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George Simmel

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Autor:   •  October 12, 2010  •  2,854 Words (12 Pages)  •  888 Views

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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

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