Georg Simmel (1858-1918) is best known as a microsociologist who played a significant role in the development of small-group research. Simmel's basic approach can be described as "methodological relationism," because he operates on the principle that everything interacts in some way with everything else. His essay on fashion, for example, notes that fashion is a form of social relationship that allows those who wish to conform to do so while also providing the norm from which individualistic people can deviate. Within the fashion process, people take on a variety of social roles that play off the decisions and actions of others. On a more general level, people are influenced by both objective culture (the things that people produce) and individual culture (the capacity of individuals to produce, absorb, and control elements of objective culture). Simmel believed that people possess creative capacities (more-life) that enable them to produce objective culture that transcends them. But objective culture (more-than-life) comes to stand in irreconcilable opposition to the creative forces that have produced it in the first place.
Simmel's interest in creativity is manifest in his discussions of the diverse forms of social interaction, the ability of actors to create social structures, and the disastrous effects those structures have on the creativity of individuals. All of Simmel's discussions of the forms of interaction imply that actors must be consciously oriented to one another. Simmel also has a sense of individual conscience and of the fact that the norms and values of society become internalized in individual consciousness. In addition, Simmel has a conception of people's ability to confront themselves mentally, to set themselves apart from their own actions, which is very similar to the views of George Herbert Mead.
Simmel is best known in contemporary sociology for his contributions to our understanding of patterns or forms of social interaction. Simmel made clear that one of his primary interests was association among conscious actors and that his intent was to look at a wide range of interactions that may seem trivial at some times but crucially important at others. One of Simmel's dominant concerns was the form rather than the content of social interaction. From Simmel's point of view, the sociologist's task is to impose a limited number of forms on social reality, extracting commonalities that are found in a wide array of specific interactions.
Along these lines, Simmel attempts to develop a geometry of social relations. The crucial difference between the dyad (two-person group) and triad (three-person group) is that a triad presents a greater threat to the individuality of group members. In a larger society, however, an individual is likely to be involved in a number of groups, each of which controls only a small portion of his or her personality. Distance also determines the form of social interaction. For example, the value of an object is a function of its distance from an actor. Simmel considered a wide range of social forms, including exchange, conflict, prostitution, and sociability.
One of the main focuses of Simmel's historical and philosophical sociology is the cultural level of social reality, which he called objective culture. In Simmel's view, people produce culture, but because of their ability to reify social reality, the cultural world and the social world come to have lives of their own and increasingly dominate the actors who created them. Simmel identified a number of components of objective culture, including tools, transportation, technology, the arts, language, the intellectual sphere, conventional wisdom, religious dogma, philosophical systems, legal systems, moral codes, and ideals. The absolute size of objective culture increases with modernization. The number of different components of the cultural realm also grows. What worried Simmel most was the threat to individual culture posed by the growth of objective culture.
The Philosophy of Money
In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel assesses the impact of the money economy on the inner world of actors and the objective culture as a whole. Simmel saw money as linked with social phenomena such as exchange, ownership, greed, extravagance, cynicism, individual freedom, style of life, culture, and the value of personality. In general, he argued that people create value by making objects, separating themselves from those objects, and then seeking to overcome distance, obstacles, and difficulties. Money serves both to create distance from objects and to provide the means to overcome it. Money provides the means by which the market, the economy, and ultimately society, acquire a life of their own that is external to and coercive of the actor. Simmel saw the significance of the individual declining as money transactions became an increasingly important part of society. A society in which money becomes an end in itself can cause individuals to become increasingly cynical and to have a blasé attitude.
The increasing division of labor in modern societies leads to an improved ability to create the various components of the cultural world. But at the same time, the highly specialized individual loses a sense of the total culture and loses the ability to control it. As objective culture grows, individual culture atrophies. The massive expansion of objective culture has had a dramatic effect on the rhythm of life. For example, our means of communication are more efficient, meaning that slow and unpredictable communication has been replaced with readily available mail, telephone, and e-mail service. On the positive side, people have much more freedom because they are less restricted by the natural rhythm of life. On the negative side, problems arise because the growth of objective culture generates cultural malaise, cultural ambivalence and, ultimately, a tragedy of culture.
Simmel's work on secrecy is characteristic of his work on social types. Simmel defines secrecy as a condition in which one person is intentionally hiding something while another person is seeking to reveal what is being hidden. Simmel examines various forms of social relationships from the point of view of reciprocal knowledge and secrecy. According to Simmel, confidence is an intermediate state between knowledge and ignorance about a person. Acquaintanceship is a relationship in which there is far more discretion and secretiveness than there is among intimates. Friendship is not based on total intimacy, but rather involves limited intimacy based on common intellectual pursuits, religion, and shared experiences. Marriage is the least secretive form of relationship. Simmel sees the secret as one of man's greatest achievements because it makes for a strong "we-feeling" among those who know the secret. But the secret is always accompanied dialectically by the possibility that it can be discovered. Simmel thought that the social structure of modern society permits and requires a high degree of secrecy. The money economy, for example, allows people to hide transactions, acquisitions, and changes in ownership.
Simmel is most frequently criticized for the fragmentary character of his work. He did not devise a systematic sociology on a par with Marx, Durkheim, or Weber. Marxists criticize Simmel for not seeing a way out of the tragedy of culture-an analytic equivalent to Marx's concept of alienation.