). In some ways, Simmel uses a dialectical materialist and historical approach, but without class and class struggle as central theoretical concepts.
2. Society and sociology
a. Sociation. Simmel defined the study of sociology differently from other major classical theorists. In “The Field of Sociology” Simmel notes that society may ordinarily be considered as the “permanent interactions only” (Wolff, p. 9) – that is, structures such as state, family, guild, churches, and social classes. Simmel then continues “But in addition to these, there exists an immeasurable number of less conspicuous forms of relationship and kinds of interaction. Taken singly, they appear negligible. But … they alone produce society as we know it” (Wolff, p. 9). Simmel refers to this as “sociation” – an interaction among the individuals that form human society. Where such interactions are haphazard or accidental, there is limited sociation and “interaction of this sort merely need become more frequent and intensive and join other similar ones to deserve properly the name of sociation” (Wolff, p. 9). Simmel argues that from an examination of the major social formations or societal structures, it would be “impossible to piece together the real life of society as we encounter it in our experiences. Without the interspersed effects of countless minor syntheses, society would break up into a multitude of discontinuous systems. Sociation continuously emerges and ceases and emerges again” (Wolff, pp. 9-10). This links individuals together, with content as diverse as friendship and jealously – “the whole gamut of relations that play from one person to another and that may be momentary or permanent, conscious or unconscious, ephemeral or of grave consequence, … all these incessantly tie men together. Here are the interactions among the atoms of society” (Wolff, p. 10).
This approach raises issues relevant to our previous discussion of action and praxis. Simmel does not limit social action to conscious activities, but adopts a praxis approach. That is, sociation involves a variety of forms and it is repeated social interaction that forms society. The content of this interaction is of less interest to Simmel that is the form – the repeated or sporadic aspects, and the links of individuals to each other that emerge from this. Simmel goes on to argue that “the large systems and the super-individual organizations that customarily come to mind when we think of society, are nothing but immediate interactions that occur among men constantly, every minute, but that have become crystallized as permanent fields, as autonomous phenomena” (Wolff, p. 10). Further, “individuals are connected by mutual influence and determination. … one should properly speak, not of society, but of sociation. Society merely is the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction” (Wolff, p. 10). This appears to be very similar to the structuration theory of Giddens.
b. Form and content. Simmel distinguished form and content as a way of explaining the “underlying forms of human association” (Plummer in Turner, p. 199). Just as Durkheim was not concerned with theological doctrines but with social aspects when studying religion, so Simmel is not so concerned with the content of social interaction. Rather he notices similarities in forms of interaction in different places, times, societies, situations, and institutions. Plummer notes that these could be “patterns of superordination and subordination, group relationships … identities and roles” and how these underlying forms were a “geometry of social life” (Plummer, p. 199). 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 are general forms such as conflict and cooperation or centralization and decentralization in different situations. 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, there may be similarities of form to the situations and problems encountered by an immigrant to Canada as to someone from a rural area or northern Saskatchewan when they come to a city such as Regina or to university as a student.
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)
c. Dialectic and structure. At the same time as Simmel considered sociation as the subject matter of society, he examines this in the context of the larger structural features of society. In common with other writers of his time, he was concerned about the broad changes that had occurred as a result of capitalism, modernization, and urbanization. He focuses on urban structures, the money economy, fashion, and other structures and forces that emerged in Europe and other parts of the world. Simmel analyzes the reason for these, how they operate and change, and how they relate to other aspects of social structure. But unlike some other sociologists, he returns to the individual in social interaction, and how these are connected with these larger forces.
Simmel also adopts a dialectical approach, explaining how social structures emerge and change, but considering them as having contradictory effects and a pattern of change. He explains the contradictory aspects of culture as the clash between subjective and objective culture. One way that individuals create culture and realize their ambitions and dreams is that they express themselves in works of art and cultural creations. But Simmel argued “if these forms are necessary to give the vital forces of human development objective expression, they nevertheless have a tendency after a while to cramp and thwart those forces” (Connor in Turner, p. 354). That is, the development of culture emerges from “the unfolding dynamic of the renewed conflict between ‘life’ and ‘form,’ or subjective and objective culture” (Connor, p. 354). See also “Metropolis and Mental Life” p. 422.
