approach to sociology can best be understood as a self-conscious
attempt to reject the organicist theories of Comte and Spencer,
as well as the historical description of unique events that was
cherished in his native Germany. He advanced, instead, the conception
that society consists of a web of patterned interactions, and that
it is the task of sociology to study the forms of these interactions
as they occur and reoccur in diverse historical periods and cultural
Simmel turned his attention to sociology, the field was most often
characterized by the organicist approach so prominent in the works
of Comte in France, of Spencer in England, and of Schaffle in Germany.
This view stressed the fundamental continuity between nature and
society. Social process, it will be recalled, was conceived as qualitatively
similar to, although more complex than, biological process. Life
was seen as a great chain of being, stretching from the simplest
natural phenomenon to the most highly differentiated social organism.
For this reason, although the methods developed in the natural sciences
had to be adapted to the particular tasks of the social sciences,
such methods were considered essentially similar to those appropriate
to the study of man in society. Sociology was regarded as the master
science through which one could discover the laws governing all
organicist view of social life was vigorously opposed in the tradition
of German scholarship as represented in the school of idealistic
philosophy. The German tradition viewed Naturwissenschaft (natural
science) and Geisteswissenschaft (moral or human science) as qualitatively
different. In this tradition, natural laws would have no place in
the study of human culture, which represented the realm of freedom.
The method considered appropriate for the study of human phenomena
was idiographic, that is, concerned with unique events, rather than
nomothetic, the method concerned with establishing general laws.
It was believed that the student of human affairs could only describe
and record the unique events of human history and that any attempts
to establish regularities in the sphere of human culture would collapse
because of the autonomy of the human spirit. Natur and Kultur were
essentially different realms of being.
the proponents of the German traditions argued, sociology had no
real object of study; the term society was but a rough label, convenient
for certain purposes but devoid of substance or reality. They asserted
that there is no society outside or in addition to the individuals
who compose it. Once these individuals and their historically located
actions are investigated, nothing remains by way of subject matter
for a science of society. Human freedom, the uniqueness and irreversibility
of historical events, the fundamental disjunction between Natur
and Geist (nature and spirit), all combined to make attempts at
founding a science of sociology a quixotic--even a scandalous--enterprise.
Far from being queen of the sciences, sociology was not a science
rejected both the organicist and the idealist schools. He did not
see society as a thing or an organism in the manner of Comte or
Spencer, nor merely as a convenient label for something that did
not have "real" existence. In his view, society consists
of an intricate web of multiple relations between individuals who
are in constant interaction with one another: "Society is merely
the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction."
The larger superindividual structures--the state, the clan, the
family, the city, or the trade union--are only crystallizations
of this interaction, even though they may attain autonomy and permanency
and confront the individual as if they were alien powers. The major
field of study for the student of society is, therefore, sociation,
that is, the particular patterns and forms in which men associate
and interact with one another.
argued that the grandiose claims of those who wish to make sociology
the master science of everything human are self-defeating. Nothing
can be gained by throwing together all phenomena heretofore studied
by jurisprudence and philology, by political science and psychology,
and labeling them sociology. Qui trop embrasse, mal etreint. By
trying to embrace all phenomena that are in any way connected with
human life one pursues a will-o'-the-wisp. There can be no such
totalistic social science, just as there is no "total"
science of all matter. Science must study dimensions or aspects
of phenomena rather than global totalities. The legitimate subject
matter of sociology lies in the description and analysis of particular
forms of human interaction and their crystallization in group characteristics:
"Sociology asks what happens to men and by what rules they
behave, not insofar as they unfold their understandable individual
existences in their totalities, but insofar as they form groups
and are determined by their group existence because of interaction."
Although all human behavior is behavior of individuals, much of
it can be explained in terms of the individual's group affiliation,
as well as the constraints imposed upon him by particular forms
Simmel considered the larger institutionalized structures a legitimate
field of sociological inquiry, he preferred to restrict most of
his work to an investigation of what he called "interactions
among the atoms of society." He limited his concern, in the
main, to those fundamental patterns of interaction among individuals
that underlie the larger social formations (what is today described
as "microsociology"). The method he advocated and practiced
was to focus attention upon the perennial and limited number of
forms such interaction might take.