The Persistence of Social Groups: III[1]

Georg Simmel

THE precisely contrary picture, namely, the most extreme ductility and exchangeability of the sociological forms as a condition of self-preservation, is shown for example by groups that maintain their existence within larger groups either by tolerance or it may be purely par nefas. Only by means of the most complete elasticity can such a society combine firmness of coherence with the constant necessity of defense or with the necessity of rapid shifting from defense to offense. Such a group must be able, so to speak, to crawl into every hole. It must be able, according to circumstances, to expand or to contract. Like a fluid body it must be able to take on any form that offers itself. Thus bands of rogues and conspirators must acquire capacity to divide instantly and to act in separate groups; to follow without restriction now this and now that leader; whether in direct or indirect contact, to preserve the same' group spirit ; after each disruption to reorganize themselves at once in any form that is possible at the moment, etc. They arrive in this way at that power of self-maintenance in consequence of which the Gipsies are wont to say of themselves: "It would be useless to hang us, for we never die." Similar assertions have been made about the Jews. The force of their social coherence, the sense of solidarity which is practically so influential among them, the actual, although often relaxed, exclusiveness toward all but Jews—this sociological bond, it is said, may have lost some of its confessional coloring since the emancipation, but it has only exchanged it for the capitalistic. For that very reason, it is said, "the invisible organization of the Jews is unconquerable, for so soon as hatred of Judaism robs it first of the power of the press, then of the power of capital, finally of equal civic rights, the Jewish societary unit does not forthwith disappear. It is only robbed of its socio-political organization. It is once more con

(36) -firmed in its original confessional coherence. This socio-political play has repeatedly occurred locally, and may be repeated universally." Indeed, when we observe the versatility of the individual Jew, his wonderful facility in adjusting himself to the most manifold tasks, and in adapting his personality to the shifting conditions of life, we might characterize this as a reflection of the sociological group form in the form of the individual. Whether this assertion about the history of the Jews is correct in substance or not, its presumption is equally instructive for us, viz., that the self-preservation of a social unit may be directly realized through change of its form of manifestation, or of its material basis ; that its power of persistence resides in this very capacity to undergo outward change.

Through their relations to further sociological concepts of more capital rank these two ways of social persistence come into especially characteristic antithesis. When, for instance, the preservation bf a group is very closely bound up with maintenance of a particular stratum in its existence and peculiarities—for example, the highest, the broadest, or the middle stratum—the first two cases demand more rigidity of the social-life form, the last more elasticity. Aristocracies are in general conservative. If they are in reality what the name asserts, they are the most adequate expression of the actual inequality between men. In this case—with reference to which I do not here inquire whether the presumed condition is ever more than partially realized—the spur is lacking for revolutionary movements, viz., non-correspondence between the inherent qualifications of the people and their social situation. Such lack of correspondence is the point of departure both for the most important and heroic of human deeds and for the most senseless undertakings. Given then this most favorable case of an aristocracy, the whole aristocratic class is bound to punctilious insistence upon the conditions which are essential to its preservation; for every experimental disturbance might threaten that fine and rare proportion between qualification and position, either in reality or in the feelings of the persons concerned, and thus might furnish an impulse for radical transformation.


The real occasion for such change of an aristocracy, however, will be that such absolute justification of the regulating system scarcely ever exists. The lordship of the few over the many is likely to rest rather on a totally different basis, and not on the ideal appropriateness of this relation. Under these circumstances the ruling class will have the utmost interest in affording the least occasion for movements toward disturbance and innovation, for every movement of that sort would stimulate the rightful or supposed claims of the ruled. There is danger in this case that not the persons merely, but the whole constitution, might be changed, and this is the decisive period for our course of thought. The very fact that violent changes in the personnel of the ruling class have often been brought about with the assistance of the masses calls attention to the possibility, which has not seldom become a reality, that on such an occasion the whole aristocratic principle may be overturned. Because of this connection the aristocratic form of constitution will maintain itself best through the utmost immobility of its status. This by no means holds good for political purposes alone. It is true also for ecclesiastical, family, and social groupings into which the aristocratic form may enter. In general, so soon as this form has once established itself, a severe conservatism will be most favorable, not merely for the momentary personal standing of the regulating system, but also for its preservation in form and principle.

