Social Types

Simmel constructed a gallery of social types to complement hisinventory of social forms. Along with "the stranger," he describes ingreat phenomenological detail such diverse types as "the mediator," "thepoor," "the adventurer," "the man in the middle," and "the renegade." Simmel conceives of each particular social type as being cast by thespecifiable reactions and expectations of others. The type becomeswhat he is through his relations with others who assign him a particularposition and expect him to behave in specific ways. His characteristicsare seen as attributes of the social structure.

For example, "thestranger," in Simmel's terminology, is not just a wanderer "who comestoday and goes tomorrow," having no specific structural position. Onthe contrary, he is a "person who comes today and stays tomorrow. . . .He is fixed within a particular spatial group . . . but his position . .. is determined . . . by the fact that he does no belong to it from thebeginning," and that he may leave again. The stranger is "an element ofthe group itself" while not being fully part of it. He therefore isassigned a role that no other members of the group can play. By virtueof his partial involvement in group affairs he can attain an objectivitythat other members cannot reach. "He is not radically committed to theunique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, andtherefore approaches them with the specific attitude of 'objectivity.' " Moreover, being distant and near at the same time, the stranger willoften be called on as a confidant. Confidences that must me withheldfrom more closely related persons can be given to him just because withhim they are not likely to have consequences. In similar ways, thestranger may be a better judge between conflicting parties than fullmembers of the group since he is not tied to either of the contenders. Not being "bound by commitments which could prejudice his perception,understanding, and evaluation of the given," he is the idealintermediary in the traffic of goods as well as in the traffic ofemotions.

Similarly, the poor as a social type emerge only whensociety recognizes poverty as a special status and assigns specificpersons requiring assistance to that category. In Simmel's view,

the fact that someone is poor does not mean that he belongs to thespecific social category of the 'poor' . . . . It is only from themoment that [the poor] are assisted . . . that they become part of agroup characterized by poverty. This group does not remain united byinteraction among its members, but by the collective attitude whichsociety as a whole adopts toward it. . . . Poverty cannot be defined initself as a quantitative state, but only in terms of the social reactionresulting from a specific situation. . . . Poverty is a uniquesociological phenomenon: a number of individuals who, out of a purelyindividual fate, occupy a specific organic position within the whole;but this position is not determined by this fate and condition, butrather by the fact that others . . . attempt to correct this condition.

Once the poor accept assistance, they are removed from thepreconditions of their previous status, they are declassified, and theirprivate trouble now becomes a public issue. The poor come to be viewednot by what they do--the criteria ordinarily used in socialcategorization--but by virtue of what is done to them. Society createsthe social type of the poor and assigns them a peculiar status that ismarked only by negative attributes, by what the status-holders do nothave.

The stranger and the poor, as well as Simmel's other types,are assigned their position by virtue of specific interactive relations. They are societal creations and must act out their assigned roles. They resemble the character in one of Randall Jarrell's academic novelswho "had never been what intellectuals consider an intellectual butother people had thought him one, and he had had to suffer theconsequences of their mistake."

From Coser, 1977:182-183.

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