In his analysis of money in society, Simmel adopts a similar dialectical approach, arguing that use of money allows for greater individual flexibility and autonomy but at the same time leads to a hardness of social relationships and a domination by larger forces. See “Metropolis and Mental Life” pp. 411-12.
Some of Simmel’s analysis thus comes close to Marx, and Simmel was influenced by Marx’s writings. While Simmel may not use the term “alienation,” he is discussing the roots of similar concerns as those examined by Marx in his writings on alienation.
3. The metropolis and mental life
This essay was a lecture of Simmel’s dating from 1903. Context? Page references are to the page numbers on the handout – from the Wolff book.
a. Problem of modern life (p. 409).
Preserve autonomy and individuality in face of
overwhelming social forces
technique of life
Rather than arguing that human problems were greater or lesser than in earlier periods of history, Simmel argues that preserving autonomy and individuality is just the latest form that the problem human development has taken – the modern struggle is more mental and intellectual while the earlier struggle was more bodily. In tackling these issues, he adopts a comparative historical approach similar to Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. He argues that in earlier periods, humans had to struggle with nature to survive and develop. But the developments of the 18th century resulted freedom from social bonds, presumably the feudal and religious domination of the middle ages.
Simmel sidesteps the controversy over the essential aspects of human nature. He notes a positive approach of “originally good and common” but also mentions Nietszche’s view that there is “ruthless struggle.” He also notes the 19th century development of liberty and specialization, similar to Durkheim’s view of the division of labour and specialization. Within this modern system, each individual is indispensable and interdependent.
b. Metropolis and inner life. Simmel examines these modern forces and developments, particularly urbanization and the metropolis, affect individuals and their inner life and personalities. While he recognizes that social forces are overwhelming, he also argues that each “person resists to being leveled down and worn out by a social-technological mechanism” (p. 409). His basic judgment here is that individuals in modern society have a certain resilience, motivation, and resistance that is an inherent part of personality or, more likely, a personality develops that includes these characteristics.
Simmel’s concern is to examine the interconnection of individual, metropolis, and “super-individual contents of life.” While he may primarily be focusing on the manner that the development of metropolis and modern life has on individuals and their personalities, his analysis also opens the possibility that these developments are an unfolding of a fuller humanity. That is, he appears to argue that earlier societal forms limited humans, not only in terms of resources, but in terms of intellect and “psychic life.” Simmel argues “The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life” (middle of p. 410). Simmel is examines two-way connections between individual and society – while p. 410 primarily addresses the issue of how metropolis alters human consciousness, implicit in his historical and dialectical approach is how humans created the metropolis and modern society.
Individual and metropolis. How personality accommodates to external forces of metropolis or develops in this context. This is similar to the concerns and analysis of Mead and the self. Personality and its development are another way of looking at the self and the social aspect of an individual’s inner life. Here Simmel concentrates on the difference between urban life and the resulting metropolitan individual and the traditional individual of rural or small town settings (p. 410).
Lasting impressions are regular and habitual, and thus are less consciousness
Changing images evoke attention and are more conscious
Both consciousness and praxis are themes here. The metropolitan individual has a highly developed consciousness, and this emerges from the forms of contact and interaction in the metropolitan setting – i.e. many contacts, short contacts and quicker tempo. Consciousness and praxis have a spatial and historical setting, so that they alter with different historical developments and in particular social settings such as the city.
c. Rural and urban. Rural and small town life is characterized by slow, habitual, even images that are deeply felt and emotional. In contrast, city life is more transparent and conscious, and associated with higher [?] levels of psyche. A metropolitan person develops organs protecting from him or her from uprooting currents, so that reaction can occur from the head instead of heart. Simmel regards this as a heightened awareness and intelligence in metropolitan man. Reaction to phenomena and stimuli is shifted from the habitual to an area remote from personality. As a result, intellectuality branches out, allowing integration and ability to manage many phenomena. The result is to preserve some degree of subjectivity against the power of metropolitan life.
