Simmel's sociology is
always informed by a dialectical approach, bringing out the dynamic
interconnectedness and the conflicts between the social units he
analyzes. Throughout his work he stresses both the connections and
the tensions between the individual and society. He sees individuals
as products of society, as links in the social process; yet "the
total content of life, even though it may be fully accounted for
in terms of social antecedents and interactions, must yet be looked
at at the same time under the aspect of singularity, as oriented
toward the experience of the individual." According to Simmel,
the socialized individual always remains in a dual relation with
society: he is incorporated within it and yet stands against it.
The individual is, at the same time, within society and outside
it; he exists for society as well as for himself: "[Social
man] is not partially social and partially individual; rather, his
existence is shaped by a fundamental unity, which cannot be accounted
for in any other way than through the synthesis or coincidence of
two logically contradictory determinations: man in both social link
and being for himself, both product of society and life from an
autonomous center." The individual is determined at the same
time as he is determining; he is acted upon at the same time as
he is self-actuating.
insistence on the pervasive dialectic of the relation between individual
and society informs all of Simmel's sociological thought. Incorporation
into the network of social relations is the inevitable fate of human
life, but it is also an obstacle to self-actualization; society
allows, and also impedes, the emergence of individuality and autonomy.
The forms of social life impress themselves upon each individual
and allow him to become specifically human. At the same time, they
imprison and stultify the human personality by repressing the free
play of spontaneity. Only in and through institutional forms can
man attain freedom, yet his freedom is forever endangered by these
very institutional forms.
To Simmel, sociation
always involves harmony and conflict, attraction and repulsion,
love and hatred. He saw human relations as characterized by ambivalence;
precisely those who are connected in intimate relations are likely
to harbor for one another not only positive but also negative sentiments.
Erotic relations, for example, "strike us a woven together
of love and respect, or disrespect . . . of love and an urge to
dominate or the need for dependence . . . . What the observer or
the participant himself thus divides into two intermingling trends
may in reality be only one."
harmonious group, Simmel argued, could not exist empirically. It
would not partake of any kind of life process; it would be incapable
of change and development. Moreover, Simmel stressed, it is naive
to view as negative those forces that result in conflict and as
positive those that make for consensus. Without, for example, "safety
valves" allowing participants "to blow off steam,"
many social relations could not endure. Sociation is always the
result of both categories of interaction; both are positive ingredients,
structuring all relationships and giving them enduring form.
sharply between social appearances and social realities. Although
a given conflictive relationship might have been considered wholly
negative by participants or by outside observers, it nevertheless
showed, upon analysis, to have latent positive aspects. Only a withdrawal
from a relationship could be considered wholly negative; a conflictive
relationship, though possibly painful for one or more participants,
ties them to the social fabric through mutual involvement even in
the face of dissensus. It is essential to recognize, Simmel argued,
that social conflict necessarily involves reciprocal action and
therefore is based on reciprocity rather than unilateral imposition.
Conflict can serve as an outlet for negative attitudes and feelings,
making further relationships possible; it can also lead to a strengthening
of the positions of one or more parties to the relationship, thereby
increasing the individual's dignity and self-esteem. Because conflict
can strengthen existing bonds or establish new ones, it can be considered
a creative, rather than a destructive, force.
dreamed of a frictionless social universe, of a society from which
clashes and contentions among individuals and groups would be forever
banned. For him, conflict is the very essence of social life, an
ineradicable component of social living. The good society is not
conflict-free; it is, on the contrary, "sewn together"
by a variety of crisscrossing conflicts among its component parts.
Peace and feud, conflict and order are correlative. Both the cementing
and the breaking of custom constitute part of the eternal dialectic
of social life. It would therefore be a mistake to distinguish a
sociology of order from one of disorder, a model of harmony from
one of conflict. These are not distinct realities but only differing
formal aspects of one reality.
work Simmel considered the individual's social actions not in themselves
but in relation to actions of other individuals and to particular
structures of processes. In his famous chapter on "Superordination
and Subordination," he shows that domination does not lie in
the unilateral imposition of the superordinate's will upon the subordinate
but that it involves reciprocal action. What appears to be the exercise
of absolute power by some and the acquiescence by others is deceptive.
Power "conceals an interaction, an exchange . . . . which transforms
the pure one-sidedness of superordination and subordination into
a sociological form." Thus, the superordinate's action cannot
be understood without reference to the subordinate, and vice versa.
The action of one can only be analyzed by reference to the action
of others, since the two are part of a system of interaction that
constrains both. Attempts at analyzing social action without such
reference would have been rejected by Simmel as examples of what
he called the fallacy of separateness.
does not rest his case after demonstrating that, contrary to first
appearance, domination is a form of interaction. He proceeds to
show in considerable detail the particular ways in which various
types of groups structure are associated with different forms of
subordination and superordination--distinguishing, for example,
between levelling and gradation. If a number of individuals are
equally subject to one individual, he argued, they are themselves
equal. Such levelling, or "negative democratization" to
use Karl Mannheim's term, favors and is favored by despotic rulers.
Despots try to level their subjects and, conversely, highly developed
levelling easily leads to despotism. On the other hand, strong intermediated
gradations among a ruler's subjects tend to cushion his impact and
weaken his hold over them. Although intermediate powers may increase
inequalities in the subject population, they shield the individual
from the direct powers of the ruler. A pyramidal form of social
gradation, whether it develops under the plan of the ruler or results
from the usurpation of some of his power by subordinates, gives
every one of its elements a position both lower and higher than
the next rungs in the hierarchy. In this way, each level--except
the very highest and the very lowest--is subordinate to the authorities
above and, at the same time, is superordinate to the rungs beneath.
Dependence on some persons is compensated by authority over others.