This often appears clearly enough in the history of reformatory movements in aristocratic constitutions. That adaptation to newly emerging social forces or ideals, such as takes place through diminution of exploitation and subjection, through legal definition of rights in place of arbitrary interpretation, through increase of the rights and of the shares of goods assigned to the lower classes—such adaptation is not wont, so far as it is a voluntary concession, to find its ultimate purpose in that which is changed by the concession, but rather in that which may be preserved by means of such concession. The limitation of the aristocratic prerogative is only the conditio sine qua non of saving the aristocratic regime at all. If the movement is allowed to go

(38) so far, however, these concessions no longer suffice. Each reform is likely to uncover new points demanding reform, and the movement which was inaugurated for the confirmation of the existing order leads, as though on an inclined plane, either to the overthrow of that order or, if the new demands cannot prevail, to a radical reaction which may reverse the changes already made.. This danger which threatens at every modification and compliance of an aristocratic constitution, viz., that the concession made for the sake of self-preservation may by sheer force of its own specific gravity lead to a complete overthrow, exhibits conservatism, at the start, and the form of defense which is invariably rigid and unyielding, as most favorable for the aristocratic social form.

In case the form of the group is determined, not by the eminence of a numerically small stratum, but by the most extensive stratum and its autonomy, the self-preservation of the group will likewise be promoted by stability and unshaken firmness. An immediate influence in this direction is the fact that the great mass, in so far as it functions as the permanent vehicle of a social unity, is very rigid and immovable in its temper. The mass is in this respect very sharply distinguished from any multitude that may actually assemble. The latter is highly variable in its moods and acts, and may change its attitude from one extreme to another upon the most casual impulse. In case the mass is not roused by direct physical excitement and in consequence of stimulations and suggestions from opposite sides, nervous vacillation begins in place of firm direction, thus putting the mass at the mercy of every actual impulse; in case its deep and permanent character operates rather, the mass follows the law of inertia. It does not change its condition from rest or movement by its own initiative, but only as a result of the cooperation of new positive forces. Hence it is equally the case that movements which are carried on by great masses, and are left to themselves, move on consistently to their extreme, and on the other hand a once attained equilibrium of conditions is not easily abandoned, so far as the change depends on the mass. It corresponds better with the healthy instinct of the mass to guard

( 39) itself against change of circumstances and agitations by substantial firmness and rigidity of form rather than by pliable adaptation and quickly effected alteration of attitudes.

In the case of political constitutions, an additional element of essential importance is that the foundation of their social form upon that stratum which is most extensive and in which rights are most equal occurs chiefly among agricultural peoples —the old Roman peasant class and the old German community of free men are cases in point. Here the action of the social form is prejudiced by content of social interests. The cultivator of the soil is a priori conservative. His occupation requires long terms, abiding arrangements, resolute persistency. The uncertainties of the weather, upon which his fortunes hang, incline him to a certain fatalism, which shows itself, with respect to external powers, rather in enduring than in evading. His processes cannot be made to confront changes of conjunctions with such quick qualitative modifications as those of manufacturer or merchant. The technical conditions, therefore, create for groups whose form-maintenance is identical with that of a chiefly agricultural mass the disposition to procure this maintenance by firmness and persistence, not by variability of their life processes.

It is quite otherwise in case the middle class has undertaken leadership and the social form of the group stands or falls with the predominance of this middle class. This middle class alone has both an upper and a lower boundary. This is of such a sort that individuals are constantly brought within it both from the higher and from the lower class, and other individuals go from the middle class in either direction. The character of fluctuation is impressed on this stratum, therefore, and the appropriateness of its attitude will, therefore, be in large measure an appropriateness of adaptations, variations, concessions, through which the inevitable movement of the whole may be at least so guided or opposed that the essential form and force of the group may remain throughout all change of conditions. We may designate the sociological form of a group which is characterized by the extension and prevalence of a middle class as that of continuity.

