Georg Simmel

The Work

Simmel'sapproach to sociology can best be understood as a self-conscious attemptto reject the organicist theories of Comte and Spencer, as well as thehistorical description of unique events that was cherished in his nativeGermany. He advanced, instead, the conception that society consists ofa web of patterned interactions, and that it is the task of sociology tostudy the forms of these interactions as they occur and reoccur indiverse historical periods and cultural settings.

When Simmelturned his attention to sociology, the field was most oftencharacterized by the organicist approach so prominent in the works ofComte in France, of Spencer in England, and of Schaffle in Germany. This view stressed the fundamental continuity between nature andsociety. Social process, it will be recalled, was conceived asqualitatively similar to, although more complex than, biologicalprocess. Life was seen as a great chain of being, stretching from thesimplest natural phenomenon to the most highly differentiated socialorganism. For this reason, although the methods developed in thenatural sciences had to be adapted to the particular tasks of the socialsciences, such methods were considered essentially similar to thoseappropriate to the study of man in society. Sociology was regarded asthe master science through which one could discover the laws governingall social developments.

The organicist view of social life wasvigorously opposed in the tradition of German scholarship as representedin the school of idealistic philosophy. The German tradition viewed Naturwissenschaft(natural science) and Geisteswissenschaft (moral or humanscience) as qualitatively different. In this tradition, natural lawswould have no place in the study of human culture, which represented therealm of freedom. The method considered appropriate for the study ofhuman phenomena was idiographic, that is, concerned with unique events,rather than nomothetic, the method concerned with establishing generallaws. It was believed that the student of human affairs could onlydescribe and record the unique events of human history and that anyattempts to establish regularities in the sphere of human culture wouldcollapse because of the autonomy of the human spirit. Natur andKultur were essentially different realms of being.

Moreover,the proponents of the German traditions argued, sociology had no realobject of study; the term society was but a rough label,convenient for certain purposes but devoid of substance or reality. They asserted that there is no society outside or in addition to theindividuals who compose it. Once these individuals and theirhistorically located actions are investigated, nothing remains by way ofsubject matter for a science of society. Human freedom, the uniquenessand irreversibility of historical events, the fundamental disjunctionbetween Natur and Geist (nature and spirit), allcombined to make attempts at founding a science of sociology aquixotic--even a scandalous--enterprise. Far from being queen of thesciences, sociology was not a science at all.

Simmel rejectedboth the organicist and the idealist schools. He did not see society asa thing or an organism in the manner of Comte or Spencer, nor merely asa convenient label for something that did not have "real" existence. Inhis view, society consists of an intricate web of multiple relationsbetween individuals who are in constant interaction with one another: "Society is merely the name for a number of individuals,connected by interaction." The larger superindividual structures--thestate, the clan, the family, the city, or the trade union--are onlycrystallizations of this interaction, even though they may attainautonomy and permanency and confront the individual as if they werealien powers. The major field of study for the student of society is,therefore, sociation, that is, the particular patterns and forms inwhich men associate and interact with one another.

Simmel arguedthat the grandiose claims of those who wish to make sociology the masterscience of everything human are self-defeating. Nothing can be gainedby throwing together all phenomena heretofore studied by jurisprudenceand philology, by political science and psychology, and labeling themsociology. Qui trop embrasse, mal etreint. By tryingto embrace all phenomena that are in any way connected with human lifeone pursues a will-o'-the-wisp. There can be no such totalistic socialscience, just as there is no "total" science of all matter. Sciencemust study dimensions or aspects of phenomena rather than globaltotalities. The legitimate subject matter of sociology lies in thedescription and analysis of particular forms of human interaction andtheir crystallization in group characteristics: "Sociology asks whathappens to men and by what rules they behave, not insofar as they unfoldtheir understandable individual existences in their totalities, butinsofar as they form groups and are determined by their group existencebecause of interaction." Although all human behavior is behavior ofindividuals, much of it can be explained in terms of the individual'sgroup affiliation, as well as the constraints imposed upon him byparticular forms of interaction.

Although Simmel considered thelarger institutionalized structures a legitimate field of sociologicalinquiry, he preferred to restrict most of his work to an investigationof what he called "interactions among the atoms of society." He limitedhis concern, in the main, to those fundamental patterns of interactionamong individuals that underlie the larger social formations (what istoday described as "microsociology"). The method he advocated andpracticed was to focus attention upon the perennial and limited numberof forms such interaction might take.

From Coser, 1977:177-179.


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