Georg Simmel

From Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York:Free Press, 1950, pp. 402 - 408.

The Stranger

If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional oppositeto fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the "stranger" presents the unity, as it were, ofthese two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, reveals that spatial relations are onlythe condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations. The stranger isthus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer whocomes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays to morrow.He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quiteovercome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, orwithin a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this groupis determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that heimports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.

The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation is organized, in thephenomenon of the stranger, in a way which may be most briefly formulated by saying that in therelationship to him, distance means that he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means thathe, who also is far, is actually near. For, to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it isa specific form of interaction. The inhabitants of Sirius are not really strangers to us, at least notin any social logically relevant sense: they do not exist for us at all; they are beyond far and near.The stranger, like the poor and like sundry "inner enemies," is an element of the group itself. Hisposition as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it. Thefollowing statements, which are by no means intended as exhaustive, indicate how elementswhich increase distance and repel, in the relations of and with the stranger produce a pattern ofcoordination and consistent interaction.

Throughout the history of economics the stranger everywhere appears as the trader, or the traderas stranger. As long as economy is essentially self-sufficient, or products are exchanged within aspatially narrow group, it needs no middleman: a trader is only required for products thatoriginate outside the group. Insofar as members do not leave the circle in order to buy thesenecessities--in which case they are the "strange" merchants in that outside territory--the tradermust be a stranger, since nobody else has a chance to make a living.

This position of the stranger stands out more sharply if he settles down in the place of hisactivity, instead of leaving it again: in innumerable cases even this is possible only if he can liveby intermediate trade. Once an economy is somehow closed the land is divided up, andhandicrafts are established that satisfy the demand for them, the trader, too, can find hisexistence. For in trade, which alone makes possible unlimited combinations, intelligence alwaysfinds expansions and new territories, an achievement which is very difficult to attain for theoriginal producer with his lesser mobility and his dependence upon a circle of customers that canbe increased only slowly. Trade can always absorb more people than primary production; it is,therefore, the sphere indicated for the stranger, who intrudes as a supernumerary, so to speak,into a group in which the economic positions are actually occupied--the classical example is thehistory of European Jews. The stranger is by nature no "owner of soil"--soil not only in thephysical, but also in the figurative sense of a life-substance which is fixed, if not in a point inspace, at least in an ideal point of the social environment. Although in more intimate relations,he may develop all kinds of charm and significance, as long as he is considered a stranger in theeyes of the other, he is not an "owner of soil." Restriction to intermediary trade, and often (asthough sublimated from it) to pure finance, gives him the specific character of mobility. Ifmobility takes place within a closed group, it embodies that synthesis of nearness and distancewhich constitutes the formal position of the stranger. For, the fundamentally mobile personcomes in contact, at one time or another, with every individual, but is not organically connected,through established ties of kinship, locality, and occupation, with any single one.

Another expression of this constellation lies in the objectivity of the stranger. He is not radicallycommitted to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and thereforeapproaches them with the specific attitude of "objectivity." But objectivity does not simplyinvolve passivity and detachment; it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness,indifference and involvement. I refer to the discussion (in the chapter on "Superordination andSubordination" [8]) of the dominating positions of the person who is a stranger in the group; itsmost typical instance was the practice of those Italian cities to call their judges from the outside,because no native was free from entanglement in family and party interests.

With the objectivity of the stranger is connected, also, the phenomenon touched upon above, [9]although it is chiefly (but not exclusively) true of the stranger who moves on. This is the fact thathe often receives the most surprising openness--confidences which sometimes have the characterof a confessional and which would be carefully withheld from a more closely related person.Objectivity is by no means non-participation (which is altogether outside both subjective andobjective interaction), but a positive and specific kind of participation--just as the objectivity of atheoretical observation does not refer to the mind as a passive tabula rasa on which thingsinscribe their qualities, but on the contrary, to its full activity that operates according to its ownlaws, and to the elimination, thereby, of accidental dislocations and emphases, whose individualand subjective differences would produce different pictures of the same object.

Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by nocommitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.The freedom, however, which allows the stranger to experience and treat even his closerelationships as though from a bird's-eye view, contains many dangerous possibilities. Inuprisings of all sorts, the party attacked has claimed, from the beginning of things, thatprovocation has come from the outside, through emissaries and instigators. Insofar as this is true,it is an exaggeration of the specific role of the stranger: he is freer practically and theoretically;he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and moreobjective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent. [10]

