Sociology, as conceived
by Simmel, did not pretend to usurp the subject matter of economics,
ethics, psychology, or historiography; rather, it concentrated on
the forms of interactions that underlie political, economic, religious,
and sexual behavior. In Simmel's perspective a host of otherwise
distinct human phenomena might be properly understood by reference
to the same formal concept. To be sure, the student of warfare and
the student of marriage investigate qualitatively different subject
matters, yet the sociologist can discern essentially similar interactive
forms in martial conflict and in marital conflict. Although there
is little similarity between the behavior displayed at the court
of Louis XIV and that displayed in the main offices of an American
corporation, a study of the forms of subordination and superordination
in each will reveal underlying patterns common to both. On a concrete
and descriptive level, there would seem little connection between
the early psychoanalytic movement in Vienna and the early Communist
movement, but attention to typical forms of interaction among the
members of these groups reveals that both are importantly shaped
by the fact that they have the structural features of the sect.
Sectarians are characterized in their conduct by the belief that
they share an esoteric knowledge with their fellow sectarians and
are hence removed from the world of the vulgar. This leads to intense
and exclusive involvements of the sectarians with one another and
concomitant withdrawal from "outside" affairs.
insistence on the forms of social interaction as the domain peculiar
to sociological inquiry was his decisive response to those historians
and other representatives of the humanities who denied that a science
of society could ever come to grips with the novelty, the irreversibility,
and the uniqueness of historical phenomena. Simmel agreed that particular
historical events are unique: the murder of Caesar, the accession
of Henry VIII, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo are all events
located at a particular moment in time and having a nonrecurrent
significance. Yet, if one looks at history through the peculiar
lenses of the sociologist, one need not concern himself with the
uniqueness of these events but, rather, with their underlying uniformities.
The sociologist does not contribute to knowledge about the individual
actions of a King John, or a King Louis, or a King Henry, but he
can illuminate the ways in which all of them were constrained in
their actions by the institution of kingship. The sociologist is
concerned with King John, not with King John. On a more abstract
level, he may not even be concerned with the institution of kingship,
but rather with the processes of conflict and cooperation, of subordination
and superordination, of centralization and decentralization, which
constitute the building blocks for the larger institutional structure.
In this way, Simmel wanted to develop a geometry of social life:
"Geometric abstraction investigates only the spatial forms
of bodies, although empirically these forms are given merely as
the forms of some material content. Similarly, if society is conceived
as interaction among individuals, the description of the forms of
this interaction is the task of the science of society in its strictest
and most essential sense."
on abstracting from concrete content and concentrating on the forms
of social life has led to the labeling of his approach as formal
sociology. However, his distinction between the form and the content
of social phenomena is not always as clear as we should like. He
gave variant definitions of these concepts, and his treatment of
particular topics reveals some obvious inconsistencies. The essence
of his thought, nevertheless, is clear. Formal sociology isolates
form from the heterogeneity of content of human sociation. It attempts
to show that however diverse the interests and purposes that give
rise to specific associations among men, the social forms of interaction
in which these interests and purposes are realized may be identical.
For example, both war and profit-making involve cooperation. Inversely,
identical interests and purposes may crystallize into different
forms. Economic interests may be realized in competition as well
as in planned cooperation, and aggressive drives may be satisfied
in various forms of conflict from gang warfare to legal battles.
In formal analysis,
certain features of concrete phenomena, which are not readily observable
unless such a perspective is applied to them, are extracted from
reality. Once this has been successfully accomplished, it becomes
possible to compare phenomena that may be radically different in
concrete content yet essentially similar in structural arrangement.
For example, leader-follower relations may be seen to be structurally
the same both in deviant juvenile gangs and in conformist scout
troops. On this point Simmel is often misunderstood: he was not
asserting that forms have a separate and distinct existence, but
that they inhere in content and can have no independent reality.
Simmel's was far from a Platonic view of essences. He stressed that
concrete phenomena could be studied from a variety of perspectives
and that analysis of the limited number of forms which could be
extracted from the bewildering multiplicity of social contents might
contribute insights into social life denied those who limit themselves
to descriptions of the concrete.
The term form
was perhaps not a very happy choice since it is freighted with a
great deal of philosophical ballast, some of it of a rather dubious
nature. It may have frightened away certain modern sociologists
intent on exorcising any metaphysical ghosts that might interfere
with the building of a scientific sociology. Had Simmel used the
term social structure--which, in a sense, is quite close to his
use of form--he would have probably encountered less resistance.
Such modern sociological terms as status, role, norms, and expectations
as elements of social structure are close to the formal conceptualizations
that Simmel employed.
much of the building of modern sociological theory proceeds precisely
with the help of the perspective that Simmel has advocated. For
example, in a reanalysis of some of the data of The American Soldier,
Merton and Rossi, when explaining the behavior of "green"
troops and their relationships with seasoned troops in different
structural contexts, use this perspective to account more generally
for social situations in which newcomers are involved in interaction
with oldtimers. By abstracting from the concrete content of army
life, they explain certain aspects of the behavior of newcomers--from
immigrants to college freshmen--in terms of their relation to preexisting
groups. It follows that the newcomer- oldtimer relationship, or
the newcomer as a social type, can now be understood as a particular
form that can profitably be studied through abstraction from the
various concrete social situations that are being observed. It is
through such abstraction from concrete social content that the building
of a theory becomes possible.
To Simmel, the
forms found in social reality are never pure: every social phenomenon
contains a multiplicity of formal elements. Cooperation and conflict,
subordination and superordination, intimacy and distance all may
be operative in a marital relationship or in a bureaucratic structure.
In concrete phenomena, moreover, the presence of a multiplicity
of forms leads to their interference with one another, so that none
of them can ever be realized in purity. There is no "pure"
conflict in social life, just as there is no "pure" cooperation.
"Pure" forms are constructs, that is, typical relationships
never to be completely realized. Simmel's forms are not generalizations
about aspects of reality, but they tend to heighten or to exaggerate
"so as to bring out configurations and relations which underlie
reality but are not factually actualized in it." The art historian
may speak of "gothic" or "baroque" style, even
though no known work of architecture exhibits all the elements of
either style in all their purity; so too the sociologist may construct
a "pure" form of social conflict even though no empirically
known process fully embodies it. Just as Weber's ideal-type may
be used as a measuring rod to help calculate the distance between
a concrete phenomenon and the type, a Simmelian form--say, the typical
combination of nearness and distance that marks the relation of
"the stranger" form the surrounding world--may help gauge
the degree of "strangerness" inherent in the specific
historical circumstances of, for example, the ghetto Jews or other