There are two central ideas that form Simmel’s perspective: social forms and the relationship between the subjective experience of the individual and objective culture. Simmel always begins and ends with the individual. He assumes that the individual is born with certain ways of thinking and feeling and most social interactions are motivated by individual needs and desires. Encounters with others are molded to social forms in order to facilitate reciprocal exchanges. These forms constitute society for Simmel. Objective culture is that culture that is universal yet not alive to the individual’s subjective experience. Thus the person is unable to fully grasp, comprehend, or intimately know objective culture. The tension between the individual on the one hand and social forms and objective culture on the other is Simmel’s focus of study.
There are a variety of social forms; among them are sociability, exchange, conflict, and group size. Sociability occurs in interactions that have no other goal than chit-chat. Though the goal appears of no consequence, the functions of such interactions are important for the well-being of society and the person—they socially connect us to others, provide cultural and emotional capital, affirm social reality, and solve the problem of association. Reciprocal exchange is the foundation of society. Exchange is ordered by value and value is ordered by sacrifice and scarcity. Conflict is a social form that provides such functions as group solidarity, normative regulation, centralization of power, and coalition formation. The kind of function that conflict provides depends on whether the collective is a social system or group. Group size also functions as a social form. Triads, for example, involve power relations, whereas dyads do not. On the other hand, dyads are much more uncertain and thus perceived as unique due to their size.
Urbanization increases the division of labor, the use of money, and changes the configuration of social networks. All of these have direct and indirect effects on the level of objective culture and its effects on the individual. The use of money increases personal freedom for the individual yet at the same time it intensifies the possibility of anomie, diminishes the individual’s attachment to objects, and increases goal displacement. People join groups for either rational or organic motivations. Rational motivations are prevalent in urban settings and imply greater personal freedom coupled with less emotional investment, and possible anomie and role conflict; organic motivations imply less personal freedom and greater social conformity coupled with increased personal and social certainty.
Both gender and religion are natural states for human beings. Each person has a religious impulse and a certain degree of religiosity. Religion, on the other hand, acts like a categorical scheme, and it overextends the valid limits of religiosity. Religion thus objectifies the world by claiming exclusive right to such impulses as faith, love, and sacrifice, and by conceptualizing all available worlds through its scheme. Gender is also an essential attribute of humans. Men naturally objectify themselves as they are motivated to produce. Women, on the other hand, are naturally integrated with all aspects of their being. Men operate through a dualistic knowledge system, seeking proofs for knowledge in the empirical world, while women’s way of knowing is non-dualistic and centered. The problem of gender inequality is that men have dominated the social world and its culture. Culture, then, for the most part is objective and at odds with women’s nature. True gendered social change will come as women’s knowledge and way of being are valued as equally as men’s.
Simmel was concerned about the effect of objective culture on the individual’s subjective existence. Postmodernists have taken that concern to another level. In times past, most of the culture was produced by people situated in real social groups that interacted over real issues. This grounded culture created real meanings and morally infused norms, values, and beliefs. In postmodernity, much of the culture is produced or colonized by capitalists using advertising and mass media. This historic shift implies that culture has changed from a representation of social reality to representations of commodified images, culture is produced rather than created, and people have changed from culture creators to culture consumers. In Baudrillard’s words, culture in postmodern society is filled with simulacrum that references hyperreality.
Further reading on Simmel: