Individual Culture Objective Culture


The impact of the ideas of Georg Simmel  on American Sociological theory differs markedly from that of the three theorist. They are Marx , Durkheim and Weber.  Despite their latest significance, had relatively little influence on Amercian theories (early 20th). This article will describe simmel’s concept of Individual Culture and objective culture.

Dyad and Triad

Simmel considered the size of the group in which social action takes place to be a factor in determining the nature of the group. Here he was concerned with the form of the group, rather than the content of the interaction. In the dyad, a relationship can be considered relatively straightforward, in that each individual can present themselves to the other in a way that maintains their identity, and either party can end the relationship by withdrawing from it. Various strategies emerge in the triad that change the form of interaction from the dyad. In the triad, there may be strategies that lead to competition, alliances, or mediation. The triad is likely to develop a group structure independent of the individuals in it, whereas this is less likely in the dyad (Ritzer, p. 166).

As group size increases even more, Ritzer notes that “the increase in the size of the group or society increases individual freedom.” (p. 167). The small circle of early or premodern times,

The metropolis

The metropolis or city becomes the location where the division of labour is the greatest and where this individuality and individual freedom is most expanded. At the same time Simmel notes that for the individual this creates the “difficulty of asserting his own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life.” (Farganis, p. 142). The growth of the city, the increasing number of people in the city, and the “brevity and scarcity of the inter-human contacts granted to the metropolitan man, as compared to the social intercourse of the small town” (Farganis, p. 143) makes the “objective spirit” dominate over the “subjective spirit.

” Modern culture in terms of language, production, art, science, etc. is “at an ever increasing distance.” This is the result of the growth of the division of labour and the specialization in individual pursuits that is a necessary part of this. Subjective culture is “the capacity of the actor to produce, absorb, and control the elements of objective culture. In an ideal sense, individual culture shapes, and is shaped by, objective culture. The problem is that objective culture comes to have a life of its own.” (Ritzer, p.162).

“The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of objective life.” (Farganis, p. 143). This sounds much like Marx’s alienation, Durkheim’s anomie, or Weber’s rationalization, although Simmel associates this with the city, rather than with the society as a whole, as do the other classical writers.

Individual Culture

Where Simmel differs from these other classic writers, is that Simmel returns to the individual, analyzing how the individual deals with the developments of modern society, and considering how the individual personality is developed in these circumstances. Simmel notes that one way individuals assert a personality is to “be different,” to adopt manners, fashions, styles, “to appear concentrated and strikingly characteristic.” The brevity and fleetingness of contact in the city mean that lasting impressions based on regular and habitual interaction with others cannot be developed.

In these circumstances, obtaining self-esteem and having “the sense of filling a position” we can develop by seeking “the awareness of others.” (Farganis, p. 143). This means that individuals may adopt some characteristic fashions and in their personal mannerisms may try to appear “to the point.” Note that the personality is not an isolated entity but also is a social entity, one that depends on interaction. Social interaction, looking to the reaction of others, and seeking the recognition and awareness of others is an essential aspect of individual personality. In this way Simmel ties together the individual and the social, and each require the existence of the other.

The City

Further, the intellect and personal psyche develop in a different way in traditional and in modern society. In rural and small town settings, impressions of others are built up gradually, over time, on the basis of habit. Many of these impressions are less conscious and are built on more deeply felt and emotional relationships. (Farganis, p. 136). In contrast, in the city, there is sharp discontinuity, single glances, a multitude of quick impressions.

Thus the metropolitan type of man — which, of course, exists in a thousand individual variants — develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. ….  (Farganis, p. 137)

Objective Culture

Thus Simmel views objective culture as having an effect on the individual, but at the same time considers how this alters the development of the individual, how the individual understands this and develops in this context, how the individual interacts with other individuals, and how these interactions form the social life of the city. Simmel concludes his essay by noting how the city influences individuals and provides the “opportunities and the stimuli for the development of … ways of allocating roles to men. Therewith these conditions gain a unique place, pregnant with inestimable meanings for the development of psychic existence.” (Farganis, p. 144). Note “allocating roles to men” rather than “men to roles” as the structural functionalist might describe this process. While Simmel is concerned with the possible negative effects of objective culture, he considers it possible for personalities to develop within these conditions.

Individual and Society

For Simmel, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and society — individuals are free and creative spirits, yet are part of the socialization process. Simmel was troubled by this relationship, viewing modern society as freeing the individual from historical and traditional bonds and creating much greater individual freedom, but with individuals also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. Simmel notes:

The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of external culture, and of the technique of life. (Farganis, p. 136).

Simmel makes three assumptions about the individual and society. (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 312). These are:

Individuals are both within and outside society.Individuals are both objects and subjects within networks of communicative interaction.Individuals have the impulse to be self-fulfilling and self-completing, that is, they seek an integrated self-concept. Society also tries to integrate itself (like Durkheim noted), although the effect of this may be in opposition to individual integrity.

Creative Consciousness

people realizes the above assumptions  as individuals interact with one another. Ritzer notes that humans possess creative consciousness and the basis of social life is “conscious individuals or groups of individuals who interact with one another for a variety of motives, purposes, and interests.” (p. 163) People are conscious and creative individuals and the mind plays a crucial role in this mutual orientation and social interaction. This creativity allows for flexibility and freedom on the part of the individual, but at the same time it helps to create the structures of objective culture that may constrain and stifle this freedom. That is, social interaction becomes regularized and has patterns to it, and these become forms of association. These patterns and forms, regardless of their content, is what sociologists should study.

Society as a set of interactions

This means that society is not a separate reality of its own, but “society merely is the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction … society certainly is not a ‘substance,’ nothing concrete, but an event: it is the function of receiving and affecting the fate and development of one individual by the other.” For Simmel, society is nothing but experience, and social forces are not external to, nor necessarily constraining for the individual, rather it is individuals who reproduce society every living moment through their actions and interactions. Ritzer notes that Simmel disagreed with Durkheim that “society is a real, material entity” and did not view society as merely a collection of individuals. Rather, he adopted the position of “society as a set of interactions.” (p. 170).


The individual in a social unit must be an entity or constituent part of the unit, and Simmel distinguishes between a personal self and a social self. If there is no self-consciousness, symbolic interaction would disappear and human experience would just be the responses to stimuli. Instead, we live and die in terms of what is inter subjectively meaningful — i.e. view ourselves in terms of responses of others – and even on others who we have never met.

Ashley and Orenstein (p. 316) provide an example using sex and gender differences. Within a patriarchal or unequal male/female relationship, relations may appear to be intimate and spontaneous.

Read Also : What is the definition of fashion according to georg simmel ? A summary of simmel’s fashion analysis

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