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


The sociological significance of conflict (Kampf) has inprinciple never been disputed. Conflict is admitted to cause ormodify interest groups, unifications, organizations. On the otherhand, it may sound paradoxical in the common view if one asks whetherirrespective of any phenomena that result from convict or thataccompany it, it itself is a form of sociation. [l] At first glance,this sounds like a rhetorical question. If every interaction amongmen is a sociation, conflict--after all one of the most vividinteractions, which, furthermore, cannot possibly be carried on byone individual alone--must certainly be considered as sociation. Andin fact, dissociating factors --hate, envy, need, desire--are thecauses of convict; it breaks out because of them. Conflict is thusdesigned to resolve divergent dualisms; it is a way of achieving somekind of unity, even if it be through the annihilation of one of theconflicting parties. This is roughly parallel to the fact that it isthe most violent symptom of a disease which represents the effort ofthe organism to free itself of disturbances and damages caused bythem.

But this phenomenon means much more than the trivial ''si vispacem para bellum'' [if you want peace, prepare for war]; it issomething quite general, of which this maxim only describes a specialcase. Conflict itself resolves the tension between contrasts. Thefact that it aims at peace is only one, an especially obvious,expression of its nature: the synthesis of elements that work bothagainst and for one another. This nature appears more clearly when itis realized that both forms of relation--the antithetical and theconvergent--are fundamentally distinguished from the mereindifference of two or more individuals or groups. Whether it impliesthe rejection or the termination of sociation, indifference is purelynegative. In contrast to such pure negativity, conflict containssomething positive. Its positive and negative aspects, however, areintegrated: 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 ofthis sociologically positive character of conflict. It is at onceevident then that if the relations among men (rather than what theindividual is to himself and in his relations to objects) constitutethe subject matter of a special science, sociology, then thetraditional topics of that science cover only a subdivision of it: itis more comprehensive and is truly defined by a principle. At onetime it appeared as if there were only two consistent subject mattersof the science of man: the individual unit and the unit ofindividuals (society); any third seemed logically excluded. In thisconception, conflict itself--irrespective of its contributions tothese immediate social units--found no place for study. It was aphenomenon of its own, and its subsumption under the concept of unitywould have been arbitrary as well as useless, since conflict meantthe negation of unity.

A more comprehensive classification of the science of therelations of men should distinguish, it would appear, those relationswhich constitute a unit, that is, social relations in the strictsense, from those which counteract unity. [2] It must be realized,however, that both relations can usually he found in everyhistorically real situation. The individual does not attain the unityof his personality exclusively by an exhaustive harmonization,according to logical, objective, religious, or ethical norms, of thecontents of his personality. On the contrary, contradiction andconflict not only precede this unity but are operative in it at everymoment of its existence. Just so, there probably exists no socialunit in which convergent and divergent currents among its members arenot inseparably interwoven. An absolutely centripetal and harmoniousgroup, a pure ''unification'' ("Vereinigung''), not only isempirically unreal, it could show no real life process. The societyof saints which Dante sees in the Rose of Paradise may be like such agroup, but it is without any change and development; whereas the holyassembly of Church Fathers in Raphael's Disputa shows if notactual conflict, at least a considerable differentiation of moods anddirections of thought, whence flow all the vitality and the reallyorganic structure of that group. Just as the universe needs "love andhate,'' that is, attractive and repulsive forces, in order to haveany form at all, so society, too, in order to attain a determinateshape, needs some quantitative ratio of harmony and disharmony, ofassociation and competition, of favorable and unfavorable tendencies.But these discords are by no means mere sociological liabilities ornegative instances. Definite, actual society does not result onlyfrom other social forces which are positive, and only to the extentthat the negative factors do not hinder them. This common conceptionis quite superficial: society, as we know it, is the result of bothcategories of interaction, which thus both manifest themselves aswholly positive. [3]

Unity and Discord

There is a misunderstanding according to which one of these twokinds of interaction tears down what the other builds up, and what iseventually left standing is the result of the subtraction of the two(while in reality it must rather be designated as the result of theiraddition). This misunderstanding probably derives from the twofoldmeaning of the concept of unity. We designate as "unity'' theconsensus and concord of interacting individuals, as against theirdiscords, separations, and disharmonies. But we also call ''unity''the total group-synthesis of persons, energies, and forms, that is,the ultimate wholeness of that group, a wholeness which covers bothstrictly-speaking unitary relations and dualistic relations. We thusaccount for the group phenomenon which we feel to be ''unitary'' interms of functional components considered specificallyunitary; and in so doing, we disregard the other, larger meaning ofthe term.

This imprecision is increased by the corresponding twofold meaningof ''discord'' or ''opposition.'' Since discord unfolds its negative,destructive character between particular individuals, we naivelyconclude that it must have the same effect on the total group. Inreality, however, something which is negative and damaging betweenindividuals if it is considered in isolation and as aiming in aparticular direction, does not necessarily have the same effectwithin the total relationship of these individuals. For, a verydifferent picture emerges when we view the conflict in conjunctionwith other interactions not affected by it. The negative anddualistic elements play an entirely positive role in this morecomprehensive picture, despite the destruction they may work onparticular relations. All this is very obvious in the competition ofindividuals within an economic unit.


1. "Vergesellschaftungsform.'' "Vergesellschaftung" win berendered as ''sociation.'' On the term and 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 termpromiscuously in both senses. --Tr.

3. This is the sociological instance of a contrast between twomuch more general conceptions of life. According to the common view,life always shows two parties in opposition. One of them representsthe positive aspect of life, its content proper, if not itssubstance, while the very meaning of the other is non-being, whichmust be subtracted from the positive elements before they canconstitute life. This is the common view of the relation betweenhappiness and suffering, virtue and vice, strength and inadequacy,success and failure--between all possible contents and interruptionsof the course of life. The highest conception indicated in respect tothese contrasting pairs appears to me different: we must conceive ofall these polar differentiations as of one life; we must sensethe pulse of a central vitality even in that which, if seen from thestandpoint of a particular ideal, ought not to be at all and ismerely something negative; we must allow the total meaning of ourexistence to grow out of both parties. In the mostcomprehensive context of life, even that which as a single element isdisturbing and destructive, is wholly positive; it is not a gap butthe fulfillment of a role reserved for it alone. Perhaps it is notgiven to us to attain, much less always to maintain, the height fromwhich all phenomena can he felt as making up the unity of life, eventhough from an objective or value standpoint, they appear to opposeone another as pluses and minuses, contradictions, and mutualelimination. We are too inclined to think and feel that our essentialbeing, our true, ultimate significance, is identical with one ofthese factions. According to our optimistic or pessimistic feeling oflife, one of them appears to us as surface or accident, as somethingto be eliminated or subtracted, in order for the true andintrinsically consistent life to emerge. We are everywhere enmeshedin this dualism (which will presently be discussed in more detail inthe text above)--in the most intimate as in the most comprehensiveprovinces of life, personal, objective, and social. We think we have,or are, a whole or unit which is composed of two logically andobjectively opposed parties, and we identify this totality of ourswith one of them, while we feel the other to be something alien whichdoes not properly belong and which denies our central andcomprehensive being. Life constantly moves between these twotendencies. The one has just been described. The other lets the wholereally be the whole. It makes the unity, which after allcomprises both contrasts, alive in each of these contrasts and intheir juncture. It is all the more necessary to assert the right ofthis second tendency in respect to the sociological phenomenon ofconflict, because conflict impresses us with its socially destructiveforce as with an apparently indisputable tact.

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