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Appendix: Simmel, Coser, and Functionalist Conflict Theory

The term "conflict theory" is sometimes used for a rather different tradition of analysis begun in Germany by one of Weber's contemporaries, Georg Simmel. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was revived and formally expounded by the GermanAmerican Lewis Coser. Nevertheless its tone and its analytical apparatus cuts in quite a different direction than the MarxWeber lineage of ideas. Coser tried to show that conflict could be incorporated within the perspective of functionalism as another support of social order. If one looks at Simmel's original arguments, the conservative themes are even more marked.

Simmel's one major sociological work, his Soziologie ( 1908), shows a programmatic structure that could have been most fruitful. He pushes for a structural perspective, the social forms that are to be analyzed beyond their specific empirical contents and beyond a merely psychological outlook. And if the emphasis on forms comes from a Kantian philosophical tradition, Simmel is equally German in the emphasis he gives to stratification and conflict. Hierarchy ("superordination and subordination") is a fundamental topic for Simmel. He treats it early in the book and follows it with an analysis of conflict, so often the concomitant of hierarchy. No utopian idealist he.

Nevertheless it is apparent that Simmel's interest in these hard-nosed aspects of society is largely negative and polemical. The very first chapter [translated as "The Problem of Sociology" in Kurt Wolff (ed.), Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and


Aesthetics ( 1965)] starts off by criticizing the existing approach to sociology, which Simmel saw as stemming from the rise of the socialist movement in the nineteenth century. It is this movement (perhaps Simmel had Comte in mind as well as the Marxists) that exalts the class over the individual and, hence, substitutes a new level of analysis. Fair enough, Simmel will enter into that level; but he will do it by proclaiming that sociology must detach itself from the usual contents of social issues and give a formal analysis of the structural forms underlying all sociation. The justification for doing so, he declares (in a passage entitled "How Is Society Possible?"), is by allusion to a neo-Kantian concern for forms.

Simmel's approach to sociology is ambiguous. He does catch a vision of a structural science of sociology, but this works out largely as a cover for his polemical intent: to attack the socialistic world view and defend individualism. For instance, his first substantive chapter begins with a section "On the Significance of Numbers for Social Life." A promising beginning. But where we would expect an abstract analysis, his opening example is labeled "Socialism," and its point is to declare that socialism is impossible as a modern political ideal because equality is possible only in a small group. It is not even a good theoretical point; empirically small groups may be quite authoritarian and hierarchical (think of the patriarchal family) and large-scale societies certainly can approach social equality to some degree. Even if absolute equality is ruled out, economic differences between today's socialist and capitalist societies are substantial.

The example, unfortunately, is all too representative of what Simmel does with his formal approach. Over and over again he makes points of an allegedly universal and theoretical nature, but they represent (more than anything) his own prejudices. Large groups, he declares, are mindless and authoritarian-hardly an original point but a common charge among the conservatives of his day. (And of earlier days as well -- elements of this are found in Aristotle's attacks on democracy.) When Simmel discusses the poor, he throws in a section on "The Negative Character of Collective Behavior." He speaks of "The Sociological Error of Socialism and Anarchism" as search-


ing for freedom in directions that always bring about domination because large groups must always be hierarchical. (Must they always become steadily more hierarchical the larger they are? Simmel assumes so, but he never proves it, nor even seems to think any variation is possible.) When he speaks of coercion, it is in a rather unrealistic fashion; coercion is not the basis of domination, merely something that is sometimes added onto it. Simmel discusses force only in the philosophical context of the doctrine that people ought to be coerced for the good of the social order. Simmel does not entirely agree (he is after all a nineteenth-century Liberal), but he still believes that the majority of people may well need to be coerced into behaving ( Simmel is an elitist Liberal, no John Stuart Mill).

And so it goes. Time and again Simmel's headings get up one's hopes, but his content is usually disappointing. The reason is that Simmel is carrying on an underlying polemic almost from beginning to end. The contrast with Weber, who shared many of Simmel's political views, is instructive. Weber really did take his value neutrality seriously; Simmel by comparison seems shallow. The same holds on the empirical side. Simmel is not without empirical reference; in fact he fills his pages with examples of different types of groups. But they are mainly casual observations, good stories of just the sort that would entertain a dinner party but that are never checked for their truthfulness (e.g., Simmel illustrates the place of numbers in social life by an anecdote of a group of friends who broke a plate into a dozen pieces and each kept one to represent their unity). Or else there are historical examples: the customs and political constitutions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the New England township, the structure and practices of the medieval Papacy (the last quite a favorite source of examples for Simmel). But they remain merely examples. Unlike Weber, Simmel never goes into a comparison of cases nor makes even the most rudimetary effort to see if the preponderance of the evidence is on his side. Instead, he is content to provide a colorful illustration for each of his categories.

One point that Simmel is at pains to make is that bourgeois society is the precondition for individualism. He does not put it quite like that: it would be too overtly polemical and not


"formal" enough, but the message comes through nevertheless. The great danger is the mass society touted by socialists: it destroys individualism. (This sounds like Friedrich Nietzsche, whose vogue in the 1890s and early 1900s coincided with Simmel's activity.) What makes possible individualism is a largescale society with considerable internal differentiation. Where individuals are simultaneously members of various groups ("the intersection of social circles"), that is where individualism flourishes.

