“The Stranger” Essay

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In Simmel’s essay, ”The Stranger” (1971 [1908]) the notion of distance is important where the stranger is both remote and close; a part of the group as well as outside of it. His unusual social position leads others to assume that he possesses a unique objectivity. Therefore, group members are more inclined to divulge private information that they often keep hidden from intimates. This objectivity provides the stranger with more freedom because his atypical social position allows him to assess more accurately situations, even close ones, from a distance, with minimal personal bias.

Simmel writes that group members tend to highlight the general abstract traits that they share with the stranger. Therefore, the stranger is close to others based upon general similarities like nationality, social position, or occupation, but these same universal attributes make him remote because they also pertain to many others.

Because there is an emphasis on these general qualities, they also tend to stress the individual characteristics that they do not share with the stranger, which results in tension. Simmel also claims that there is a level of strangeness in even the most intimate associations. When entering into romantic relationships people tend to concentrate on what is unique and distinctive, but as time passes, each participant will come to question their relationship when they realize that it is not particularly exceptional. All close relationships must endure this assessment because they are never especially unique. This awareness results in an overall level of strangeness within the relationship.

Simmel argues that although varying degrees of remoteness and nearness are present in all relationships, there is a ”special proportion and reciprocal tension” between farness and nearness that produce the unique social type of the stranger (Simmel 1971 [1908]: 149). But, Simmel warns, we cannot define or quantify this special proportion with great certainty.


  • Simmel, G. (1971) [1908] The Stranger. In: Levine, D. N. (ed.), George Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp. 143—9.

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