Georg Simmel

From Kurt H. Wolff, (Trans.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe,IL: The Free Press, 1950, pp. 13-17.


The sociological significance of conflict (Kampf) has in principle never been disputed. Conflictis admitted to cause or modify interest groups, unifications, organizations. On the other hand, itmay sound paradoxical in the common view if one asks whether irrespective of any phenomenathat result from convict or that accompany it, it itself is a form of sociation. [l] At first glance,this sounds like a rhetorical question. If every interaction among men is a sociation, conflict--after all one of the most vivid interactions, which, furthermore, cannot possibly be carried on byone individual alone--must certainly be considered as sociation. And in fact, dissociating factors--hate, envy, need, desire--are the causes of convict; it breaks out because of them. Conflict isthus designed to resolve divergent dualisms; it is a way of achieving some kind of unity, even ifit be through the annihilation of one of the conflicting parties. This is roughly parallel to the factthat it is the most violent symptom of a disease which represents the effort of the organism tofree itself of disturbances and damages caused by them.

But this phenomenon means much more than the trivial ''si vis pacem para bellum'' [if you wantpeace, prepare for war]; it is something quite general, of which this maxim only describes aspecial case. Conflict itself resolves the tension between contrasts. The fact that it aims at peaceis only one, an especially obvious, expression of its nature: the synthesis of elements that workboth against and for one another. This nature appears more clearly when it is realized that bothforms of relation--the antithetical and the convergent--are fundamentally distinguished from themere indifference of two or more individuals or groups. Whether it implies the rejection or thetermination of sociation, indifference is purely negative. In contrast to such pure negativity,conflict contains something positive. Its positive and negative aspects, however, are integrated:they can be separated conceptually, hut not empirically.

The Sociological Relevance of Conflict

Social phenomena appear in a new light when seen from the angle of this sociologically positivecharacter of conflict. It is at once evident then that if the relations among men (rather than whatthe individual is to himself and in his relations to objects) constitute the subject matter of aspecial science, sociology, then the traditional topics of that science cover only a subdivision ofit: it is more comprehensive and is truly defined by a principle. At one time it appeared as ifthere were only two consistent subject matters of the science of man: the individual unit and theunit of individuals (society); any third seemed logically excluded. In this conception, conflictitself--irrespective of its contributions to these immediate social units--found no place for study.It was a phenomenon of its own, and its subsumption under the concept of unity would have beenarbitrary as well as useless, since conflict meant the negation of unity.

A more comprehensive classification of the science of the relations of men should distinguish, itwould appear, those relations which constitute a unit, that is, social relations in the strict sense,from those which counteract unity. [2] It must be realized, however, that both relations canusually he found in every historically real situation. The individual does not attain the unity ofhis personality exclusively by an exhaustive harmonization, according to logical, objective,religious, or ethical norms, of the contents of his personality. On the contrary, contradiction andconflict not only precede this unity but are operative in it at every moment of its existence. Justso, there probably exists no social unit in which convergent and divergent currents among itsmembers are not inseparably interwoven. An absolutely centripetal and harmonious group, apure ''unification'' ("Vereinigung''), not only is empirically unreal, it could show no real lifeprocess. The society of saints which Dante sees in the Rose of Paradise may be like such a group,but it is without any change and development; whereas the holy assembly of Church Fathers inRaphael's Disputa shows if not actual conflict, at least a considerable differentiation of moodsand directions of thought, whence flow all the vitality and the really organic structure of thatgroup. Just as the universe needs "love and hate,'' that is, attractive and repulsive forces, in orderto have any form at all, so society, too, in order to attain a determinate shape, needs somequantitative ratio of harmony and disharmony, of association and competition, of favorable andunfavorable tendencies. But these discords are by no means mere sociological liabilities ornegative instances. Definite, actual society does not result only from other social forces whichare positive, and only to the extent that the negative factors do not hinder them. This commonconception is quite superficial: society, as we know it, is the result of both categories ofinteraction, which thus both manifest themselves as wholly positive. [3]

