Notes on Georg Simmel
These notes on Georg Simmel were prepared for Sociology 250, Introduction
to Social Theory, in Fall, 1995. The notes provide an overview
and some examples of Simmel's approach to the study of society.
Sections 2 and 3 of these notes are the parts most applicable
to the discussion of interaction and community in Sociology 304.
While Simmel is generally not regarded as being as influential
in sociology as were Marx, Weber, Durkheim, or even Parsons, several
of the 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 Parsons.
Georg Simmel (1858-1918, Germany) was born in Berlin and
received his doctorate in 1881. He was of Jewish ancestry and
was marginalized within the German academic system. Only in 1914
did Simmel obtain a regular academic appointment, and this appointment
was in Strasbourg, far from Berlin. 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 contributed greatly 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 and on money are now being used by contemporary sociologists.
Simmel combines ideas from all of the three major classical writers
and was influenced by Hegel and Kant. When Simmel discusses social
structures, the city, money, and modern society, his analysis
has some similarities to the analyses of Durkheim (problem of
individual and society), Weber (effects of rationalization), and
Marx (alienation). Simmel considered society to be an association
of free individuals, and said 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). This emphasis on social interaction
at the individual and small group level, and viewing the study
of these interactions as the primary task of sociology makes Simmel's
approach different from that of the classical writers, especially
Marx and Durkheim.
It is Simmel's attempt to integrate analysis of individual action
with the structural approach that make his writings of contemporary
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)
2. Size of Group. Simmel considered the size of the group
in which social action takes place to be a factor in determining
the nature of the group. Here he was concerned with the form
of the group, rather than the content of the interaction. In
the dyad, a relationship can be considered 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. Various strategies emerge
in the triad that change the form of interaction from the
dyad. In the triad, there may be strategies that lead to competition,
alliances, or mediation. The triad is likely to develop a group
structure independent of the individuals in it, whereas this is
less likely in the dyad (Ritzer, p. 166).
As group size increases even more, Ritzer notes that "the increase in the size of the group or society increases individual freedom." (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. (Farganis, p. 140).
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." (Farganis, p. 140). This implies much
greater possibility of individual freedom and flexibility, with
the common culture and form of association greatly weakened.
The metropolis or city becomes 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." (Farganis, p. 142). 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"
(Farganis, p. 143) makes the "objective spirit" dominate
over the "subjective spirit." Modern culture in terms
of language, production, art, science, etc. is "at an ever
increasing distance." This is the result of 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." (Farganis, p. 143). 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
Where Simmel differs from these other classic writers, is that
Simmel returns to the individual, analyzing how the individual
deals with the developments of modern society, and considering
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."
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."
(Farganis, p. 143). This means that individuals may adopt some
characteristic fashions and in their personal mannerisms may try
to appear "to the point." Note that the personality
is not an isolated entity but also is a social entity, one that
depends on interaction. Social interaction, looking to the reaction
of others, and seeking the recognition and awareness of others
is an essential aspect of individual personality. In this way
Simmel ties together the individual and the social, and each require
the existence of the other.
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 relationships.
(Farganis, p. 136). 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. (Farganis, p. 137)
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." (Farganis, p. 144). 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.
3. 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,
viewing 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. (Farganis, p. 136).
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.
Ritzer notes that 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." (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, but at the same time it 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
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. Ritzer notes that 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." (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 inter subjectively meaningful -- i.e. view ourselves
in terms of responses of others - and even on others who we have
Ashley and Orenstein (p. 316) provide an example using sex and
gender differences. Within a patriarchal or unequal male/female
relationship, relations may appear to be intimate and spontaneous.
In fact, if the situation is one of dominant and subordinate,
the nature of the relationship is structured by the expectations
of both the dominant and the subordinate. Objective form of dominance
and submission contain the way in which what is thought of as
subjective can be expressed. This dominant and subordinate relationship
is also maintained by the subjective impulses that are part of
4. Fashion. An example of how Simmel examines some of
these connections in a concrete connection is his discussion of
fashion. (See Ritzer p. 161 and Ashley and Orenstein, pp. 314-5).
Simmel views fashion as developing 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 their 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. (in 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 can express individuality,
because an individual may choose to express some difference from
norms. 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, and a new norm becoming established.
There is a dialectical process involved in the success of the
fashion involved in its initial and then widespread acceptance
also leads to its eventual abandonment and failure. Leadership
in a fashion means that the leader actually follows the fashion
better than others, as well as there being followers of the fashion.
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, how one conceives of fashion,
5. Philosophy of Money. Simmel's major work concerns money and the social meaning of money. In this book 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. In this book, Simmel is concerned with money as a symbol, and what some of the effects of this are for people and society. In modern society, money becomes an impersonal or objectified measure of value. This implies impersonal, rational ties among people that are institutionalized in the money form. For example, relations of domination and subordination become quantitative relationships of more and less money -- impersonal and measurable in a rational manner. The use of money distances individuals from objects and also provides the 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 the money form has both positive and negative consequences.
That is, individual freedom is potentially increased greatly,
but there are problems of alienation, fragmentation, and identity
6. Conclusion. Simmel's sociology can be regarded as
similar to that of the other classic writers in some senses, although
he had less to say about social structure or its dynamics than
did Marx, Weber, or Durkheim He did discuss objective culture
and his writings on money have some affinity with Weber's rationalization.
Where his contribution is notable for contemporary sociology
is his view of society, the emphasis on social interaction, and
his writings on the city.
Ashley, David and D. M. Orenstein, Sociological Theory: Classical Statements (Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1990), second edition.
Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993)
Frisby, David, Georg Simmel (Ellis Horwood, Chichester and Tavistock, London, 1984), Key Sociologists Series. HM 22 G3S482 1984.
Frisby, David, Simmel and Since: Essays on Georg Simmel's Social Theory (London, Routledge, 1992). HM 22 G3 S4828.
Frisby, David, Sociological Impressionism: A Reassessment of Georg Simmel's Social Theory (London, Routledge, 1992). Second edition. HM 22 G3 S483.
Knapp, P., One World -- Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory (Harper-Collins, New York, 1994).
Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1992), third edition.
Simmel, Georg, The Philosophy of Money (Routledge, London, 1990), second edition. HG 221 S5913 1990.
Wolff, Kurt, The Sociology of Georg Simmel (Free Press,
Glencoe, Illinois, 1950). HM 57 S482
Notes for Sociology 250 in the Fall, 1995 semester. Last revised
on April 7, 1998.
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