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.

1. Introduction.

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 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)

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 writers.

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 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. 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 never met.

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 the interaction.

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, etc.

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 construction.

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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