School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Georg Simmel -
The Work - Introduction

 


The Person  
Introduction A Virtuoso On The Platform
The Academic Outsider Simmel's Writing Career
   
The Work  
Introduction The Significance Of Numbers For Social Life
Formal Sociology Simmel's Ambivalent View Of Modern Culture
Social Types A Note On The Philosophy Of Money
The Dialectical Method In Simmel's Sociology  

Simmel's approach to sociology can best be understood as a self-conscious attempt to reject the organicist theories of Comte and Spencer, as well as the historical description of unique events that was cherished in his native Germany. He advanced, instead, the conception that society consists of a web of patterned interactions, and that it is the task of sociology to study the forms of these interactions as they occur and reoccur in diverse historical periods and cultural settings.

When Simmel turned his attention to sociology, the field was most often characterized by the organicist approach so prominent in the works of Comte in France, of Spencer in England, and of Schaffle in Germany. This view stressed the fundamental continuity between nature and society. Social process, it will be recalled, was conceived as qualitatively similar to, although more complex than, biological process. Life was seen as a great chain of being, stretching from the simplest natural phenomenon to the most highly differentiated social organism. For this reason, although the methods developed in the natural sciences had to be adapted to the particular tasks of the social sciences, such methods were considered essentially similar to those appropriate to the study of man in society. Sociology was regarded as the master science through which one could discover the laws governing all social developments.

The organicist view of social life was vigorously opposed in the tradition of German scholarship as represented in the school of idealistic philosophy. The German tradition viewed Naturwissenschaft (natural science) and Geisteswissenschaft (moral or human science) as qualitatively different. In this tradition, natural laws would have no place in the study of human culture, which represented the realm of freedom. The method considered appropriate for the study of human phenomena was idiographic, that is, concerned with unique events, rather than nomothetic, the method concerned with establishing general laws. It was believed that the student of human affairs could only describe and record the unique events of human history and that any attempts to establish regularities in the sphere of human culture would collapse because of the autonomy of the human spirit. Natur and Kultur were essentially different realms of being.

Moreover, the proponents of the German traditions argued, sociology had no real object of study; the term society was but a rough label, convenient for certain purposes but devoid of substance or reality. They asserted that there is no society outside or in addition to the individuals who compose it. Once these individuals and their historically located actions are investigated, nothing remains by way of subject matter for a science of society. Human freedom, the uniqueness and irreversibility of historical events, the fundamental disjunction between Natur and Geist (nature and spirit), all combined to make attempts at founding a science of sociology a quixotic--even a scandalous--enterprise. Far from being queen of the sciences, sociology was not a science at all.

Simmel rejected both the organicist and the idealist schools. He did not see society as a thing or an organism in the manner of Comte or Spencer, nor merely as a convenient label for something that did not have "real" existence. In his view, society consists of an intricate web of multiple relations between individuals who are in constant interaction with one another: "Society is merely the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction." The larger superindividual structures--the state, the clan, the family, the city, or the trade union--are only crystallizations of this interaction, even though they may attain autonomy and permanency and confront the individual as if they were alien powers. The major field of study for the student of society is, therefore, sociation, that is, the particular patterns and forms in which men associate and interact with one another.

Simmel argued that the grandiose claims of those who wish to make sociology the master science of everything human are self-defeating. Nothing can be gained by throwing together all phenomena heretofore studied by jurisprudence and philology, by political science and psychology, and labeling them sociology. Qui trop embrasse, mal etreint. By trying to embrace all phenomena that are in any way connected with human life one pursues a will-o'-the-wisp. There can be no such totalistic social science, just as there is no "total" science of all matter. Science must study dimensions or aspects of phenomena rather than global totalities. The legitimate subject matter of sociology lies in the description and analysis of particular forms of human interaction and their crystallization in group characteristics: "Sociology asks what happens to men and by what rules they behave, not insofar as they unfold their understandable individual existences in their totalities, but insofar as they form groups and are determined by their group existence because of interaction." Although all human behavior is behavior of individuals, much of it can be explained in terms of the individual's group affiliation, as well as the constraints imposed upon him by particular forms of interaction.

Although Simmel considered the larger institutionalized structures a legitimate field of sociological inquiry, he preferred to restrict most of his work to an investigation of what he called "interactions among the atoms of society." He limited his concern, in the main, to those fundamental patterns of interaction among individuals that underlie the larger social formations (what is today described as "microsociology"). The method he advocated and practiced was to focus attention upon the perennial and limited number of forms such interaction might take.

From Coser, 1977:177-179.



Work By Simmel  
Conflict And Society The Problem Of Sociology (External Link)
How Is Society Possible? (External Link) The Stranger
The Philosophy Of Value (External Link)  



These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010