Simmel's emphasis on
the structural determinants of social action is perhaps best exemplified
in his seminal essay, "Quantitative Aspects of the Group."
Here he comes nearest to realizing his goal of writing a grammar
of social life by considering one of the most abstract characteristics
of a group: the mere number of its participants. He examines forms
of group process and structural arrangement insofar as these derive
from sheer quantitative relationships.
relationship differs qualitatively from all other types of groups
in that each of the two participants is confronted by only one another
and not by a collectivity. Because this type of group depends only
on two participants, the withdrawal of one would destroy the whole:
"A dyad depends on each of its two elements alone--in its death
though not in its life: for its life it needs both, but for its
death, only one."
Hence the dyad
does not attain that superpersonal life which, in all other groups,
creates among its members a sense of constraint. Yet the very lack
of superpersonal structure also entails intense absorption of the
participants in their dyadic relationship. The dependence of the
whole on each partner is obvious; in all other groups duties and
responsibilities can be delegated, but not in the dyad, where each
participant is immediately and directly responsible for any collective
action. Because each partner in the dyad deals with only one other
individual, who forms a unit with him, neither of the two can deny
responsibility by shifting it to the group; neither can hold the
group responsible for what he has done or failed to do.
When a dyad
is formed into a triad, the apparently insignificant fact that one
member has been added actually brings about a major qualitative
change. In the triad, as in all associations involving more than
two persons, the individual participant is confronted with the possibility
of being outvoted by a majority.
The triad is
the simplest structure in which the group as a whole can achieve
domination over its component members; it provides a social framework
that allows the constraining of individual participants for collective
purposes. The dyad relies on immediate reciprocity, but the triad
can impose its will upon one member through the formation of a coalition
between the two others. Thus, the triad exhibits in its simplest
form the sociological drama that informs all social life: the dialectic
of freedom and constraint, of autonomy and heteronomy.
When a third
member enters a dyadic group, various processes become possible
where previously they could not take place. Simmel singled out three
such processes, although others have since been identified. A third
member may play the role of mediator vis-a-vis the other two, helping,
through his own impartiality, to moderate passions that threaten
to tear the group apart. He may, alternately, act as a tertius gaudens
(the third who rejoices), seeking to turn to his own advantage a
disagreement between the other two. Finally, through a strategy
of divide et impera (divide and rule), he may intentionally created
conflicts between the other two in order to attain a dominant position
or other gains.
This brief outline
of three types of strategy open to the third participant can hardly
exhaust the richness of Simmel's thought in this analysis. He offers
a great variety of examples, deliberately comparing intimate human
involvements, such as the competition of two men for one woman,
with such large-scale events as the European balance of power and
the formation of coalitions among political parties. He compares
the strategy of a mother-in-law who confronts a newly married couple
with the ways in which Rome, after subjugating Greece, dealt with
Athens and Sparta.
It is a virtuoso
performance, one of the more persuasive demonstrations of the power
of sociological analysis. Simmel reveals the sterility of total
psychological reductionism by demonstrating how the apparently peripheral
fact that a third member has been added to a group of two opens
up possibilities for actions and processes that could not otherwise
have come into existence. He uncovers the new properties that emerge
from the forms of association among individuals, properties that
cannot be derived from characteristics of the individuals involved.
The triad provides new avenues of social action while at the same
time it restricts other opportunities, such as the expression of
individuality, which were available in the dyadic group.
not restrict his analysis of numbers to the dyad and triad. Although
it is not possible to demonstrate that each addition of new members
would produce a distinct sociological entity, he shows that there
is a crucial difference between small groups and larger ones.
In small groups,
members typically have a chance to interact directly with one another;
once the group exceeds a relatively limited size, such interaction
must be mediated through formal arrangements. In order to come to
grips with the increasing complexity of relationships among large
numbers of individuals, the group must create special organs to
help the patterning of interactions among its members. Thus, no
large group can function without the creation of offices, the differentiation
of status positions, and the delegation of tasks and responsibilities.
This is the reason larger groups become societies of unequals: in
order to maintain themselves, they must be structurally differentiated.
But this means that the larger group "gains its unity, which
finds expression in the group organs and political notions and ideals,
only at the price of a great distance between all of these structures
and the individual."
the group, the greater the involvement of its members, for interaction
among a few tends to be more intense than interaction among many,
if only because of the greater frequency of contact. Inversely,
the larger the group, the weaker the participation of its members;
chances are high that they will be involved with only a segment
of their personalities instead of as whole human beings. The larger
group demands less of its members, and also creates "objective"
structures that confront individuals with superpersonal powers:
"For it is this large number which paralyzes the individual
element and which causes the general element to emerge at such a
distance from it that it seems that it could exits by itself, without
any individuals, to whom in fact it often enough is antagonistic."
its formal arrangement the larger group confronts the individual
with a distant and alien power, it liberates him from close control
and scrutiny precisely because it creates greater distance among
its members. In the dyad, the immediacy of the we is not yet marred
by the intrusion of structural constraints, and, it will be remembered,
in the triad two members may constrain the third and force their
will upon him. In the small group, however, the coalitions and majorities
that act to constrain individual action are mitigated by the immediacy
of participation. In the large group, the differentiated organs
constrain the individual through their "objective" powers,
even though they allow freedom from the group through segmental
rather than total involvement.
of the differences between small and large groups--between the intensity
of involvement among individuals in the primary group and the distance,
aloofness, and segmentation of individuals in larger groups--reveals
his general dialectical approach to the relation between individual
freedom and group structure. His minute sociological analysis is
part of his general philosophical view of the drift of modern history.
Like Durkheim, Simmel theorizes about types and properties of group
relations and social solidarities as part of a more general endeavor
to assess and evaluate the major trends of historical development
and to elaborate a diagnosis of his time.