Georg Simmel Theory Explained


George Simmel studied cultural and social phenomena by looking at its forms and content within the scope of a transient relationship. This allowed him to develop a theory of structuralism within the reasoning of social science. His work has led the publication of various works that look at how people are affected by living in urban environments, how money affects a society, and the social boundaries that are formed by a desire to stay within a personal comfort zone.

What Are the Foundations of the Georg Simmel Theory?

The George Simmel theory has three levels of concern that are addressed as foundational components. His theory looks at the microscopic events that happen in society and how that effects the macroscopic world. This causes the interactions which take place between different types of people to be unique.

That is why subordination, superordination, conflict, exchange, and sociability are all points of focus within each foundational element.

  • Individuality. This theory focuses on how associations form without looking at the individuality of each human consciousness. Simmel believed that humans were essentially actors who could adapt to changing social structures that interacted with their world. The ability to adapt would affect how creative structures were maintained by every individual. This means that social and cultural structures have their own individuality.
  • Relationships. Simmel rejected the notion that there were hard and fast divisions between different social relationships and other societal phenomena. He focused on interactive relationships and how that worked to create microscopic societies. Everything interacts with everything else in some way, so a society could become predictable based on the contradictions, conflicts, and dualisms that may be present.
  • Desire. Some people have a desire to form more social relationships than others. This process creates a society where free association creates a hierarchy based on the skills that every individual must adapt to individualized relationships. Interactions could be positive or negative, but each would help to develop the character and skill needed to reach a desired place in society.

These foundations are based on four ideas that Simmel attempted to integrate into the theory. First is an assumption about how people react psychologically to events in their social life. Then there is his personal interest in how interpersonal relationships affect a society on multiple levels. He also looked to incorporate the structure of a cultural spirit, a need to experience harmony, into his theory.

There is also the idea of emergence in the George Simmel theory, which is evidence that higher levels emerge from lower levels. That is the basis of his “desire foundation.” Eventually, an individual will either have better social skills than others and this changes their place in society. Based on how people form relationships, this higher-level skill could put one individual at a lucrative advantage over another.

Why Do People Lose Their Individuality?

Simmel proposes that in social geometry, there are two different groups that are formed: dyads and triads.

A dyad is a group of two people, whereas a triad is a group of three people. Simmel suggests that when dyads form in a society, each person is able to retain their individuality. There is no balance or skill shift that occurs, so both work together to create individualized benefits. In a triad, individuality is lost, but societal gains become greater because it becomes more difficult to influence the individuals in a triad than it is to sway individuals in a dyad.

People, however, struggle when they are forced to give up their individuality. In George Simmel’s theory, he suggests the push-and-pull of wanting to be in a triad while seeking out the individuality of a dyad creates a unique balance for each person.

Once this balance is achieved, Simmel suggests that specific actions are chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain it. This is done through the formation of group secrets that help to maintain triads, while providing dyads that allow for the opportunity to divulge secrets in a way that feels safe.

Simmel then suggests that people can recognize when there is a lack of balance for an individual because of how they react. Someone who is being flirtatious is an individual who seeks a dyad to balance out the benefits of being in a triad. Individuals who seek out group functions to form networks are seeking triads because they are constantly open to the sharing of a dyad.

In the George Simmel theory, there is nothing “unique.” People try to be different because they want to be in a different dyad that has a new identification label. By recognizing which labels we all want to have, it then becomes possible to discover what place in society we want to have.