Finally, the proportion of nearness and remoteness which gives the stranger the character ofobjectivity, also finds practical expression in the more abstract nature of the relation to him. Thatis, with the stranger one has only certain more general qualities in common, whereas the relationto more organically connected persons is based on the commonness of specific differences frommerely general features. In fact, all somehow personal relations follow this scheme in variouspatterns. They are determined not only by the circumstance that certain common features existamong the individuals, along with individual differences, which either influence the relationshipor remain outside of it. For, the common features themselves are basically determined in theireffect upon the relation by the question whether they exist only between the participants in thisparticular relationship, and thus are quite general in regard to this relation, but are specific andincomparable in regard to everything outside of it--or whether the participants feel that thesefeatures are common to them because they are common to a group, a type, or mankind in general.In the case of the second alternative, the effectiveness of the common features becomes diluted inproportion to the size of the group composed of members who are similar in this sense. Although the commonness functions as their unifying basis, it does not make these particularpersons interdependent on one another, because it could as easily connect everyone of them withall kinds of individuals other than the members of his group. This too, evidently, is a way inwhich a relationship includes both nearness and distance at the same time: to the extent to whichthe common features are general, they add, to the warmth of the relation founded on them, anelement of coolness, a feeling of the contingency of precisely this relation--the connecting forceshave lost their specific and centripetal character.

In the relation to the stranger, it seems to me, this constellation has an extraordinary and basicpreponderance over the individual elements that are exclusive with the particular relationship.The stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of anational, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as thesecommon features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a greatmany people.

A trace of strangeness in this sense easily enters even the most intimate relationships. In thestage of first passion, erotic relations strongly reject any thought of generalization: the loversthink that there has never been a love like theirs; that nothing can be compared either to theperson loved or to the feelings for that person. An estrangement--whether as cause or asconsequence it is difficult to decide usually comes at the moment when this feeling of uniquenessvanishes from the relationship. A certain skepticism in regard to its value, in itself and for them,attaches to the very thought that in their relation, after all, they carry out only a generally humandestiny; that they experience an experience that has occurred a thousand times before; that, hadthey not accidentally met their particular partner, they would have found the same significance inanother person.

Something of this feeling is probably not absent in any relation, however close, because what iscommon to two is never common to them alone, but is subsumed under a general idea whichincludes much else besides, many possibilities of commonness. No matter how little thesepossibilities become real and how often we forget them, here and there, nevertheless, they thrustthemselves between us like shadows, like a mist which escapes every word noted, but whichmust coagulate into a solid bodily form before it can be called jealousy. In some cases, perhapsthe more general, at least the more unsurmountable, strangeness is not due to different andununderstandable matters. It is rather caused by the fact that similarity, harmony, and nearnessare accompanied by the feeling that they are not really the unique property of this particularrelationship: they are something more general, something which potentially prevails between thepartners and an indeterminate number of others, and therefore gives the relation, which alone wasrealized, no inner and exclusive necessity.

On the other hand, there is a kind of "strangeness" that rejects the very commonness based onsomething more general which embraces the parties. The relation of the Greeks to the Barbariansis perhaps typical here, as are all cases in which it is precisely general attributes, felt to bespecifically and purely human, that are disallowed to the other. But "stranger," here, has nopositive meaning; the relation to him is a non-relation; he is not what is relevant here, a memberof the group itself.

As a group member, rather, he is near and far at the same time, as is characteristic of relationsfounded only on generally human commonness. But between nearness and distance, there arisesa specific tension when the consciousness that only the quite general is common, stresses thatwhich is not common. In the case of the person who is a stranger to the country, the city, therace, etc., however, this non-common element is once more nothing individual, but merely thestrangeness of origin, which is or could be common to many strangers. For this reason, strangersare not really conceived as individuals, but as strangers of a particular type: the element ofdistance is no less general in regard to them than the element of nearness.

This form is the basis of such a special case, for instance, as the tax levied in Frankfort andelsewhere upon medieval Jews. Whereas the Beede [tax] paid by the Christian citizen changedwith the changes of his fortune, it was fixed once for all for every single Jew. This fixity restedon the fact that the Jew had his social position as a Jew, not as the individual bearer of certainobjective contents. Every other citizen was the owner of a particular amount of property, and histax followed its fluctuations. But the Jew as a taxpayer was, in the first place, a Jew, and thus histax situation had an invariable element. This same position appears most strongly, of course,once even these individual characterizations (limited though they were by rigid invariance) areomitted, and all strangers pay an altogether equal head-tax.

In spite of being inorganically appended to it, the stranger is yet an organic member of the group.Its uniform life includes the specific conditions of this element. Only we do not know how todesignate the peculiar unity of this position other than by saying that it is composed of certainmeasures of nearness and distance. Although some quantities of them characterize allrelationships, a special proportion and reciprocal tension produce the particular, formal relationto the "stranger."


8. Pp. 216-221 above.--Tr.

9. On pp. 500-502 of the same chapter from which the present "Exhurs" is taken (IX, "Der Raumund die raumlichen Ordnungen der Gesellschaft," (Space and the Spatial Organization ofSociety). The chapter itself is not included in this volume.--Tr.

10. But where the attacked make the assertion falsely, they do so from the tendency of those inhigher position to exculpate inferiors, who, up to the rebellion, have been in a consistently closerelation with them. For, by creating the fiction that the rebels were not really guilty, but onlyinstigated, and that the rebellion did not really start with them, they exonerate themselves,inasmuch as they altogether deny all real grounds for the uprising.

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