( 40) Such a form coexists neither with an actual ungraded equality of individuals throughout the group, nor if the group consists of an upper and a lower class separated from each other by no intervening medium. The middle class, in fact, adds an entirely new sociological element. It is not only a third in addition to the two. It does not merely have somewhat the same, that is, quantitative, relation to each of these that they have to each other. The new element is rather that this third stratum itself has an upper and a lower boundary, that upon these boundaries an exchange with the other two strata is constantly taking place, and that through this continual fluctuation effacement of boundaries and continual transitions are produced.

An actual continuity of social life does not arise from the fact that individuals are built into positions one above another, with never so slight gradations. This would still produce discontinuous structure. Continuity exists only when single individuals circulate through higher and lower positions. Only thus is the separateness of strata changed over into an actually uninterrupted structure. In the fortune of the individuals the upper and the lower situation must first meet, in order that the sociological picture may show an actual mediation between the upper and the lower. Precisely this, and not a simple intermediate position, is secured by a middle class. It requires little reflection to discern that this closeness of gradation must characterize also the grades within the middle class. The continuity of stations with reference to repute, possessions, activity, culture, etc., rests not merely in the minuteness of the differences which are coordinated in an objective scale, but rather in the frequency of the change which leads one and the same person through a number of such situations, and thus produces at the same tittle perpetual and varying personal unions of objectively different situations. Under these circumstances the social aspect, as a whole, will be that of elasticity. The dominant middle class affords the medium of easy interchangeability of the elements, so that the self-preservation of the group throughout the change of external or internal circumstances and assaults is accomplished not so much because of fixity and rigidity in the

( 41) cohesion of its elements as because of facile yielding and quick transformation.

In the same way it may be shown, in the opposite direction, that a group with very many positions, built the one above another in close gradation, must have the character of decided fluidity and variability, if the greatest perplexities and disturbances are to be avoided. When a great multiplicity of situations is possible, it is from the outset less probable that each will at once fall into the right position than in the case of a fixed social system which assigns each a place within the great group comprehending many forms of action. Where a 'group contains only a few sharply distinguished stations, the individuals are there, as a rule, from the beginning carefully trained for their sphere. Such constitutions may secure harmony between the dispositions and the station of individuals through the fact that the separate life spheres are relatively broad, and their demands and opportunities are extensive enough to offer appropriate places for the individuals, diverse as they may be from variations of heredity, education, and example. A class constitution, consequently, provides for a preestablished harmony between the qualities or dispositions of the individual and his position in the social whole. In case, however, on account of the existence of an extensive middle class, the clearly defined classes have given place to a great number of graduated stations, the forces named cannot with certainty predispose the individual to the situation to which he belongs. What was in the other case preestablished harmony must in this case be reached a posteriori, empirically; the individual must have the possibility of passing from an inappropriate to an appropriate position. In this case, therefore, the self-preservation of the group form demands that there shall be easy shifting of boundaries, constant correction and interchangeability of situations, and likewise a ready constructibility of the latter, so that special individuals may find special positions. Thus, in order to maintain its integrity, a group with a predominant middle class needs a policy quite different from that of a group under aristocratic leadership, or one entirely without class divisions.


The following, however, is to be added : What instability and variability of the group form are in succession, that the division of labor is in coexistence. In the former case the group has to adapt itself by various modifications of its form to the different life conditions which emerge one after another. In the latter case the problem of the group is to adjust its varying individual members to satisfaction of the diverse coexisting demands. The whole diversity and gradation in callings and positions to which we have referred is evidently possible only through division of labor. Consequently this division of labor, like its counterpart, variability of social life form, is a characteristic of the middle class and of its predominance. Neither the aristocracy nor the class of free peasant citizens tends to any large degree of division of labor. The aristocracy has no such tendency, because every division of labor brings with it gradation of rank, and this is repugnant to the class consciousness and inimical to its unity. The peasant class does not have it, because it is not required or permitted by its technique. It is peculiar, however, that variability and division of labor, much as they essentially and in their personal agents depend on each other, with respect to the selfmaintenance of the group, often work in direct opposition to each other. This results, on the one hand, from the fact, emphasized above, that multiplicity and easy gradation of positions which arise from division of labor lead to all sorts of difficulties and perplexities, unless there be added easy mobility and transferability of the social elements. These tend to offset the dangers that come from extreme division of labor, viz., disintegration (Zersplitterung), one-sidedness, discrepancy between the talent and the station of individuals. On the other hand, the complementary relation of division of labor and variability in respect to maintenance of the group is manifest in the following manner. There will be many cases in which the inconstancy of the middle station produces uncertainty, indefiniteness, and uprooting. This is prevented by division of labor, since it binds the elements of the group wonderfully close together. Petty groups of nature peoples, however centralized their organization

