Lesson 7
Georg Simmel
Robert Wonser
SOC 368 – Classical Sociological Theory
Spring 2014
Simmel’s Life
 Born in Berlin to a middle class Jewish family in
1858 which had converted to Christianity.
 Simmel’s father died when Georg was very
young, and he was not close to his mother.
 Simmel experienced social marginality both in
the family and in his academic life.
 Simmel saw the social life of contemporary
societies as creating social marginalization, but
as opposed to Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, he
saw this a having positive attributes.
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Simmel’s Life
 Attended the University of Berlin
 Doctoral thesis on the philosophy of Immanuel
 Simmel was in the midst of a thriving intellectual
German community
 Jews and radicals were marginalized from this
community – Simmel among them
 Because he could not secure a permanent
academic position, Simmel became a lecturer –
living off student fees
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Simmel’s Life
He became enormously popular among
students and offered courses on a wide
array of subjects – logic, ethics,
philosophy, political science, psychology,
Simmel experienced anti-Semitism and
the jealously of the academic community
Simmel finally became a full professor in
1914, only to die 4 years later
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Intellectual Influences: Max Weber
Simmel and Weber were very close
friends and intellectual peers
Simmel disagreed with Weber’s search for
historical particularities, and instead
focused on invariant laws of social life
Simmel and Weber both offered
challenges to the Marxian critique of the
capitalist political economy
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Intellectual Influences: Herbert
Simmel’s first sociological work: Social
Differentiation (1890) was indebted to
Spencerian sociology
Simmel’s later work maintains this focus of
the importance of differentiation and more
importantly the relevance of social
structures in social life
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Intellectual Influences: Immanuel
 Kant is interested in what he calls “pure
reason” based upon a “categorical imperative”
 The “transcendental aesthetic” is that by which
human beings transform the buzz and chaos of
the phenomenal world into meaningful order
 This creates a “transcendental logic” whereby
perceptual knowledge is transformed into
conceptual knowledge
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Intellectual Influences: Immanuel
 sense knowledge  perceptual knowledge 
conceptual knowledge
 what drives this process is a structured set of
categories which are embedded in the human mind
 whereas Kant argues that structures exist in the
mind, Simmel modifies Kant’s argument by
suggesting that structures exist in social
 Simmel asks the question – what are the basic
forms of interaction, or structures which affect social
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Intellectual Influence: Karl Marx
 Simmel argues against Marx’s labor theory of value – for Simmel
the price of a product is based upon supply and demand, and
social desire (social distance)
 The greater the difficulty in obtaining an object, the greater its value.
 Simmel argues that alienation is natural in a society which is
large, complex, and highly differentiated, and that competition is
an important factor in the reduction of social alienation – free
competition increases the free circulation of social exchanges
 Money is not as oppressive commodity, as Marx contended, but
is instead a generalized medium of social exchange which
increases social interaction
 The ultimate tool
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Simmel’s Approach to Sociology
What makes sociology different from other
Isn’t it just an arbitrary label?
Simmel says no.
Sociology is the study of social interaction
and the consequences of social
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Simmel’s Approach to Sociology
Simmel’s three questions:
What is society?
How should sociology study
What are the problem areas of
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Levels and Areas of Concern
Macroscopic assumptions about the psychological
components of social life
Sociological components of interpersonal
Structure of, changes in, cultural “spirit” of his times
1) higher levels emerge out of lower levels
2) “if society is to be an autonomous object of an
independent science, then it can only be so through the
fact that, out of the sum of the individual elements that
constitute it, a new entity emerges; otherwise all
problems of social science would be those of individual
Ultimate metaphysical principles of life
Simmel’s Approach to Sociology
 Groups and the Forms of social life
 The Geometric Metaphor: Focus on Form over Context
(goals, values, purposes, etc.)
 Sociology’s Problem Areas:
 General/Historical Sociology – focus on invariant
patterns of form (and content, while distinguishing both)
 Pure/Formal Sociology (generic social processes,
structured role relationships)
 Philosophical Sociology – (epistemological questions, or
metatheoretical questions) – what is the relationship
between individual and society?
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
The Web of Group Affiliations
How does social differentiation affect
social relationships and networks of group
The most important variable is social
Change from organic (local in-group) to
rational (cosmopolitan)
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
The Web of Group Affiliations
Consequences of social differentiation:
role conflict
role strain
multiple identities and social uniqueness
increased personal freedom
cognitive complexity
social differentiation  creativity  social
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
 Conflict is generally seen as a destructive social
 This emerges when one looks at the contents of
the conflict
 Conflict, however, is a social form which
facilitates social solidarity
 While Simmel argues that humans have an
innate fighting instinct that is the cause of social
conflict, conflict is best understood as a socially
organized phenomenon.
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
 The basic form of conflict: Generally, social conflict is
oriented towards a goal/purpose.
 Conflict within groups:
 With groups of strong similarity or personal connection
– conflict can emerge over very petty concerns, and
these conflicts can be highly emotionally charged.
 Differences can be a sign of personal and group
 Conflicts against accepted opponents can be direct or
indirect (competition) – rule bound, “one unites in
order to fight,” competition promotes social solidarity.
