From Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of GeorgSimmel. 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 opposite to fixation at such a point, thesociological form of the "stranger" presents the unity, as it were,of these two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, revealsthat spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, andthe symbol, on the other, of human relations. The stranger is thusbeing discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in thepast, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but ratheras the person who comes today and stays to morrow. He is, so tospeak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on,he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He isfixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whoseboundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position inthis group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has notbelonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it,which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.

The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every humanrelation is organized, in the phenomenon of the stranger, in a waywhich 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 that he, who also is far, is actually near.For, to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it is aspecific form of interaction. The inhabitants of Sirius are notreally strangers to us, at least not in any social logically relevantsense: 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 anelement of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged memberinvolves both being outside it and confronting it. The followingstatements, which are by no means intended as exhaustive, indicatehow elements which increase distance and repel, in the relations ofand with the stranger produce a pattern of coordination andconsistent interaction.

Throughout the history of economics the stranger everywhereappears as the trader, or the trader as stranger. As long as economyis essentially self-sufficient, or products are exchanged within aspatially narrow group, it needs no middleman: a trader is onlyrequired for products that originate outside the group. Insofar asmembers do not leave the circle in order to buy these necessities--inwhich case they are the "strange" merchants in that outsideterritory--the trader must be a stranger, since nobody elsehas a chance to make a living.

This position of the stranger stands out more sharply if hesettles down in the place of his activity, instead of leaving itagain: in innumerable cases even this is possible only if he can liveby intermediate trade. Once an economy is somehow closed the land isdivided up, and handicrafts are established that satisfy the demandfor them, the trader, too, can find his existence. For in trade,which alone makes possible unlimited combinations, intelligencealways finds expansions and new territories, an achievement which isvery difficult to attain for the original producer with his lessermobility and his dependence upon a circle of customers that can beincreased only slowly. Trade can always absorb more people thanprimary production; it is, therefore, the sphere indicated for thestranger, who intrudes as a supernumerary, so to speak, into a groupin which the economic positions are actually occupied--the classicalexample is the history of European Jews. The stranger is by nature no"owner of soil"--soil not only in the physical, but also in thefigurative sense of a life-substance which is fixed, if not in apoint in space, at least in an ideal point of the social environment.Although in more intimate relations, he may develop all kinds ofcharm and significance, as long as he is considered a stranger in theeyes of the other, he is not an "owner of soil." Restriction tointermediary trade, and often (as though sublimated from it) to purefinance, gives him the specific character of mobility. If mobilitytakes place within a closed group, it embodies that synthesis ofnearness and distance which constitutes the formal position of thestranger. For, the fundamentally mobile person comes in contact, atone time or another, with every individual, but is not organicallyconnected, through established ties of kinship, locality, andoccupation, with any single one.

Another expression of this constellation lies in the objectivityof the stranger. He is not radically committed to the uniqueingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and thereforeapproaches them with the specific attitude of "objectivity." Butobjectivity does not simply involve passivity and detachment; it is aparticular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifferenceand involvement. I refer to the discussion (in the chapter on"Superordination and Subordination" [8]) of the dominating positionsof the person who is a stranger in the group; its most typicalinstance was the practice of those Italian cities to call theirjudges from the outside, because no native was free from entanglementin family and party interests.

With the objectivity of the stranger is connected, also, thephenomenon touched upon above, [9] although it is chiefly (but notexclusively) true of the stranger who moves on. This is the fact thathe often receives the most surprising openness--confidences whichsometimes have the character of a confessional and which would becarefully withheld from a more closely related person. Objectivity isby no means non-participation (which is altogether outside bothsubjective and objective interaction), but a positive and specifickind of participation--just as the objectivity of a theoreticalobservation does not refer to the mind as a passive tabularasa on which things inscribe their qualities, but on thecontrary, to its full activity that operates according to its ownlaws, and to the elimination, thereby, of accidental dislocations andemphases, whose individual and subjective differences would producedifferent pictures of the same object.

Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objectiveindividual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice hisperception, understanding, and evaluation of the given. The freedom,however, which allows the stranger to experience and treat even hisclose relationships as though from a bird's-eye view, contains manydangerous possibilities. In uprisings of all sorts, the partyattacked has claimed, from the beginning of things, that provocationhas come from the outside, through emissaries and instigators.Insofar as this is true, it is an exaggeration of the specific roleof the stranger: he is freer practically and theoretically; hesurveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them aremore general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in hisaction by habit, piety, and precedent. [10]

