Chapter5: Georg Simmel (1858-1918) Born in Berlin

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Chapter5:Georg Simmel

Georg Simmel (1858-1918)

  • Born in Berlin

  • Wealthy family

  • Popular in US, which is where his work was of great importance to the birth of sociology

  • His ideas weren’t welcomed by scholars in Germany

  • Disliked his style of writing

Learning Objectives

  • After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • name the four levels of concern in Simmel's thought;

  • provide examples of forms and types of social interaction from Simmel's work;

  • explain how group size and social distance affect social interaction;

  • describe the role of social structure and objective culture in Simmel's thought;

  • provide a Simmelian analysis of the role of money in society, describing how money affects value, how money facilitates the rationalization of society, and the negative effects of money on social life;

  • define the tragedy of culture;

  • outline the main criticisms of Simmel's work

Chapter Outline

  • I. Primary Concerns

  • A. Biographical Sketch

  • B. Levels and Areas of Concern

  • C. Dialectical Thinking

  • D. Fashion

  • E. Individual Culture and Objective Culture

  • F. More-Life and More-Than-Life

  • II.  Social Interaction ("Association")

  • A. Interaction: Forms and Types

  • B. Social Geometry

  • 1. Numbers

  • a. dyad and triad

  • b. group size

  • 2. Distance

  • C. Social Types

  • 1. The Poor

  • D. Social Forms

  • 1. Superordinate and Subordinate

  • 2. Social Forms and Simmel's Larger Problematic

  • III.  Objective Culture

  •   V. The Philosophy of Money

  • A. Money and Value

  • B. Money, Reification, and Rationalization

  • C. Negative Effects

  • VI. Tragedy of Culture

  • A. The Tragedy of Culture in Its Broader Context

  • VII. Criticisms

  •   IX. Summary


  • Simmel’s first effort at a dissertation was rejected and one of his professor’s said that they would do him a great service if they did not encourage him any further.

  • In 1855 he became a private lecturer in Berlin where he lectured on a wide variety of subjects and became extremely popular among his students and the cultural elite from Berlin.

  • Simmel wrote over a hundred essays and a large number of volumes


  • It was nearly thirty years before Simmel was offered the position as a professor of philosophy in Strasbourg

  • Simmel faced slow advancement in academic rank compared to his great reputation as a speaker and a thinker because:

    • He was of Jewish decent and was victimized by anti-Semitism
    • His ideas attracted students and cultural elites but they were not welcomed by senior scholars in Germany who favored heavy topics: the book mentioned that they may have been jealous of Simmel…

Georg Simmel

  • Simmel thought that his work was misunderstood and even went as far to say that it was his fate for his work to be misunderstood

    • His work mostly centered on the positive: a deeper insight into the world and spirit
  • Simmel was very active in cultural events in Berlin; Cofounder of “German Society of Sociology” with Weber and Teonnies

  • Married to a woman named Gertrud who published works herself on subjects such as religion and sexuality


  • Darwin and Spencer

    • Spencer-evolutionary and differentiation
    • Darwin- superiority ( not species battle for superiority, but more human battle for superiority)
  • Kant- “how society is possible” to explain how nature was possible

  • Marx- self- alienation to apply to dualism of life

Concepts and Contributions

  • Rejected “organic” theories of Comte and Spencer

  • Society is not an abstract creation

  • Society is made of group interaction vs. individual interaction

“Formal Sociology”

  • Society as a process

    • Society is real “patterns”
  • Unique events throughout history share a series of patterns

  • Groups

  • Studied patterns that make these events happen or as he coined it “forms”

  • “Forms” can be organizations, relationships, rules that impact and govern the individuals of a society

  • In connection with “forms” he studied “contents”

    • Contents are considered to be the drives, interests, purposes that drive individual behavior

Social Types

  • Simmel created “social types” which characterized different individuals within a society

  • Each type needs to be present in order for society to exist

  • Examples of types include: “the stranger”, “the spendthrift”, “the mediator”, “the adventurer”, “the renegade”背叛者, and “the poor”

Dialectical Thinking

  • Facts and values

  • Rejects concrete dividing lines between social phenomena

  • Focuses on conflict and contradiction

  • World is best understood in term of conflict

Social Geometry

  • Simmel sought to understand the make-up and bond within social relationships

  • Dyad

    • A relationship that involves two individuals
      • Ex. Best friends, lovers, married couples
    • A dyad represents the strongest bond
    • No formal structure within the relationship
    • Each experience by either individual impacts the other
    • The relationship ceases to exist if either member departs

Social Geometry cont.

  • Triad

    • A social group consisting of three equal members
    • Indirect relationship that can both assist and hinder reciprocity within the group
    • The group can survive if one member drops out, thus forming a new dyad
    • The introduction of the third person, can help and hinder the relationship of other group members
    • This person can become a mediator, can use the group to advance their own selfish agenda, and can use existing conflict to divide the group and take it over

Superordination and Subordination

  • The most important relationship that can exist is that of the leader and the followers

    • This relationship must be reciprocal
    • Followers must be in a position to follow all rules set forth by the leader
    • Certain personal freedoms must always be afforded to followers in order for the leader to be successful
    • This relationship must be structured as a dyadic affiliation, if a third member is introduced the structure is immediately weakened

Secrecy and The Secret Society

  • Secrecy, according to Simmel, is one of man’s greatest achievements

  • In order to form a relationship secrets must be shared amongst members, but certain elements will always remain secret

  • By exposing secrets to another, we place ourselves at risk of betrayal

  • Secret Society is a shared confidence in secrets communally known

    • As these societies increase in size greater awareness is placed on hierarchy and rituals performed by members to show allegiance
    • Examples include: Elks Lodge, Free Masons, Fraternities, and Sororities

Philosophy of Money

  • Simmel’s thoughts on money are still very relevant and often quoted even today

  • Economic exchange = social exchange

  • Money is a social tool

    • Once money is introduced it represents a growth of the sophistication of the society
  • Money creates distance from objects, but at the same time provides a means to attain the object thus overcoming that distance

  • Simmel was concerned with the problem of money in society and tribulations created by money

    • These problems were the result of a larger issue going on within the greater society itself


  • Exchange is the purest form of human interaction

  • In all exchanges someone is giving up certain material or value they have attained for something entirely different

  • Value + Exchange = inseparable

  • Value is determined by comparing it to an object that has already been assessed with a value

Mass Culture- “ Metropolis and Mental Life”

  • Isn’t a concept but is reflected by his works

  • Tension

  • 1.Emotional Reserve- self- protected device to shield an individual from urban life

    • Maintain a certain emotional distance
  • 2. Attachment to Personal Freedom- emotional indifference individuals in a metropolitan area exhibit to one another

  • 3. Extreme Individuality- metropolitan individual needs do something drastic in order to attract social attention


  • Macro- level Simmel paid little attention to social structure

  • Showed society as a real entity, and not merely an abstraction.

  • Forms do exist and are subject to systematic analysis

  • Creation of social types are forms of interactions

  • Superordinate/subordinate (employee/boss)

  • Philosophy of money- economic system of exchange

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