(43) may be, are easily disrupted, because each little component of the group is equally capable of separate existence. Each can do just what the other can. Owing to the hardships of their lot in external relations they are thrown upon each other. No particular qualifications of these instinctive allies are involved, however. They can associate quite at will.

The cohesion of a great civilized group, on the other hand, rests on its division of labor. The one is absolutely dependent on the others. The disruption of the group would leave each individual quite helpless. Thus division of labor, with its linking of individuals to each other, works against variability in case this would harmfully affect the maintenance of the group. This will be observable even in small groups. A band of settlers will be on the whole very pliable and variable. It will dispose itself now in centralized form, now in very free fashion, according as it is under pressure from without or has plenty of scope for action. It will confide leadership according to changing interests to frequently changing persons. It will seek prosperity now in attachment to other groups, now in exercise of the largest autonomy. These variations of their sociological form will be sure in certain cases to promote self-preservation. On the whole, however, they will give occasion for conflicts, uncertainties, and divisions; all this is energetically counterbalanced by developed division of labor. On the one hand, this puts the individual into dependence upon the group; on the other hand, it gives the group a lively interest in holding fast to the individual.

In all the cases considered thus far, the easy changeability of group life, its inclination to transfers of both formal and personal sorts, has been an adaptation to the necessities of life ; a bending necessary to avoid breaking, whenever there is a lack of that substantial firmness which, in any event, would defeat every exertion of destructive force. By its variability the group responds to the change of circumstances, and accommodates it so that the result is its own confirmation. But it may now be asked whether such changeability, such persistence through changing and often contradictory conditions, actually promotes

( 44) the maintenance of the group merely as a reaction against the change of external conditions, or whether the most immanent principle of the group existence may not urge the same demand. Quite apart from the question, what external or internal occasions call forth the variations of its attitude, may not the force and health of the life process of the group, as development of purely inherent energies, be bound up with a certain change of its poise, a shifting of its interests, a somewhat frequent reconstruction of its form ? Of the individual we know that varying stimulations are necessary for maintenance. The force and unity of his existence are not preserved by unbroken mechanical sameness of external and internal condition and action. On the contrary, the individual is likewise naturally adapted to preservation of his unity in change, not merely of what he does and endures, but also in change within each of these factors of his experience. It is consequently not impossible that the bond which holds the group together needs varying stimulation in order to remain in consciousness and force. A hint of such relation of things is contained in certain phenomena which manifest an intimate mixture (Verschmelzung) between social unity in general and a definite content or equipment of the unity. A case in point occurs, as may easily be understood, when a condition that is definite either in content or otherwise remains long unchanged, and there is danger that the condition disturbed presently by some outward circumstance may drag down the social unity itself in its fall. Just as religious conceptions are often, by long reciprocal relationship, closely interwoven with moral feelings, and by virtue of this association the removal of the feeling by enlightenment results in uprooting the ethical norms at the same time, so a formerly rich family often goes to pieces on losing its property, and likewise many a poor family when it suddenly becomes rich. In a similar way a state that has always been free may be torn by factions and dissensions after it loses its freedom (I call to mind Athens after the Macedonian period, and likewise a state formerly under despotic rule so soon as it suddenly becomes free. The history of revolutions presents the latter case often enough. It appears, there-

( 45) -fore, as though a certain changeability in the conditions and formations of the group protects it against too rigid combination of the essential unity of the group with a particular form of the unity. In case this close combination exists in a group, the occurrence of a change, in spite of the rigid form, threatens the very life principle of the group. Against this danger frequent change seems to act like a sort of inoculation. The bond between the most essential and the less vital relationships remains looser, and a disturbance of the latter opposes less danger to the preservation of the group in its essential unity.