Note: (i) While Simmel considers metropolitan life as overwhelming, he also argues that humans have ways of dealing with this. The specialization and intellectual development is not negative, but also has positive aspects. This could be similar to the dilemmas of Giddens, and it seems that Giddens may have developed some of his approach from Simmel. (ii) The psyche and intellect of Simmel appears similar to Mead’s concept of mind – something that mediates between the depth of the personality (p. 411) and reactions. And just as Mead’s mind is developed socially through social interaction, so Simmel’s intellect is a social product.
d. Money economy. From the effect of individual consciousness and personality, Simmel now turns to analysis of the money economy, which is dominant in metropolitan settings. In this section, he demonstrates aspects of impersonality and exchange values, as dominant forms, and connects these to comprehensive structures, new forms of social relationships, and new attitudes such as “matter-of-factness” (p. 412, top). In many ways, this section is reminiscent of Marx and commodity fetishism, the depersonalizing effects and character of monetary exchange of markets and their dominance.
Market exchange can be anonymous (“never personally entered” bottom of p. 411) and the effects of market exchange include producing calculation and a more calculating form of mind. Social relationships emerging from market exchange differ from those of small circle – primary social groups such as kinship, family, peer groups – in that they may be impersonal, less warm, and more concentrated. He later connects matter-of-factness to a blasé attitude. As a result, there is a rational, logical, and hard concern with values, numbers, and calculating, and emotions may disappear in such exchange relationships. Here Simmel connects the development of the intellect with money so that the “modern mind has become more and more calculating” (p. 412, middle).
Here Simmel makes no conclusion concerning historical causation here – money economy or intellect are connected but not clear which came first. Structure and agency are both involved and interconnected. This same connection is noted on the rest of p. 412 and top of p. 413, that is, Simmel notes that “this necessity is brought about by the aggregation of so many people with such differentiated interests, who must integrate their relations and activities into a highly complex organism.” But it is also the individual actions and relations which create this mechanism and make it operate. Like Durkheim though, he argues there is an integration of activities and a mutual meshing of lines of activity that permits and encourages social life. The integrating and coordination aspects of specialization and the division of labour add to Durkheim’s arguments concerning integration in modern social life. Note though that Simmel does not talk about social solidarity here, he instead focuses more on the material aspects of integration.
On pages 412-413, Simmel argues in a manner similar to that of Weber in terms of the meaning and significance of rationality in modern society. Among the aspects mentioned are precision, calculating, weighing, quantitative, certainty, punctual integration, ill-afforded waste of time, and exactness. These are “forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence” (p. 413, middle). These result in alternation of individuals in that they exclude the “irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within” (p. 413).
e. Blasé personality. These forces promote “a highly personal subjectivity” (p. 413, bottom) within the metropolitan context. Interactions, rapidity, and contradictions 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” (414). Exchange, the money economy, the rapidly changing circumstances, “closely compressed” stimulations, and 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” (p. 414) may be reminiscent of Mars, he also foreshadows some of the postmodern approaches on p. 415, by noting how excessive stimulation results in its opposite, the “refusal to react to their stimulation.”
Part of the reason for this is that an individual is unable to respond in a conscious, meaningful manner to all the stimuli – the human body and mind could not take explicit note of each stimulus and provide a conscious reaction. If an individual attempted to do so, he or she would become immobilized because of the multiplicity of stimuli. As a result, the blasé attitude emerges where many stimuli roll by an individual.
