Sunday, November 23, 2014

Georg Simmel: Numbers and Social Life

We moderns like to think that we invented numbers. Back in the old days life was organic and natural, centered around the family and the village collective. But Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated by Kurt. H. Wolff reminds us that enumeration was not an invention of the absolute monarchs and their bureaucracies. Numbers in social life go further back than that.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

But the point of numerical subdivision is the one proposed in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State. Numerical subdivision replaces subdivision by kinship and tribe. In the Germanic tribes, they divided the whole into Hundreds, that is 100 men, and this became a subdivision also in Britain. Even today, members of Parliament that wish to resign their seats are appointed steward to the Chiltern Hundreds.

The point is that in numerical subdivision a society starts to organize itself on abstract principles rather than kinship principles. It is the first step towards the abstract social structure that we have today.

Another interesting question is the numerical minimum for a social gathering we call a "party." When two or three people gather formally, it "never constitutes a 'party.' But we do have one when we invite say, fifteen of our closest friends." The number in question is the decisive factor, and society has recognized the importance of number when "sumptuary laws prescribed the exact number of persons" allowed to escort a couple at their wedding. And so the question arises:
How many soldiers make an army? How many participants are needed to form a political party? How many people make a crowd?
We think of our present age as uniquely obsessed with number. But number has been important for quite a while.

Next: The individual and the "dyad".

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