Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Georg Simmel: Wrapup

Georg Simmel was a German sociologist and contemporary of Max Weber, also a German sociologist. But his work is independent of Weber and clearly not "influenced" by Weber like 20th century sociologists.

So Simmel is clearly a 19th century voice, commenting on the world that the 19th century created. But his great virtue is that he doesn't have a political ax to grind, like Marx and the Fabians. He doesn't regard social hierarchy as prima facie as scandal. Nor does he descant on the horrors of objectification as the Marxists do with "reification" and "commodification."

So let's review Simmel's ideas, as developed in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff.

Groups and Lowest Common Denominator. People are at their best as individuals, at their worst in a group. That's because a group must define itself by what the members have in common.

Sociability as Play. We tend to think of pure sociability as "superficial" and we sneer at the professional hostess. But sociability is sociation as play, and play is how humans learn things. So maybe sociability is how humans learn to be social.

18th and 19th Century Freedom. Simmel describes the 18th century idea of freedom as the idea of "freedom in general" and the 19th century idea of freedom as the freedom to be different. The thing is that freedom, any freedom, immediately permits the strong to exploit the weak and the clever to outpace the stupid.  We used to worry about aristocratic privilege; now we worry about economic inequality.

The Sociology of Small Numbers. Simmel starts with the isolated individual, then moves to the "dyad" of two people -- friends, business partners and married man and wife -- and the "triad" of three people where the question usually involves various two-against-one scenarios.

Numbers and Groups. Once you get beyond the sociation of the kindred you see numbers appearing, particularly in the notion of the "Hundred," a subdivision used in Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere.

Subordination. However we may long for freedom and equality, social relations almost always means the domination of one person by another. Simmel looks at three kinds of social domination: subordination under a monarch, under a plurality, and under a principle. He makes the important point that we humans are very seldom held under complete coercive domination. It's just that, most of the time, we judge the price of freedom too high to take advantage of it.

The Secret. One of the most important qualities of social life is that we don't tell everything to the other people we know.  We hold back, and not just the guilty secrets. In fact discretion and privacy are a vital part of social life. It starts with the fact that we cannot know what another person is thinking.

Faithfulness and Gratitude. They are both pretty important as the social glue that goes beyond the mere performance of promises.

Objectivity in Modern Life. Marx makes a scandal out of "reification" and the way that production for use becomes production for exchange. But Simmel shows that objectification is inevitable as society develops from face-to-face relationships to the global exchange economy. We naturally treat objects like money and products as if they have a life of their own. We do it because it works.

The Stress of Modern Life. The "intensification of nervous stimulation" is the defining aspect of life in the city. It provokes everyone to cooperate with the rest of society yet also work hard at individuating from the mass. Modern life is a constant battle between "individual independence and the elaboration of individuality itself". It is the conflict between the 18th century "general human being" and the 19th century "qualitative uniqueness and irreplaceability." We want to be equal to our fellows, and we want to be special as well.

Back to the beginning: The Unknown Sociologist.

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