What did Georg Simmel seek to demonstrate through his “formal” sociology?
Georg Simmel (1858 - 1918) was living in Berlin at a time when Sociology was beginning to form as a science, most notably with the work of Comte setting up the positivist methodology of studying society. In the intellectual world he was an outsider and struggled, becoming a full professor without a chair only in 1901.
Through formal sociology Simmel was proposing an alternative way of thinking to his contemporaries. I found Simmel’s writing very paradoxical. He purposes a more qualitative method of investigation rather then the quantitative method of positivists. Simmel together with Max Weber formed the anti-positivist a movement that opposed positivism. Positivism believed that truth is in scientific knowledge gained from empirical evidence. They would choose a subject matter, such as history or society, and set out to define empirical goals of their study. Simmel defined “general sociology” (positivism) subject matter as “the whole of historical life insofar as it is formed societally”. Simmel disagrees, through his discussion of sociology as a method he finds that this is sociology’s first “problem area” (Kurt Wolff, 1950), he never defines his subject matter but I feel that it is the “forms of sociation” that he is interested in.
Simmel, although he never gives us a strict guide book to his methodology and many times contradicts himself, was trying to form a new method. His method consisted of an observation, which is followed by an assumption (for without this no further thinking can be done). This assumption becomes a concrete fact or what he calls “content”, from here one must abstract them (without being ridged or socially constructed although he says everything is socially constructed). The method “isolates form from heterogeneity of content of human sociation” (Coser, 1977). A large part of this method revolves around the idea of content and form, I will not attempt to explain the differences as I believe Simmel himself was not sure with the amount of inconstancies he provides. Continuing, the method breaks society down into three pairs of underlying social processes (which form all the subsequent structures above); conflict and cooperation, subordination and super ordination, centralisation and decentralisation. Once this is done you can see that it can be done universally and that all social phenomenon (all behaviours which influence or are influenced by each other sufficiently to respond) contain a multiplicity of these social forms. Simmels’ focus of study is social integration and not structure, he studies interpersonal interaction not individual behaviour. He looks for particular patters and forms in which people associate and interact with each other (sociation). It is this process of abstracting from concrete content and then focusing on the social forms that lead to Simmel’s sociology being called “Formal Sociology”. It is also curious why Simmel chose to use the word “formal”, as this would have no doubt stopped some of the sociologists of his time reading it, as they were focused on creating a scientific sociology and were not interested in adding any “metaphysical ghost” (Coser, 1977) to sociology.
With his methodology he shows that historical phenomena can be studied and not simplified or rejected (such as contemporaries like Spencer). Simmel achieves this by not trying to involve economics, psychology, ect but to focus on the forms of interaction that underlie the economics, psychology, and religion (Coser, 1977). He gives example of how a student of marriage and a student of warfare qualitatively are very different subject matters, yet the interactive forms (content) in martial conflict and marital conflict are similar. But it is important to stress that he is not saying that martial conflict and marital conflict are separate, but they both inhere content and can therefore have no independent reality one from...
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