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
 Conflict between groups:
 increases group centralization – “miserable
people loves miserable company.”
 increases social solidarity within each group
reduces the amount of tolerance for
deviance and dissent.
 increases the probability of coalition
formation among similarly aligned groups.
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Philosophy of Money
 the focus is on the establishment of social exchange
relationships as a social form, in particular economic
 Money is both a cause and consequence of social
 Humans are teleological, and use many tools to
accomplish their goals
 Money is an incredible social tool because is it abstract,
fluid, and subject to great manipulation
 The use of money allows for an increase in the number
of groups to which an individual can belong.
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Philosophy of Money
The value of an object is based upon
supply and demand, upon the
subjective/objective split.
Money becomes a standardized yardstick
for the measurement of value, and is an
extension of human nature
Money can become the value of anything
– ethics, love, aesthetics, etc. – and thus
can change or replace social relationships.
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
 Money can become the value of anything –
ethics, love, aesthetics, etc. – and thus can
change or replace social relationships.
Example: prostitution
 How did Simmel feel about this ability of money?
 Money performs the interesting function of
creating distance between people and objects
and then providing the means to overcome that
Another example of his dialectical thinking
Philosophy of Money
Money and the Social Whole:
1)increases the velocity of exchange
2)value of money increases as does the
perception that needs can be realized
3)creates options for social exchange and
helps to create social continuity
4)allows for the creation of multiple ties
5)increases the distance of exchange
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Philosophy of Money
6) promotes trust, solidarity, and
7) increases the importance of a centralized
government (taxes)
8) taxes promote solidarity
9) penetrates all social relations
10)increase the quantification and
objectification of social relations
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Philosophy of Money
Money and the Individual:
1) increases personal freedom and choice
2) increases self expression through material
3) creates distance between self and material
objects which can be discarded
4) money increases the multiplicity of social
involvements, but reduces strong emotional ties
5) money mediates personal interaction
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
More Money, more…
Problems arise because all these
developments are at the level of objective
culture and are integral parts of the
process by which objective culture grows
and further impoverishes individual
Money is the purest form of exchange,
process continues on in perpetuity (unlike
in barter systems)
Objective Culture and Individual
(Subjective Culture)
 Cultural level of social reality, “objective culture,”
things that people produce (like art, science,
philosophy, etc.)
 People produce culture, but we can reify social
reality, the cultural world and the social world come
to have lives of their own, lives that come to
dominate the actors who created and daily recreate them.
 Over time objective culture exerts more control over
the individual.
 Individual (subjective culture) is the capacity of
the actor to produce, absorb, and control elements
of the objective culture.
Objective Culture
 Grows and expands in various ways:
1) Absolute size grows with modernization
2) number of different components of the
cultural realm grows
3) Elements of cultural world become more
entwined in an ever more powerful, selfcontained world that is increasingly
beyond control of the actors.
Objective Culture
Simmel worried what would happen to
individual culture…
“The total value of something increases
to the same extent as the value of its
individual parts decline.” (Simmel
 tragedy of culture
More-Life and More-Than-Life
 Simmel’s answer to Marx’s fetishism of commodities.
 People possess a transcendent ability
 First, creative capacities (more-life), people are able to
transcend themselves.
 Second, this transcendent, creative ability makes it
possible to produce sets of objects that transcend
 What we’ve created (more-than-life) come in
opposition to more-life that produced objects in the
first place.
 We’ve reified our individual cultural output into
objective culture which restrict further cultural output.
 Stifling them, like an iron cage almost…
Urban Sociology
“Metropolis and Mental Life”
Metropolis as the “genuine arena”
where objective culture comes to
dominate individual culture.
It is where money lives…
Creates the blasé and reserved
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological
Metropolis and Mental Life
The city is the “frightful leveler” where
everyone is reduced to a rational
calculating actor.
Cannot maintain individuality in the face
of the expansion of objective culture.
Although, people are freer here than in
small towns.
Tragedy of Culture
Simmel saw the significance of the
individual declining as money transactions
become an increasingly important part of
society and as reified structures expand.
The loss of individual subjective culture in
the face of the expansion of objective
Conforming to fashion allows us to
conform to the group
Fashion is also the norm if we wish to
deviate that we depart from
Everyone accepts what is fashionable,
then some deviate from this, creating a
new sense of fashion. Process repeats ad
Fashions are doomed to not last
Social Geometry
Dyad – group of two
Triad – three-person group
what effect does adding a third person do
to the group?
Movement from dyad to triad is essential
to the development of social structures
that can become separate and dominant
over, individuals.
Social Geometry
 Group size
 increases individual freedom
 Also scares into retreating into small groups, like
the family.
 Distance “the properties of forms and the
meanings of things are a function of the relative
distances between individuals and other
individuals or things.”
 “the stranger” is psychologically far but
physically near
Key Ideas
 society is composed of exchange
relationships – through money, conversation,
symbols, friendship, love, conflict
 conflict can be functional
 developed an interest in urban environments
and the social alienation they produce
 the modern world creates a blasé attitude
 “the stranger”
Lesson 7: Georg Simmel, Classical Sociological

What is Sociological Theory?