Georg Simmel: Formal Sociology
Sociology, as conceived by Simmel, did not pretend to usurp the subject matter of economics, ethics, psychology, or historiography; rather, it concentrated on the forms of interactions that underlie political, economic, religious, and sexual behavior. In Simmel's perspective a host of otherwise distinct human phenomena might be properly understood by reference to the same formal concept. To be sure, the student of warfare and the student of marriage investigate qualitatively different subject matters, yet the sociologist can discern essentially similar interactive forms in martial conflict and in marital conflict. Although there is little similarity between the behavior displayed at the court of Louis XIV and that displayed in the main offices of an American corporation, a study of the forms of subordination and superordination in each will reveal underlying patterns common to both. On a concrete and descriptive level, there would seem little connection between the early psychoanalytic movement in Vienna and the early Communist movement, but attention to typical forms of interaction among the members of these groups reveals that both are importantly shaped by the fact that they have the structural features of the sect. Sectarians are characterized in their conduct by the belief that they share an esoteric knowledge with their fellow sectarians and are hence removed from the world of the vulgar. This leads to intense and exclusive involvements of the sectarians with one another and concomitant withdrawal from "outside" affairs.
Simmel's insistence on the forms of social interaction as the domain peculiar to sociological inquiry was his decisive response to those historians and other representatives of the humanities who denied that a science of society could ever come to grips with the novelty, the irreversibility, and the uniqueness of historical phenomena. Simmel agreed that particular historical events are unique: the murder of Caesar, the accession of Henry VIII, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo are all events located at a particular moment in time and having a nonrecurrent significance. Yet, if one looks at history through the peculiar lenses of the sociologist, one need not concern himself with the uniqueness of these events but, rather, with their underlying uniformities. The sociologist does not contribute to knowledge about the individual actions of a King John, or a King Louis, or a King Henry, but he can illuminate the ways in which all of them were constrained in their actions by the institution of kingship. The sociologist is concerned with King John, not with King John. On a more abstract level, he may not even be concerned with the institution of kingship, but rather with the processes of conflict and cooperation, of subordination and superordination, of centralization and decentralization, which constitute the building blocks for the larger institutional structure. In this way, Simmel wanted to develop a geometry of social life: "Geometric abstraction investigates only the spatial forms of bodies, although empirically these forms are given merely as the forms of some material content. Similarly, if society is conceived as interaction among individuals, the description of the forms of this interaction is the task of the science of society in its strictest and most essential sense."
Simmel's insistence on abstracting from concrete content and concentrating on the forms of social life has led to the labeling of his approach as formal sociology. However, his distinction between the form and the content of social phenomena is not always as clear as we should like. He gave variant definitions of these concepts, and his treatment of particular topics reveals some obvious inconsistencies. The essence of his thought, nevertheless, is clear. Formal sociology isolates form from the heterogeneity of content of human sociation. It attempts to show that however diverse the interests and purposes that give rise to specific associations among men, the social forms of interaction in which these interests and purposes are realized may be identical. For example, both war and profit-making involve cooperation. Inversely, identical interests and purposes may crystallize into different forms. Economic interests may be realized in competition as well as in planned cooperation, and aggressive drives may be satisfied in various forms of conflict from gang warfare to legal battles.
In formal analysis, certain features of concrete phenomena, which are not readily observable unless such a perspective is applied to them, are extracted from reality. Once this has been successfully accomplished, it becomes possible to compare phenomena that may be radically different in concrete content yet essentially similar in structural arrangement. For example, leader-follower relations may be seen to be structurally the same both in deviant juvenile gangs and in conformist scout troops. On this point Simmel is often misunderstood: he was not asserting that forms have a separate and distinct existence, but that they inhere in content and can have no independent reality. Simmel's was far from a Platonic view of essences. He stressed that concrete phenomena could be studied from a variety of perspectives and that analysis of the limited number of forms which could be extracted from the bewildering multiplicity of social contents might contribute insights into social life denied those who limit themselves to descriptions of the concrete.
The term form was perhaps not a very happy choice since it is freighted with a great deal of philosophical ballast, some of it of a rather dubious nature. It may have frightened away certain modern sociologists intent on exorcising any metaphysical ghosts that might interfere with the building of a scientific sociology. Had Simmel used the term social structure--which, in a sense, is quite close to his use of form--he would have probably encountered less resistance. Such modern sociological terms as status, role, norms, and expectations as elements of social structure are close to the formal conceptualizations that Simmel employed.
Futhermore, much of the building of modern sociological theory proceeds precisely with the help of the perspective that Simmel has advocated. For example, in a reanalysis of some of the data of The American Soldier, Merton and Rossi, when explaining the behavior of "green" troops and their relationships with seasoned troops in different structural contexts, use this perspective to account more generally for social situations in which newcomers are involved in interaction with oldtimers. By abstracting from the concrete content of army life, they explain certain aspects of the behavior of newcomers--from immigrants to college freshmen--in terms of their relation to preexisting groups. It follows that the newcomer- oldtimer relationship, or the newcomer as a social type, can now be understood as a particular form that can profitably be studied through abstraction from the various concrete social situations that are being observed. It is through such abstraction from concrete social content that the building of a theory becomes possible.
To Simmel, the forms found in social reality are never pure: every social phenomenon contains a multiplicity of formal elements. Cooperation and conflict, subordination and superordination, intimacy and distance all may be operative in a marital relationship or in a bureaucratic structure. In concrete phenomena, moreover, the presence of a multiplicity of forms leads to their interference with one another, so that none of them can ever be realized in purity. There is no "pure" conflict in social life, just as there is no "pure" cooperation. "Pure" forms are constructs, that is, typical relationships never to be completely realized. Simmel's forms are not generalizations about aspects of reality, but they tend to heighten or to exaggerate "so as to bring out configurations and relations which underlie reality but are not factually actualized in it." The art historian may speak of "gothic" or "baroque" style, even though no known work of architecture exhibits all the elements of either style in all their purity; so too the sociologist may construct a "pure" form of social conflict even though no empirically known process fully embodies it. Just as Weber's ideal-type may be used as a measuring rod to help calculate the distance between a concrete phenomenon and the type, a Simmelian form--say, the typical combination of nearness and distance that marks the relation of "the stranger" form the surrounding world--may help gauge the degree of "strangerness" inherent in the specific historical circumstances of, for example, the ghetto Jews or other pariah peoples.
From Coser, 1977:179-182.