Monday, December 22, 2014

Georg Simmel: The Negatives of Collective Behavior

When you get a big mass action, such as a revolution, writes Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff, the result is almost always destructive. The reason is quite simple. When you bring together all kinds of divergent groups, you usually get dispersing and destructive consequences.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

Simmel puts this idea into the form of a principle:
[A]s the size of a group increases, the common features that fuse its members into a social unit become ever fewer. [Thus] a smaller minimum of norms can, at least, hold together a large group more easily than a small one.
The point is that the larger the group the harder it is to control it from the center, and the more that the center "is left only with a prohibitive function... with the restriction of freedom rather than its direction." Polytheism and monotheism demonstrate this principle: the particular qualities of polytheistic gods make a large unified religious community impossible. Thus Islam, in unifying numerous polytheistic Arab tribes, became the simplest of the monotheisms.
[T]he larger the group... the less does the observance of the norm characterize the individual and the less important it is for him -- whereas its violation, on the whole, has consequences which are especially grave, which single out the individual from the group.
This applies especially to intellectual matters, being based on logic, which "cuts through the variety of world views" and creates "common ground" for all discussion. Yet logic is merely negative; "it is only a norm against which we must not sin".

The violation principle applies also to ordinary social conventions. To observe them is nothing; to violate them is a big deal.
Greeting somebody in the street proves no esteem whatever, but failure to do so, conclusively proves the opposite. The forms of courtesy fail as symbols of positive, inner attitudes, but they are most useful in documenting negative ones, since even the slightest omission can radically and definitely alter our relation to a person.
Next: The Stranger

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