Finally, the proportion of nearness and remoteness which gives thestranger the character of objectivity, also finds practicalexpression in the more abstract nature of the relation to him. Thatis, with the stranger one has only certain more general qualities incommon, whereas the relation to more organically connected persons isbased on the commonness of specific differences from merely generalfeatures. In fact, all somehow personal relations follow this schemein various patterns. They are determined not only by the circumstancethat certain common features exist among the individuals, along withindividual differences, which either influence the relationship orremain outside of it. For, the common features themselves arebasically determined in their effect upon the relation by thequestion whether they exist only between the participants in thisparticular relationship, and thus are quite general in regard to thisrelation, but are specific and incomparable in regard to everythingoutside of it--or whether the participants feel that these featuresare common to them because they are common to a group, a type, ormankind in general. In the case of the second alternative, theeffectiveness of the common features becomes diluted in proportion tothe size of the group composed of members who are similar in thissense. Although the commonness functions as their unifying basis, itdoes not make these particular persons interdependent on oneanother, because it could as easily connect everyone of them with allkinds of individuals other than the members of his group. This too,evidently, is a way in which a relationship includes both nearnessand distance at the same time: to the extent to which the commonfeatures are general, they add, to the warmth of the relation foundedon them, an element of coolness, a feeling of the contingency ofprecisely this relation--the connecting forces have lost theirspecific and centripetal character.

In the relation to the stranger, it seems to me, thisconstellation has an extraordinary and basic preponderance over theindividual elements that are exclusive with the particularrelationship. The stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel betweenhim and ourselves common features of a national, social,occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofaras these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us onlybecause they connect a great many people.

A trace of strangeness in this sense easily enters even the mostintimate relationships. In the stage of first passion, eroticrelations strongly reject any thought of generalization: the loversthink that there has never been a love like theirs; that nothing canbe compared either to the person loved or to the feelings for thatperson. An estrangement--whether as cause or as consequence it isdifficult to decide usually comes at the moment when this feeling ofuniqueness vanishes from the relationship. A certain skepticism inregard to its value, in itself and for them, attaches to the verythought that in their relation, after all, they carry out only agenerally human destiny; that they experience an experience that hasoccurred a thousand times before; that, had they not accidentally mettheir particular partner, they would have found the same significancein another person.

Something of this feeling is probably not absent in any relation,however close, because what is common to two is never common to themalone, but is subsumed under a general idea which includes much elsebesides, many possibilities of commonness. No matter howlittle these possibilities become real and how often we forget them,here and there, nevertheless, they thrust themselves between us likeshadows, like a mist which escapes every word noted, but which mustcoagulate into a solid bodily form before it can be called jealousy.In some cases, perhaps the more general, at least the moreunsurmountable, strangeness is not due to different andununderstandable matters. It is rather caused by the fact thatsimilarity, harmony, and nearness are accompanied by the feeling thatthey are not really the unique property of this particularrelationship: they are something more general, something whichpotentially prevails between the partners and an indeterminate numberof 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 rejectsthe very commonness based on something more general which embracesthe parties. The relation of the Greeks to the Barbarians is perhapstypical here, as are all cases in which it is precisely generalattributes, felt to be specifically and purely human, that aredisallowed to the other. But "stranger," here, has no positivemeaning; the relation to him is a non-relation; he is not what isrelevant here, a member of the group itself.

As a group member, rather, he is near and far at the sametime, as is characteristic of relations founded only on generallyhuman commonness. But between nearness and distance, there arises aspecific tension when the consciousness that only the quite generalis common, stresses that which is not common. In the case of theperson who is a stranger to the country, the city, the race, etc.,however, this non-common element is once more nothing individual, butmerely the strangeness of origin, which is or could be common to manystrangers. For this reason, strangers are not really conceived asindividuals, but as strangers of a particular type: the element ofdistance is no less general in regard to them than the element ofnearness.

This form is the basis of such a special case, for instance, asthe tax levied in Frankfort and elsewhere upon medieval Jews. Whereasthe Beede [tax] paid by the Christian citizen changed with thechanges of his fortune, it was fixed once for all for every singleJew. This fixity rested on the fact that the Jew had his socialposition as a Jew, not as the individual bearer of certainobjective contents. Every other citizen was the owner of a particularamount of property, and his tax followed its fluctuations. But theJew as a taxpayer was, in the first place, a Jew, and thus his taxsituation had an invariable element. This same position appears moststrongly, of course, once even these individual characterizations(limited though they were by rigid invariance) are omitted, and allstrangers pay an altogether equal head-tax.

In spite of being inorganically appended to it, the stranger isyet an organic member of the group. Its uniform life includes thespecific conditions of this element. Only we do not know how todesignate the peculiar unity of this position other than by sayingthat it is composed of certain measures of nearness and distance.Although some quantities of them characterize all relationships, aspecial proportion and reciprocal tension produce theparticular, formal relation to the "stranger."


 

ENDNOTES


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

9. On pp. 500-502 of the same chapter from which the present"Exhurs" is taken (IX, "Der Raum und die raumlichenOrdnungen der Gesellschaft," (Space and the Spatial Organizationof Society). The chapter itself is not included in this volume.--Tr.

10. But where the attacked make the assertion falsely, they do sofrom the tendency of those in higher position to exculpate inferiors,who, up to the rebellion, have been in a consistently close relationwith them. For, by creating the fiction that the rebels were notreally guilty, but only instigated, and that the rebellion did notreally start with them, they exonerate themselves, inasmuch asthey altogether deny all real grounds for the uprising.

 

 

Back to the Syllabus