We are easily inclined to regard peace, harmony of interests, concord, as the essence of social self-preservation ; all antagonism, on the other hand, as destructive of the unity which it is the essential aim to preserve, and as the fruitless consumption of force which might be used for the positive up-building of the group organism. Yet it seems more correct to interpret a certain rhythm between peace and strife as the preservative life form. This interpretation may be applied equally in two directions. It is true both of struggle between the group as a whole and external foes, in alternation with peaceful epochs, and also of the strife of competitors, parties, opposing tendencies of every sort, by the side of the facts of community 'and of harmony. The one is an alternative between harmonious and discordant phenomena in a series, the latter in coexistence. The motive of both is in the last analysis one and the same. It realizes itself in different ways. The struggle against a power standing outside the group brings the unity of the group and the necessity of maintaining it unshaken to most lively consciousness. It is a fact of the greatest social significance, one of the few which are true almost without exception of group formations` of every sort, that common antagonism against a third party under all circumstances tends to consolidate the combining group, and with much greater certainty than community in friendly relationships toward a third party. There is scarcely a group—domestic, ecclesiastic, economic, political, or whatever—that can dispense entirely with this cement. In the purest reciprocity there develops here the consciousness of existing unity and practical

(46) reinforcement of it, each growing and working on the basis of the other.

It appears to be necessary for us human beings, whose whole psychical nature is built upon our sensitiveness of difference, that a feeling of separateness should always exist alongside of the feeling o£ unity to make this latter perceptible and tangible. Now this process may, as suggested, proceed within the group itself. Aversions and antagonism between group elements may bring the actual unity of the whole, existing in spite of them, to keener effectiveness. Since these oppositions shorten the social binding cords, they tighten them at the same time and thus make them more perceptible. This is also the way to snap them, to be sure. But before that occurs, these countermovements, which are possible only on the basis of fundamental coherence and closeness of relationship, will have brought these oppositions into more and more energetic functioning. Nor is it essential whether the adjustment is accompanied by correspondingly sharpened consciousness of the adaptation or not. Thus attacks and violence among the members of a community have had as a consequence the enactment of laws in defense against such assaults. Although these laws were measures in opposition to the hostile egoism of individuals, yet they brought the community as a whole to consciousness and expression of its totality, its coherence, its solidarity, and its unity of interest. In like manner economic competition is a highly intimate reciprocal relationship which brings the competitors and their customers closer together. It makes the former more dependent upon the latter and upon each other than they would be if it had not existed. Accordingly, this wish to anticipate hostilities and to minimize their consequences has led to unifications (for example, industrial and political compacts), to all sorts of usages in economic and other transactions, which, although they grew up solely on the ground of actual or possible antagonism, nevertheless have resulted in positive promotion of the coherence of the whole.

This double role of opposition as related to social self-preservation—with reference to external and to internal relations, as

(47) antithesis between the whole group and an external power, and as antithesis between the elements of the group among themselves —is reproduced as genuine sociological life form in the narrower relationships between individual people. These also plainly need the stimulus of difference in order to retain and protect their unity. Now this difference may reside either within the relationship itself, in the different characteristics of its temporal divisions, or in the difference which appears between the relationship as a whole and, on the other hand, experiences and emotions quite outside of it. Thus it is often remarked that friendship, love, and marriage need occasional interruptions in order to get a true realization of their meaning and intimacy (Festigkeit), after reconciliation. Similar relationships are to be distinguished which do not require this internal difference, but rather, along with more even internal character, become conscious of their own weal through the difference from that which the world otherwise affords, and that which is otherwise known of it. The last form surely stands higher in the scale, and gives evidence of stronger, positive motives of coherence. The first form, in its turn, stands lower, according to the degree of frequency in the alternation between the divergent and the convergent periods. The lowest grade is represented by the formula: " One minute blows, the next agreement (Pack schlägt sich, Pack vertragt sich)." This marks a condition in which the essential and permanent relationships have only a slight value in consciousness ; the disposition being rather determined at each moment by external stimuli, which work in accidental alternation, now in attraction, now in repulsion. For that very reason, however, there is in all this a deep utility in connection with the promotion of coherence. For wherever the occasion to be conscious of precisely this coherence is in itself slight, and the capability of appreciating it is itself not particularly developed, there will be needed, in order to arouse it, constantly renewed psychological impulses and rude stimulation from contrasts. These cannot be furnished better than in the form of constantly renewed agreements after constantly repeated disagreements. This at the same time affords the background from which unity at last appears.

