06 Oct 2009

Sample Essay: History and Biography Spotlight of Georg Simmel

The term Sociological Imagination coined by C. Wright Mills (1959) describes the process of linking individual experiences with social institutions and ones place in history. Mills discusses three questions at the core of Sociological Imagination (pp.6-7). These are: 1. What is the structure of a particular society and how does it differ from other social orders 2. Where does this society stand in human history and what are its essential features? 3. What kind of men and women live in this society during this period and what is happening to them?

Georg Simmel was born in Berlin. He received his doctorate in 1881. He came from Jewish ancestry and was marginalized within the German academic system. He obtained a regular academic appointment after much struggle as late as 1914, at Strasbourg, far from Berlin. Despite tough circumstances, he wrote extensively on the nature of association, culture, social structure, the city, and the economy. His writings were read by Durkheim and Weber. Simmel contributed greatly to sociology and European intellectual life in the early part of this century. Among his most famous writings are The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903) and his best known book, The Philosophy of Money (1907). Simmel’s writings left a powerful impact on the Marxist scholar Georg Lukacs (1885-1971). His writings on the city and on money have been found quite useful by contemporary sociologists.

Simmel was influenced not only by all the three classical sociologists, but also by Kant and Hegel. In his discussions on social structures, the city, money, and modern society, there are similarities to analyses of Durkheim (problem of individual and society), Weber (effects of rationalization), and Marx (alienation). Simmel considered society to be an association of free individuals. “For Simmel, society is made up of the interactions between and among individuals, and the sociologist should study the patterns and forms of these associations, rather than quest after social laws” (Farganis, p. 133). An example of how Simmel examines individual and social relationship can be seen in his analysis of fashion. Simmel views fashion as developing in the city, “because it intensifies a multiplicity of social relations, increases the rate of social mobility and permits individuals from lower strata to become conscious of the styles and fashions of upper classes” (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 314).

Simmel began his inquiries from the bottom up, observing the smallest of social interactions and attempting to see how larger-scale institutions emerged from them. In doing so, he often noticed phenomena that other theorists missed. For example, Simmel observed that the number of parties to an interaction can effect its nature. The interaction between two people, a dyad, will be very different from that which is possible in a three-party relationship, or triad. (Farganis, p. 133)

2. Simmel’s study on money is considered a landmark work. It is his major work concerning money and the social meaning of money. Simmel is concerned with large social issues, and this work can be thought of as on a par with The Division of Labour of Durkheim, although not as extensive and thorough as Marx’s Capital or Weber’s Economy and Society. He is concerned with money as a symbol that impacts people and society. In modern society, money becomes an impersonal or objectified measure of value. For example, relations of domination and subordination become quantitative relationships of more and less money — impersonal and measurable in a rational manner. The use of money distances individuals from objects and also provides the means of overcoming this distance. The use of money allows much greater flexibility for individuals in society — to travel greater distances and to overcome person-to-person limitations. “Simmel thus suggests that the spread of the money form gives individuals a freedom of sorts by permitting them to exercise the kind of individualized control over “impression management…Even strangers become familiar and knowable identities insofar as they are willing to use a common but impersonal means of exchange. (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 326). The development of money form according to Simmel leads to the problem of personal identity leading to both positive and negative consequences. While, individual freedom is potentially increased greatly, but there are problems of alienation, fragmentation, and identity construction.

Marx’s notion of commodity and market place shares significant similarities with Simmel’s analysis. People within capitalist societies, according to Marx find their material life organized through the medium of commodities. They trade their labor-power (which is in Marx’ view a commodity) for a special commodity, money, and use that commodity to claim various other commodities produced by other people. The social nature of society is destroyed by the abstraction of commodites, in the sense that “use-value” (the usefulness of an object or action) is totally separated from “exchange-value” (the marketplace value of an object or action). However, Simmel did not see the use of money leading to exploitative social relationship in the same way as Marx does. His work may be seen as a supplement to Marx’s “Capital”. Simmel deals with money at various levels of abstraction as an economic, philosophical, sociological and psychological perspective in an attempt to develop through the concept of money a modern world-view.¬† Marx argues that money represents the abstract relationships of private property which have become detached from human relations of exchange. Money is the epitome of man’s alienation.

3. According to Simmel the division of labor is greatest and individuality as well as the individual freedom most developed in the metropolis or city. At the same time Simmel notes that for the individual this creates the “difficulty of asserting his own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life.” (Farganis, p. 142). The growth of the city, the increasing number of people in the city, and the “brevity and scarcity of the inter-human contacts granted to the metropolitan man, as compared to the social intercourse of the small town” (Farganis, p. 143) makes the “objective spirit” dominate over the “subjective spirit.” This is quite similar to the Durkheim’s notion of collectivity (social solidarity) exerting pressure on individual in society. ¬†Modern culture evaluated in terms of language, production, art, science etc. can be seen as diversifying and specializing. Simmel too, like Durkheim makes use of the analytical concept of the Division of Labor, for according to him, the growth of city is the result of the growth of the division of labour and the specialization in individual pursuits that is a necessary part of this. Subjective culture is “the capacity of the actor to produce, absorb, and control the elements of objective culture. In an ideal sense, individual culture shapes, and is shaped by, objective culture. The problem is that objective culture comes to have a life of its own.” (Ritzer, p.162). “The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of objective life.” (Farganis, p. 143). This sounds much like Marx’s alienation, Durkheim’s anomie, or Weber’s rationalization, although Simmel associates this with the city, rather than with the society as a whole, as do the other classical writers.

Conclusion: Simmel’s sociology can be seen to share a great deal with those of the other classical sociologists although his focus on social structure and its dynamics is relatively less in comparison to Marx, Weber, or Durkheim. He did, however, on objectivity of social structure like Durkheim even as he retained the individual consciousness in the objective society perhaps under Kantian influence. His writing on money shows similarity with Marxian alienation and Weberian rationalism. His emphasis on social interaction and on money has been found quite useful in contemporary sociological research.


Ashley, David and D. M. Orenstein, Sociological Theory: Classical Statements, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1990 (second edition)

Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993

Mills, C.Wright, Sociological Imagination OUP, Feb.2000

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1992 (third edition)

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