Auto-archeology, Simmel & me

So, this is a bit embarrassing, but since I am making students in my com theory seminar and my systems seminar write reaction papers, I figure it is only fair for them to see what I wrote as a masters student. I was searching my hard drive for something related to the class, and ended up with this old weekly response paper I wrote as a grad student at Washington. This was the standard “photocopy and distribute” sort of response that I am trying to replace with the blogs and aggregators. But — perhaps luckily for me — only a small number of fellow students could read it at the time.

Now I am rectifying that. Heck, I might get wild and see what other wonders are hidden in my hard drive. The response appears unedited (though boy-oh-boy are there some bits I would like to edit in here; note that every time I write “clearly” it appears before something fairly opaque) and is offered as an example, though certainly not a model!

Perturbing a Network of Group Affiliations: The Role of Individual Choice in a Highly Structural Environment

In the Web of Group Affiliations, we have from Georg Simmel an essay that is all too easy to interpret, from the title if not from the thesis, as a highly structured and possibly functional view of society. Like his description itself, his argument appears structured at the universal level, but highly individualistic in more attenuated readings. Clearly, his attempt, as with many of the authors we have read this quarter, is to strike a reasoned balance between the tyranny of social position and unconstrained individual control. His analysis succeeds in many ways in doing this, providing an interesting, if sometimes contradictory, explanation of how individual choice both constrains and is constrained by the individuals’ wills.

In reading Simmel, it is sometimes difficult to remember that he is writing in within a temporal context removed from the contemporary world. His approach is entirely compatible with recent theories that stretch across a myriad of appellations: post-structuralism and post-modernism in particular. His “pre-” ideas seem to fit so neatly into the “post-” theories presented by people like Pierre Lévy*, rather than those of his own contemporaries — particularly his contemporaries in American sociological thought. There are a number of parallels we might draw between these two authors: both speak of highly networked societies in which the individual somehow retains his or her (though the latter of this pair is perhaps not as present in Simmel’s analysis) individuality in the face of increasingly tightly knit networks of affiliations; both speak of the “construction” or “formation” of groups, a small but significant perspective shift from those who might claim that groups “emerge”; finally, both see the process of group affiliation, at least in its more recent incarnation, as fundamentally emancipatory.

In the remainder of this brief paper, I will discuss these themes in turn. Throughout, I will argue that Simmel provides us with an explanation of the social/individual dialectic that seems at first counter-intuitive. He argues, though never explicitly, that groups are the ultimate determinant of much of our behavior. The only, and vitally important, area in which the individual may have a degree of choice is in with what groups he or she chooses to affiliate. Intuitively, I think we would often assume just the opposite: that individuals have a certain choice in what they eat or where they decide to make their home, but that the choice of a group of family, friends, and associates is in the hands of fate (exercised through the “invisible hand” of social structure). Simmel seems to retain some of the social determinism found in, for example, Bourdieu, but argues that the most important of relations, that of the individual to the group, is one that can be freely made and unmade at will.

Vital to this discussion is Simmel’s view of the individual and how that individual acts. For Simmel, individualism is expressed exclusively through individual choice of groups. He claims that “as individuals, we form the personality out of particular elements of life, each of which has arisen from, or is interwoven with, society” (p. 141). Such a view demonstrates a very strong view of individual freedom to decide action, at least in an ideal, thoroughly modern, social context. Though the behavior and power of individuals is expressly restricted by the social milieu(x) in which they exist, there are such a variety of groups in which personalities may be expressed that little practical restriction can be found.

One might argue that there are those actions that are truly “individual” — like wearing pants on one’s head to class meetings. Here an affiliation has been made — to the group in society often labeled as insane, for example — but stresses in the argument begin to show. These stresses exist within the traditional view of society, not the ideal type Simmel argues modern society is moving toward. In less enlightened societies, it may be impossible to find a group that valorizes pants-on-the-head behavior — but such a group should exist. Insanity as an ascriptive group is a symptom of traditional society, unless such a group is self-selected. Clearly, such a “natural” group is unlikely to be superseded by elective groups.

Groups that induct rather than self-select are inscribed by the rubric of “organic,” for Simmel. Kinship relations, because they exist ab ovo (literally!), remain one of these organic groups. We must ask, however, if Levi-Strauss’ infamous avuncular relation remains a social fact when we are able to choose uncles. Strong views of structuralism are undermined when individuals are able to select which of a wide number of social constellations may be chosen. While uncles remain sacrosanct in The Web of Group Affiliations, marriage does not. Modern marriage, because it results not so much in the gift of a woman, but in the woman being located at the intersection of two separate kinship groups, has moved from being an organic to an “objective” construct.