Unity and Discord

There is a misunderstanding according to which one of these two kinds of interaction tears downwhat the other builds up, and what is eventually left standing is the result of the subtraction of thetwo (while in reality it must rather be designated as the result of their addition). Thismisunderstanding probably derives from the twofold meaning of the concept of unity. Wedesignate as "unity'' the consensus and concord of interacting individuals, as against theirdiscords, separations, and disharmonies. But we also call ''unity'' the total group-synthesis ofpersons, energies, and forms, that is, the ultimate wholeness of that group, a wholeness whichcovers both strictly-speaking unitary relations and dualistic relations. We thus account for thegroup phenomenon which we feel to be ''unitary'' in terms of functional components consideredspecifically unitary; and in so doing, we disregard the other, larger meaning of the term.

This imprecision is increased by the corresponding twofold meaning of ''discord'' or ''opposition.''Since discord unfolds its negative, destructive character between particular individuals, wenaively conclude that it must have the same effect on the total group. In reality, however,something which is negative and damaging between individuals if it is considered in isolationand as aiming in a particular direction, does not necessarily have the same effect within the totalrelationship of these individuals. For, a very different picture emerges when we view the conflictin conjunction with other interactions not affected by it. The negative and dualistic elements playan entirely positive role in this more comprehensive picture, despite the destruction they maywork on particular relations. All this is very obvious in the competition of individuals within aneconomic unit.


1. "Vergesellschaftungsform.'' "Vergesellschaftung" win be rendered as ''sociation.'' On the termand its various translations, see The Sociology of Georg Simmel, loc. cit., pp. lxiii-lxiv.--Tr.

2. "Einheit" is both "unit" and "unity," and Simmel uses the term promiscuously in both senses.--Tr.

3. This is the sociological instance of a contrast between two much more general conceptions oflife. According to the common view, life always shows two parties in opposition. One of themrepresents the positive aspect of life, its content proper, if not its substance, while the verymeaning of the other is non-being, which must be subtracted from the positive elements beforethey can constitute life. This is the common view of the relation between happiness andsuffering, virtue and vice, strength and inadequacy, success and failure--between all possiblecontents and interruptions of the course of life. The highest conception indicated in respect tothese contrasting pairs appears to me different: we must conceive of all these polardifferentiations as of one life; we must sense the pulse of a central vitality even in that which, ifseen from the standpoint of a particular ideal, ought not to be at all and is merely somethingnegative; we must allow the total meaning of our existence to grow out of both parties. In themost comprehensive context of life, even that which as a single element is disturbing anddestructive, is wholly positive; it is not a gap but the fulfillment of a role reserved for it alone.Perhaps it is not given to us to attain, much less always to maintain, the height from which allphenomena can he felt as making up the unity of life, even though from an objective or valuestandpoint, they appear to oppose one another as pluses and minuses, contradictions, and mutualelimination. We are too inclined to think and feel that our essential being, our true, ultimatesignificance, is identical with one of these factions. According to our optimistic or pessimisticfeeling of life, one of them appears to us as surface or accident, as something to be eliminated orsubtracted, in order for the true and intrinsically consistent life to emerge. We are everywhereenmeshed in this dualism (which will presently be discussed in more detail in the text above)--inthe most intimate as in the most comprehensive provinces of life, personal, objective, and social.We think we have, or are, a whole or unit which is composed of two logically and objectivelyopposed parties, and we identify this totality of ours with one of them, while we feel the other tobe something alien which does not properly belong and which denies our central andcomprehensive being. Life constantly moves between these two tendencies. The one has justbeen described. The other lets the whole really be the whole. It makes the unity, which after allcomprises both contrasts, alive in each of these contrasts and in their juncture. It is all the morenecessary to assert the right of this second tendency in respect to the sociological phenomenon ofconflict, because conflict impresses us with its socially destructive force as with an apparentlyindisputable tact.

Back to the Index