A further aspect is the “bluntness of discrimination” (p. 414, middle) so that differences in objects or individuals may not be noticed, or are not considered worthy of note. Part of this is a result of the money economy, with money “the most frightful leveler” (p. 414, middle). One result is that there can be a devaluation of individuals and feeling so all are reduced “into a feeling of the same worthlessness” (p. 415, middle). Nerves cannot react to stimulation and self-preservation leads to devaluation to feelings of worthlessness. This leads to reserve, which seems cold and heartless (p. 415). There are many contacts in the city – if inner reactions to each, would be unimaginable 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 (p. 416, middle).
f. Freedom? Simmel continues his dialectical analysis highlighting features of the urban context, where there is a possibility of great individual freedom (p. 416, last paragraph). In earlier social forms it was more likely that people were part of a small, closed circle, which was coherent but left only a narrow field for unique, free, and self-responsible individuals. There were strict boundaries and centripetal unity so that “they cannot allow the individual freedom and unique inner and outer development” (p. 417, top). But in the metropolitan context, the size of group grows and inner unity is lessened. There is greater individual freedom of movement and the individual gets a specific individuality. That is, self and individuality develop and take a new form.
Simmel continues this idea of freedom and its connection with intellectual development in the urban context. He notes that the “most extensive and the most general contents and forms of life are most intimately connected with the most individual ones” (p. 418, middle). Later, at the top of p. 420, he comments that “the particularity and incomparability, which ultimately every human being possesses, be somehow expressed in the working out of a way of life.” But he argues that this can fully occur only in a context of greater freedom in metropolitan settings.
g. Expansion. Beginning on p. 419, Simmel notes the expansive aspects of markets and cities, and how this extends the influence of the urban social form over wider regions – “this functional extension beyond its physical boundaries” (p. 419). This extension is associated with quantitative expansion, but results in qualitative transformation of “traits of character” (p. 419). It is not just the size and density that matters here but the networks, areas of influence, and independence that characterize the conditions creating new forms of social life and personalities. For this individual, this has a corresponding meaning – the “effects emanating from his temporally and spatially” (p. 419, bottom).
On p. 420, Simmel returns to the effect of this on people and interaction – “diverse variety of services,” “freedom of mobility and elimination of prejudices and petty philistinism” (p. 420, top). This results in the working out of a way of life for each human (top of 420). The new network and self-expansion of the metropolitan form (globalization?) are associated with new personality forms (bottom of p. 420). Some of these characteristics are outlined on p. 421 – extravagances of mannerism, being different, attracting attention through a striking manner. These emerge from the brevity and scarcity of inter-human contacts and are aimed as assuring “the personality of an unambiguous image of himself in the eyes of the other” (middle of p. 421). This is a point that Goffman develops in his writings. Also note the possibility of fashion here – Simmel addressed this issue in another essay.
h. Objective culture or subjective spirit? In addition to the multiplicity and brevity of contacts, the new forms of social interaction, Simmel is concerned with the possibility that people feel dominated by the objective culture that may seem overpowering and distant from the individual. The specialization associated with the division of labour means “dearth to the personality of the individual” (p. 422). People may feel alienated (although Simmel does not use this term) and a “mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers” (p. 422). Simmel does not just leave this contradiction as one that people must face, but attempts to analyze how individuality and personality (or Mead’s self) emerges (bottom of p. 422). The individual summons uniqueness and particularization, exaggerates this personal element in order to preserve the most personal core (p. 422).
In this last section, Simmel provides a means of integrating agency and structure, by noting how individuals develop different selves and personalities in the new setting of social interaction within the metropolis.
1. Many of the ideas and concepts that are very similar to those of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Mead can be found in this essay. Provide examples of each and explain the similarity or difference between the views of Simmel and these other sociologists.
2. Simmel appears to use both consciousness and praxis as explanations of social action. Explain with examples.
3. Explain how Simmel defines and uses the concept of the mind and self, although he does not use the same terminology as Mead.
4. How does Simmel integrate agency and structure?
5. As a result of social development, from the traditional to the metropolitan form of society, personality and the social self change. Explain what the metropolitan form is and how it differs from the traditional form.
Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory, Thousand Oaks, California, Pine Forge Press, 2001.
Coser, Lewis, "Formal Sociology," 1977, from http://www2.pfeiffer/edu/~lridener/DSS/Simmel/SIMMEW2.HTML, October 25, 2002.
Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993.
Wolff, Kurt H., editor, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York, The Free Press, 1950,
Last edited February 7, 2003
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