(48) I come back, herewith, to the starting point of this discussion. Enmities and strifes are, in their significance for the selfpreservation of the group, the characteristic examples for the value which variability of group life, change of its forms of activity, possess for this purpose. For, although antagonism, in general, never entirely and universally dies out, yet it accords with its nature to build only a spatially and temporally limited section between the operations of the forces that make for coherence and unified harmony. In its peculiar nature, antagonism presents one of those contrast-stimuli, evidently demanded by the innermost needs of the unifying social bond, because there, as elsewhere, the permanent can emerge and come to conscious force only as a function of the changeable. Social unity is the abiding form, or element, or whatever we may call it, which asserts itself as the substantial in all changes of its peculiar, special shape, its content, its relations to the social interests and destinies; and asserts itself the more, the livelier the change of these factors. The depth (Vertiefung), intensiveness (Festigkeit), and unity of the marriage relationship, for example, is surely, ceteris paribus, a function of the manifoldness and changeableness of the destinies, the experience of which stands out in distinction from the unchangeability of the matrimonial communion.

It is the essence of the human that the condition of the existence of its separate factors is the existence of their opposites. The manifoldness of formations, of changes, of contents, is so essential for the self-preservation of the group, not only because in each limited period the unity of the group stands out in contrast with the passing variations, but especially because the unity always recurs as the same, while the formations, the changes, the contents, from which it is distinguished are each time different. It therefore gains thereby, as against all interruptions, those chances of confirmation and effectiveness which truth possesses over error. Little as the truth, in and of itself, in the isolated case, possesses an advantage, or a mystic power of prevalence, over error, yet its ultimate victory is probable for the reason that truth is only one, while errors about the same subject are

( 49) countless. It is therefore to be assumed from the start that the truth will more frequently reappear in the see-saw of opinions, not than error in general, to be sure, but than any given error. So the unity of the social group has the chance to preserve, to strengthen, and to deepen itself against all interruptions and fluctuations, because these are always of different sorts, while the group unity at each reappearance is the same. By virtue of this fact, the above discussed favorable consequences of social variability for the maintenance of the group may exist without the necessity that the fact of change in general shall enter into serious competition with the principle of unity.

I close these criticisms herewith. In the nature of the case they do not attempt completeness in any direction. They rather serve to exemplify the principle which alone, in my opinion, can found an independent science of sociology, viz., the abstraction of socialization, as a form of existence with and for others, from the concrete conditions, interests, emotions, which make up the content of that form. Neither hunger nor love, neither labor nor the religious sentiment, neither technique nor the contents of intelligence, are in and of themselves alone social in character; but the coexistence and reciprocal influence of human beings make them factors actual and effectual. Although reciprocity, unity, contrasted station of human beings emerge always merely as the form of some concrete content, yet upon abstracting isolation of that form from the content rests the possibility of a science of society in the exact sense. This, as a matter of course, is not affected by the circumstance that the content of socialization, its material purpose and interest, often, if not always, decides upon its special formation. Thus the geometrical description of a crystalline form is a problem the independence of which is absolutely unaffected by the fact that its realization in the case of a single body depends upon the chemical constitution of the same. The enormous wealth of problems which this point of view makes visible within the field of historical reality seems to be beyond doubt. In view of the fact, however, that this point of view has not yet been used to differentiate a special province of research, it is first of all in order to

( 50) train the vision to discern in the case of separate phenomena what is sociological and what belongs in the domain of other sciences, in order that sociology may at last stop plowing in already cultivated fields. This study is dedicated to that propaedeutical purpose.



  1. Translated by ALBION W. SMALL.

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