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Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was a sociologist and is widely credited to founding the sociological branch of exchange theory. Born in Berlin, he studied philosophy and history at the University of Berlin, using a large sum of money inherited from his deceased father. Founding the German Sociological Association in 1910, he was a pivotal member of the sociological community even though he didn't acquire any awards. Unfortunately, his prominence would be diminished as his work was diminished during a time of rising anti-semitism prior to the Third Reich (Simmel was of Jewish ancestry). Despite this, his works persisted and his unique approach to a broad scale of understanding of social life remains to be an important developed thought for the discipline.
Georg Simmel revolutionized sociology by defining it uniquely: instead of focusing on a traditionally empirical and scientific approach to understanding social life, Simmel addressed social life in 'dualistic' terms, in the form of give-take aspects of society. In a sense, he questioned the previous assumption that society had a unilateral definition of itself and suggested that instead it consisted of functionally oppositional forces. Give and take, good and evil, up and down. His thought was based on the idea that one cannot understand part of society or a social event without understanding the comparative equivalent. His works were reflective of the continuous industrial times and the increasingly prevalent nature of dense societies and the nature that people make decisions.
Simmel's work primarily is rooted in the idea of duality, meaning an oppositional dialectic explanation for the ways that people interact with each other and form groups. Simmel worked on many different topics, one of which was fashion in his contemporary era. By fashion, he refers to the characterization of people's attires, and how they relate to group cohesion and separation within the confines of macro society. Simmel's view on fashion's role in society is twofold.
The first is that fashion demonstrates a level of group cohesion with what is currently 'popular'. Passing fashion trends, brands that are regarded as desired, and types of blouses or shirts that are similar to the already existing groups of fashion coherence all fall under this category. What this form of fashion does, regardless of the fashion being practiced, is that it creates a picture at which an individual is able to express his or her belonging with an already existing social group. They are able to demonstrate that they understand the implicit meanings of the fashion given and apply that to themselves in a sufficient way, resulting in a situation where that person is regarded as a part of the collective.
There is a separation component as well, however. To adopt a certain fashion trend is to pick out of the given ones or to create one yourself. Regardless of which one you do, you are simultaneously rejecting other forms of fashion not similar to the one that you are associating with. To pick a dress is to decline wearing a pair of pants, and to wear a V-neck is to decline wearing a dress shirt. By expressing your belonging in a certain group, you are simultaneously expressing your non-belonging in any other given social group that is not similar enough to the one you're a part of. This type of differentiation serves a purpose: to create meaning in the given groups of fashion. Without other groups of fashion to compare yours to, there can be no understanding as to what is even fashion in the first place. At that point, it would all simply be meaningless clothing with no trend or obvious group.
The form of 'fitting in' and differentiation for fashion is also applicable to other types of social meanings, such as political party, religion, school club, college major, and many other types of group exclusionary and inclusive practices. In particular, even creating a new group entirely on your own is still indicative to a non-zero amount of belonging within yourself, and thus your own, original group becomes yet another one in the overall sphere of society.
Another dialectic that Simmel points out is one that tends to appear in dense social groups. He describes the peculiar happening of a city in which there are an increasingly large number of people whom one does not know. However, to address every single person whom one meets in a busy metropolitan day would expend more energy than is in the capacity of most individuals. Simmel therefore remarks an observed expression that people demonstrate: the 'blasé' attitude. Reflected from an understanding of closeness, in that the people are physically near you, and an understanding of distance, in that people don't know each other, the necessary result is that people in such confines of each other, such as on a public bus, in an elevator, in a long line, or even a sports arena. In these situations, people show a heightened awareness/disawareness of the people around themselves. It is not that these people are being ignored, but rather that they are specifically being marked as relatively unimportant for the specific scenario.
"The Stranger" is an essay that Simmel developed, which discusses the nature of a direct interaction with a 'stranger'. Here again, there is a duality in that a label of 'stranger', indicating both a closeness and a distance. It represents a distance because of the informational nature, or lack thereof, of the interaction between the two people. The closeness manifests in how the giving of the label 'stranger' in the first place represents a set of reactions meant for 'strangers'. Indicating that such a label is necessary demonstrates the close relational nature of defining an interaction, and acknowledging that the interaction exists in the first place. In addition, there is a mutual understanding that neither party in the interaction is aware of the other's biography. As such, both people, whilst being unknowing of each other, can take comfort in the knowledge that neither know of each other.
The concept of exchange
Simmel's most important work is arguably his work on the concept of monetary and social exchange. Following his logic of duality, he reasons that all interactions are a form of rudimentary exchange, a give-take relationship. The things that are given are not necessarily monetary or even physical objects, but yet a thing is given in the first place is still inscrutable. No matter the content of the exchange, an exchange is made nonetheless. In this context, exchange usually refers to the mutual change between and within the individuals making such. The exchange requires the use of a cost, whether it be time, resources, or feelings, and a simultaneous acknowledgment that something was gained that was not previously had, such as a service, a good, or a reaction. What a person gains from an exchange is not always what they wanted to get, but nevertheless an exchange was still made. In this essence, not all exchanges are necessarily consensual.
A peculiar detail about the nature of exchange is one that concerns value propositions, numbers assigned to objects. The number given to an object is not an inscribed one, but instead an externally placed number that both parties of an exchange agree to as an effect of the exchange. When a person goes to the store and buys an object, they are necessarily agreeing to the value of said object despite and initial reactions or complaints about the inordinacy of said price. If the price is legitimately too much cost for the person in question, they would not make the exchange in the first place. While this raises questions about the fundamental nature of valuing money itself, the observation is still necessarily made that value comes not from a declaration of value, but rather from a practice and application of that value.
- The Stranger by Georg Simmel