Is there any limit to how much of life can move from the “organic” to the “objective”? For Simmel, there does not seem to be, though this is not entirely clear. How then does this differ from the most extreme individualist position? Actions are strongly inscribed by the rôle one plays in various groups. The “choice” to join a group, while it moves from being a group of proximity to one of propinquity, still relies to some significant degree on exigencies of the environment. Moreover, while the intersection of various groups — again in a way reminiscent of Bourdieu — may lead to a certain degree of unpredictability, there is in anything other than the ideal social situation a limited number of groups to which one can belong, and thus a limited spectrum of choices available.
Given that Simmel sees these groups as disciplined templates of behavior, it is vital that we gain some idea of how these groups are “formed.” Though it is instructive that Simmel (or at least his translator) used this term, it seems his description refers more to the evolution of social groups from those based on terminus a quo to those based on terminus ad quem. (It is also interesting that he does not discuss possible counter-examples; I am thinking here of Silicon Valley as a city invented with already-established purposes. Other examples exist, I am sure.) Objective groups “constitute a superstrucure which develops over and above those group-affiliations which are formed according to natural, immediately given criteria” (p. 135). This superstructure eventually supersedes the “natural” relationships. However, Simmel does not succumb to the ex machina view of evolutionary change. It is clear that the move from a quo to ad quem exists within some collective move toward group affiliations.

These groups come about as a result of what we might call “individualistic mutations” in this process from organic to objective. Simmel brings forward Giordano Bruno as an exemplar of one of these mutations. But here Simmel draws some tenuous connection to a more Weberian view of the leader have vast, if unintended, effects on the social system. The division of groups for administrative reasons “makes possible a much higher, organic synthesis of the whole” (p. 194).

This evolution of the group is more than simply mechanical. Despite the increasingly fragmented (or networked) set of group affiliations, it is necessary for a “group mind” to evolve at an organic level. This holistic creation from deliberately heterogeneous cannot occur outside of the volition of individual actors. While the creation of groups and the overall social structure may not be determinant, it relies directly on the work of individual actors. This is a bottom-up view of social structure. We might find some recent theorizing borrowed from the world of physics instructive. Much of physics have moved from attempting to deduce micro behavior from macro events, and instead have begun trying to model macro events by describing micro behavior. In both cases, physicists are describing a systemic whole, yet in the latter approach, the individual, the unusual, the micro is not only privileged, but presented as causative. Though this word, which implies a certain determinacy, is not often used, as the behavior of the macro is more than the sum of its parts. This “extra bit,” however, cannot be described outside the generative process introduced by individual actors.

Though this has been alluded to several times above, Simmel’s description contains a strong emancipatory positivism. While the world he describes presents a wide variety of possible conditions for the individual, he seems to hold out for a certain progressive view of the move from traditional to modern society. Only with a very loose reading do we find explanations of cyclical “regressions” to a quo organization. How, for example, do we account for fascism within this view of society? Can individuals actually make choices, rational or otherwise, about group affiliation within the material world? How does the emergence (formation!) of the national socialists play within this view? Not only did this organization rapidly lead to an a quo group (that is, “naturalized” and unavoidable), but it seemed to do so by drawing explicitly on a nostalgic recreation of traditional group values. The road to modern society has quite a few bumps and a cul-de-sac or two. Simmel’s position would be stronger if these were better accounted for.

There are a number of other possible criticisms that could be leveled against Simmel’s view. The clearest of these is the claim that the individual can ever really choose the groups with which he or she affiliates. Bourdieu does not seem to grant nearly the same amount of agency to remove oneself from an inherited habitus and Hollis might point out that granting the individual this power still does not account for how the desire to join particular groups is instated in the first place. In fact, these two questions could be considered related. Simmel seems unprepared to examine volition, and sees the individual as an inviolable “black box.” In part, no doubt, this is a matter of perspective and attempting to put reasonable bounds on social inquiry. However, in doing so, he seems to dismiss the reciprocal effects of society on the individual’s preferences. A solution to this problem is seen in extending his ideas to within the black box, within the individual (cf. Minsky’s “society of mind”). He alludes briefly to such an extension when discussing the formation of the individual from the forces of various groups, but does not go very far along this path. It would be a long path indeed, as it would require a causative agent at some point.

Nonetheless, I feel that Simmel does more than any of the other authors we have read so far in describing just what kinds of choices might be made by the individual actor. These choices are entirely structural, in that they are about relations to others in the group(s), and yet maintain a surprising degree of individuality. Especially in an era when proximity is rapidly diminishing (“disappearing” being far too strong a word) as a formative factor in social structure, his ideas find a new foothold and present a solid basis for further exploration.

* Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Robert Bononno (trans.), (New York: Plenum, 1997).

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  1. Posted 2/2/2006 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi, thank you for the interesting read. i am currently studying sociology A level and we have come to social intereactionalist theory and in particular the works of Simmel. I find them facinating and very in depth reading

  2. Posted 11/6/2007 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    this was helpful, i just read it and it confirmed my own thoughts

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