"Antipathy ... causes distances and aversions without which we could not lead life at all."
- Georg Simmel
Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was one of three founding fathers of german sociology. Although he was a star, whose lectures were always packed, he was always denied a professorship until later in life. The scandalous reason the academic establishment used for this: he was Jewish.
Simmel observed forms of social interaction, such as hierarchy and reciprocity. He had an eye for the role of social types, like the poor and the outsider (who has the beneficial outside perspective); and for conflicts and contrasts, such as freedom versus restriction, disclosure versus privacy, and solidarity versus antagonism.
Simmel was a conflict sociologist, the original urban sociologist as well as the original network sociologist. He stressed the role of social interaction in reproducing and recreating social institutions, instead of e.g. a top-down approach of just promulgating rules. Power, in his view, should be thought of as a relationship or a balance, in which all people involved have a voice. He further observed that people derive their meaning only from their relationship with other individuals and objects (this is similar to the recent work of Bruno Latour, among others).
The Philosophy of Money
One of Simmel's most famous books is The Philosophy of Money (Philosophie des Geldes; Simmel, 1900). In this book, he saw money as the symbol of our society. The magical-mystical surplus value of money consists in forcing itself to the absolute means, which tragically enough becomes the absolute end. Money has no saturation limit. It gives both potency in the sense of power and potential in the sense of possibilities. Money is the great equalizer: everyone needs it and everyone can use it to buy goods. Simmel:"Like a liquid, money lacks inner boundaries." But money also excludes. With money, we are completely free, but also totally bound. Everything is about money, nothing is about trust anymore: money gives trust God no longer gives. Money is like God: it is omnipotent and everybody listens to it. One could say that Simmel foresaw the illusion of consumerism. Simmel:"The lack of something definite in the center of the soul drives us to seek momentary satisfaction in ever new stimuli, sensations, and external activities." Money has an immense acceleration effect. One is forced to participate or one goes under. Civilization is geared towards material enhancement; the intrinsic worth of man, however, has not risen as quickly as the worth of material goods (Bayern 2, 2018).
In 1908, Simmel's book Soziologie appeared. In it, there is a text that has become the fundamental text of migration sociology. The Stranger is not defined as a transient wanderer, but as someone who has come to a place and remains there, carrying with them qualities that are not native to that place. The stranger is simultaneously near and far, both part of the group and outside of it, and their presence creates a unique form of interaction and unity that includes both repelling and distancing elements. The stranger has historically been associated with trade and commerce, as a mediator for goods that are produced outside of a given community. In societies where production is primarily for self-sufficiency, there is no need for intermediaries like traders, but as societies become more specialized and interconnected, the presence of strangers becomes more prevalent.
Simmel's Conflict Sociology (book fragment; Simmel, 1908)
"There probably exists no social unit in which convergent and divergent currents among its members are not inseparably interwoven. If there's no actual conflict, there at least is a considerable differentiation of moods and directions of thought, whence flow all the vitality and the really organic structure of that group. Our opposition makes us feel that we are not completely victims of the circumstances.
Ordinarily, the opponents conceive of themselves as defenders of threatened rights, as fighters for what is objectively correct, as knightly protectors of the minority.
Much less striking phenomena reveal more clearly an abstract impulse to opposition - especially the quiet, often hardly known, fleeting temptation to contradict an assertion or demand, particularly a categorical one. The first instinct with which the individual affirms himself is the negation of the other.
In human hostility, cause and effect are often so heterogeneous and disproportionate that it is hard to determine whether the alleged issue really is the cause of the conflict or merely the consequence of long-existing opposition.
Our psychological activity responds to almost every impression that comes from another person with a certain deterministic feeling. The subconscious, fleeting, changeful nature of this feeling only seems to reduce it to indifference, which would be as unnatural to us as the vague character of innumerable contradictory stimuli would be unbearable. We are protected against both of these typical dangers by antipathy, the preparatory phase of concrete antagonism which engenders the distances and aversions without which we could not lead life at all."
Application of Simmel's work to the management of safety
Simmel's concepts of social distancing, conflict, cooperation and "the stranger" can help to build and maintain a proactive safety culture:
- by keeping some physical and emotional distance by employees and thus limiting the risk of accidents and injury;
- by effectively understanding and managing conflict, organizations can help create a positive and safe work environment, where employees feel comfortable raising concerns and working together to address safety issues;
- by encouraging employees to see safety as a shared responsibility, rather than the responsibility of a single person or group;
- by treating all employees as potential sources of safety expertise and insight, organizations can foster collaboration and continuous improvement of safety practices.
Simmel, G. (1900), Philosophie des Geldes, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.
Simmel, G. (1908), Der Streit, in: Soziologie, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.
Georg Simmel - Philosophie des Geldes, Bayern 2 podcast.
Below you can see a video with a good explanation of some of Simmel's ideas, given by Robert van Krieken of the University of Sydney.
You can read a summary of Simmel's lectures about Kant and Simmel's book about Religion by using the buttons below.