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Georg Simmel (born Berlin, died Strasbourg) achieved importance as a sociologist in the second half of the twentieth century. He was a friend and contemporary of the German sociologist, Max Weber and a colleague of the renowned philosopher, Wilhelm Dilthey. Among those academicians influenced by Simmel, four major figures in American Sociology attended his Berlin lectures: Albion Small, founding editor of the American Journal ofSociology, George Herbert Mead, University of Chicago philosopher, W. I. Thomas, Chicago sociologist: and Robert Park, founder of the tradition known as Ethnography. In the 1921 Introduction to Sociology, Park and Burgess selected more contributions from Simmel than from any other European sociologist. His influence, although marred by his omission from Parsons’s seminal Structure of Social Action (1937), further extends in the1960s with his rediscovery by Erving Goffman, Lewis Coser, and Kurt Wolff.
Born to a middle-class, Jewish family, Georg was the youngest of seven children. Georg married Gertrud Kinel in 1890 with one son, Hans, born 1891. A daughter, Angela was born in 1904 to Gertrud Kantorowicz, writer and art historian, Simmel’s lover and former student. Originally Jewish, the Simmels converted to Evangelical Protestantism, a necessity in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for securing state employment, social and professional contacts or any form of royal patronage. This is particularly relevant in Simmel’s biography, as many subsequent writers have attributed his lack of recognition in Germany in his lifetime to anti-Semitism. After schooling in Berlin, in 1876, Simmel studied History, Ethnology and Philosophy at the Berlin University given by the most eminent scholars of his day. Between 1881and 1885 he prepared two dissertations, on Kant’s physical monadology” (theory of substances) and On the relationship between ethical ideals and the logical and aesthetic,” to complete his doctorate.
His teaching included Ethics, New Philosophical Theory, Sociology and Social Psychology. As Associate Lecturer, Simmel was paid according to attendances, distinguishing registered students from paying guests. His attractive style, performance and topical content attracted a regular audience of around 200. It was this style and topicality that originates an approach to Sociology developed by later sociologists like Park, Blumer, and Erving Goffman although rejected by the positivist Structural Functionalists, notably Talcott Parsons.
With his wife’s daytime salon and his at-home tutorials, Simmel’s courses were fashionable among Berlin intellectuals and visiting students from America on their post-graduate European tour or roving students from other European countries who spread his ideas and approach around the modern world. His popularity and earnings were the envy of his senior fellows and colleagues and a source of much resentment. Frequent attempts to sponsor Simmel for appointment as full professor were defeated. His 1900 award of ausserordentlicher (Extraordinary) professorship allowed him to teach and adopt the title but not the full status. Otherwise, his importance in Sociology might have been established much earlier. There are three possible explanations for this exclusion: anti-Semitism within the university; jealousy and criticism of his popularity because he was seen as diminishing the status of science through promoting the emerging discipline of Sociology; or personal attacks directed at his anti-scientific” presentation of Sociology with its radical and revolutionary potential. His flamboyant appeal to foreigners and to women, filling lecture halls, further weakened the case for Simmel as a serious academic. Finally, in 1914 aged 56, a full professorship in Strasbourg was secured. Dissatisfied and unfulfilled, his health and his motivation went into rapid decline and he died of liver cancer in September 1918.
Simmel’s importance to Sociology lies in his answer to the question How is gesellschaft (society) possible?” – the first chapter of his Soziologie (1908). His opening argument was that Sociology was not a science but a method for exploring society or the ongoing, continuous processes of socialization, or social interaction. The data of social life were drawn from other disciplines like Psychology and Economics. Sociology’s task was to apply these data in describing and explaining processes of sociation occurring in different cultures. Formen or lebensformen are descriptions that allow those processes to be divided into the categories that are society.
The dyad is a unique form of sociation that necessitates the presence of two individuals whose associating makes up the process. One person cannot continue an argument if the other party leaves the room. Correspondingly, triads or larger groups can have a constantly changing or revolving membership. A local soccer game can change personnel several times without interruption but one, alone, cannot continue a game of chess. Simmel thus explains the persistence of groups, large and small, while also being able to examine the internal features, stability, and fragility of, for example, monogamous marriage.
Superordination” and subordination” describe both the simple leader-follower relation in a small group and larger processes that maintain stable relations between aristocracies and their people. Attending to the core sociological concept of inequality,” Simmel identifies the form, social differentiation. This describes exchanges between individuals, the total of these differences appearing as a fixed structure. Changing social interactions between individuals can radically transform apparently fixed social structures. The origin was always the individual-in-interaction building” society from the bottom up. It was probably this radical individualism that critics saw as revolutionary and dangerous.
Simmel located conflict in the complex environment of work in the modern city. There forms of conflict like physical assault, war, or revolution were now institutionalized into contests between lawyers in courts. This brought to social conflict two new dimensions: regulation in a system of rules, norms, and laws, and normal conflict” as an expected phase in any process of interaction, resolvable without destroying the relationship between parties.
Simmel’s last book, Lebensanschauung (1922), returns to the theme of the individual-in-inter-action as self,” as an aggregate process of the forms of sociation in which the individual engages. George Herbert Mead, in the USA, Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher and Alfred Schutz, a leading Phenomenologist, continued work on this original theme. Simmel, though rarely quoted in the development of the concept of self, was central to that development.
Simmel’s rank in Sociology is probably below contemporaries like Max Weber or Emile Durkheim. His writings are not key texts for the modern student but few sociologists would deny some methodological or theoretical debt traceable to Simmel’s Soziologie. The methodological stream,
Qualitative Research, first appears in Simmel’s teachings and writings. The focus on deviance, the outsider, the stranger, as they characterize urban and city life, gave rise to Urban Sociology, the Sociology of Deviance and of Mental Illness. Micro-Sociology, Symbolic Interactionism, Sociology in the Natural Attitude, all find their initial steps in Simmel’s lectures and papers. Currently, Cultural Studies in its attention to fashion, art, sculpture, music and performance set in the modern or post-modern world draws most from Simmel’s work.
- Park, R. E. & Burgess, E. W. (1921) Introduction to the Science of Sociology. Greenwood Press, New York.
- Spykman, N. (1925) The Social Theory of Georg Simmel. University of Chicago Press, London.
- Wolff, K. H. (ed.) (1950) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Free Press, New York.