The Dialectical Method in Simmel's Sociology

Simmel's sociology isalways informed by a dialectical approach, bringing out the dynamicinterconnectedness and the conflicts between the social units heanalyzes. Throughout his work he stresses both the connections and thetensions between the individual and society. He sees individuals asproducts of society, as links in the social process; yet "the totalcontent of life, even though it may be fully accounted for in terms ofsocial antecedents and interactions, must yet be looked at at the sametime under the aspect of singularity, as oriented toward the experienceof the individual." According to Simmel, the socialized individualalways remains in a dual relation with society: he is incorporatedwithin it and yet stands against it. The individual is, at the sametime, within society and outside it; he exists for society as well asfor himself: "[Social man] is not partially social and partiallyindividual; rather, his existence is shaped by a fundamental unity,which cannot be accounted for in any other way than through thesynthesis or coincidence of two logically contradictory determinations: man in both social link and being for himself, both product of societyand life from an autonomous center." The individual is determined atthe same time as he is determining; he is acted upon at the same time ashe is self-actuating.

The insistence on the pervasive dialecticof the relation between individual and society informs all of Simmel'ssociological thought. Incorporation into the network of socialrelations is the inevitable fate of human life, but it is also anobstacle to self-actualization; society allows, and also impedes, theemergence of individuality and autonomy. The forms of social lifeimpress themselves upon each individual and allow him to becomespecifically human. At the same time, they imprison and stultify thehuman personality by repressing the free play of spontaneity. Only inand through institutional forms can man attain freedom, yet his freedomis forever endangered by these very institutional forms.

ToSimmel, sociation always involves harmony and conflict, attraction andrepulsion, love and hatred. He saw human relations as characterized byambivalence; precisely those who are connected in intimate relations arelikely to harbor for one another not only positive but also negativesentiments. Erotic relations, for example, "strike us a woven togetherof love and respect, or disrespect . . . of love and an urge to dominateor the need for dependence . . . . What the observer or the participanthimself thus divides into two intermingling trends may in reality beonly one."

An entirely harmonious group, Simmel argued, could notexist empirically. It would not partake of any kind of life process; itwould be incapable of change and development. Moreover, Simmelstressed, it is naive to view as negative those forces that result inconflict and as positive those that make for consensus. Without, forexample, "safety valves" allowing participants "to blow off steam," manysocial relations could not endure. Sociation is always the result ofboth categories of interaction; both are positive ingredients,structuring all relationships and giving them enduring form.

Simmeldifferentiated sharply between social appearances and social realities. Although a given conflictive relationship might have been consideredwholly negative by participants or by outside observers, it neverthelessshowed, upon analysis, to have latent positive aspects. Only awithdrawal from a relationship could be considered wholly negative; aconflictive relationship, though possibly painful for one or moreparticipants, ties them to the social fabric through mutual involvementeven in the face of dissensus. It is essential to recognize, Simmelargued, that social conflict necessarily involves reciprocal action andtherefore is based on reciprocity rather than unilateral imposition. Conflict can serve as an outlet for negative attitudes and feelings,making further relationships possible; it can also lead to astrengthening of the positions of one or more parties to therelationship, thereby increasing the individual's dignity andself-esteem. Because conflict can strengthen existing bonds orestablish new ones, it can be considered a creative, rather than adestructive, force.

Simmel never dreamed of a frictionless socialuniverse, of a society from which clashes and contentions amongindividuals and groups would be forever banned. For him, conflict isthe very essence of social life, an ineradicable component of socialliving. The good society is not conflict-free; it is, on the contrary,"sewn together" by a variety of crisscrossing conflicts among itscomponent parts. Peace and feud, conflict and order are correlative. Both the cementing and the breaking of custom constitute part of theeternal dialectic of social life. It would therefore be a mistake todistinguish a sociology of order from one of disorder, a model ofharmony from one of conflict. These are not distinct realities but onlydiffering formal aspects of one reality.

Throughout his workSimmel considered the individual's social actions not in themselves butin relation to actions of other individuals and to particular structuresof processes. In his famous chapter on "Superordination andSubordination," he shows that domination does not lie in the unilateralimposition of the superordinate's will upon the subordinate but that itinvolves reciprocal action. What appears to be the exercise of absolutepower by some and the acquiescence by others is deceptive. Power"conceals an interaction, an exchange . . . . which transforms the pureone-sidedness of superordination and subordination into a sociologicalform." Thus, the superordinate's action cannot be understood withoutreference to the subordinate, and vice versa. The action of one canonly be analyzed by reference to the action of others, since the two arepart of a system of interaction that constrains both. Attempts atanalyzing social action without such reference would have been rejectedby Simmel as examples of what he called the fallacy of separateness.

Moreover, he does not rest his case after demonstrating that, contraryto first appearance, domination is a form of interaction. He proceeds toshow in considerable detail the particular ways in which various typesof groups structure are associated with different forms ofsubordination and superordination--distinguishing, for example, betweenlevelling and gradation. If a number of individuals are equally subjectto one individual, he argued, they are themselves equal. Suchlevelling, or "negative democratization" to use Karl Mannheim's term,favors and is favored by despotic rulers. Despots try to level theirsubjects and, conversely, highly developed levelling easily leads todespotism. On the other hand, strong intermediated gradations among aruler's subjects tend to cushion his impact and weaken his hold overthem. Although intermediate powers may increase inequalities in thesubject population, they shield the individual from the direct powers ofthe ruler. A pyramidal form of social gradation, whether it developsunder the plan of the ruler or results from the usurpation of some ofhis power by subordinates, gives every one of its elements a positionboth lower and higher than the next rungs in the hierarchy. In thisway, each level--except the very highest and the very lowest--issubordinate to the authorities above and, at the same time, issuperordinate to the rungs beneath. Dependence on some persons iscompensated by authority over others.

From Coser, 1977:183-188.


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