That this is part of a specifically bourgeois, capitalist order is made plain in Simmel other major book, The Philosophy of Money ( 1900). Incidentally, this work is genuinely philosophy, in much the same way that Marx's early economics was simultaneously philosophy. Simmel reads like almost a direct refutation of Marx (as well as of other economists). Economic value is an objectification produced by separating the individual from the object. Whereas for Marx this is a definition of alienation, for Simmel this is a positive result, analogous to aesthetic values, which he declares are produced by the same objectifying process. Simmel goes on to argue that this objectification and transcendence of subjectivity is due to the exchange process; contrary to Marx, exchange value is absolutely central and use value is not economic value at all. Money is a symbol of objectivity that emerges in a relationship among subjective elements; as such, Simmel pointedly remarks, money is analogous to truth itself. He goes on to attack the Marxian labor theory of value. Not only does Marx's theory ignore mental labor in favor of physical; but, even more, physical labor derives its value from the psychical effort involved in it!

Simmel's evaluation of money is thus very much of the positive side. Money allows for anonymity and emotional detachment among persons; thus, it breaks down the omnipresent group controls of traditional society. Money is the basis of individual freedom. This is not to say that Simmel sees nothing negative about modern capitalist society. He expresses his opinions (of the sort that have become clichés among modern intellectuals) that modern life has become calculating, emotionless, and, hence, characterized by greed, wastefulness, miserliness, cynicism, and boredom. Money generates the "decadent


personality type." Simmel is explicit that these are two sides of the same coin: the price of modern individualism and freedom is the deracination of personality. On the whole Simmel is willing to pay the price. He speaks of how personal culture lags behind material culture. The latter, we may surmise from his sociological writings, means the exalted conversation and aesthetic appreciation of fin de siècle salon society, that is, Simmel's own upper-bourgeois milieu. Simmel was known as a fascinating conversationalist, and the best aspects of his sociology come through in the Goffmanesque portraits of the "playful" world of talk, of secrets ( Goffman's backstages), of intimacy, and of sexual affairs. It is here that individualism is in its element, especially if one is a cosmopolitan insider/outsider with entrée to many groups but permanently enclosed by none.

This makes sense if one realizes what kind of career Simmel was pursuing. As a private lecturer ( Privatdozent) in philosophy, he made his reputation by publishing a large number of popular articles in newspapers and magazines as Well as both long and short books. He wrote a great deal on art, culture, women, coquetry, and other subjects of the drawingroom culture of his day. His Soziologie ( 1908) was his eleventh book, sandwiched in between Schopenhauer und Nietzsche ( 1907) and Hauptprobleme der Philosophie ( 1910) ( Major Problems of Philosophy). The truth of the matter is that Simmel was not particularly serious about sociology, and his writings show it. Even his bourgeois background did not set him in a serious direction. It apparently gave him his political prejudices, but no insight into the economic side of the world. And this too makes sense when one realizes that his family connections were all in the luxury side of business. His father owned a famous chocolate factory; the father died when Simmel was a boy, and Simmel acquired as a guardian the head of a musicpublishing house. Georg Simmel inherited a considerable fortune and never had to enter the grubby world of work, except at his own pleasure. The background to be sure is not too dissimilar from that of Weber. But Weber's family was in basic industry, not luxury trades, and Weber grew up in the inner


milieu of Reichstag politics. Both men were privy to secrets; but for Weber these were the backstage secrets of political manuever, whereas Simmel's backstage was merely that of sexual gossip at elegant salon parties.

When Simmel writes about conflict, then, it is in order to disprove the contentions of the Marxian conflict theorists (and perhaps also the military Realpolitik theorists). For Simmel, conflict does not produce social change; it is merely another structural relationship endemic to any social form. He sees that it has something to do with domination, but it does nothing to change the system of domination. It is merely another drama of social life to be appreciated, scarcely more than another salon entertainment.

Simmel really only became part of the larger conflict theory tradition in the 1950s, when Lewis Coser reformulated his ideas, and Kurt Wolff and Reinhard Bendix (the latter a Weberian political sociologist) translated his key texts about conflict. Coser was still attempting to adapt the model of conflict to the functionalist theory of social order that was dominant in the United States at the time, but Coser himself was more sympathetic to left-wing movements for social change. Coser purified Simmel by eliminating the anti-socialist polemics and pulling out the principles that have wide-ranging application to all kinds of conflicts. Conflict sharpens the sense of group boundaries. Conflict is most intense when it breaks out between individuals or groups who are already closely related, because then it is most threatening to the group. External conflict draws a group together more cohesively; for this reason, groups often search for external enemies in order to maintain internal order. Ironically, antagonists become bound to one another, much as in an arms race the militarists on both sides owe their influence to each other; in the same way, the militant ideologists in opposing social movements are surreptitiously bound together more closely than are their followers. And conflicts tend to spread, by the process through which each side tries to bring in neutral parties into a coalition.

Coser's formulation of these principles began a modern school of research on the process of conflict itself. Coser's work appeared at about the same time as Dahrendorf's theory of class


conflict (which overlaps with some of these principles), and the combination of the two lines of theory made sociologists aware that there was a major tradition that could be called conflict theory.


Some commentators have noticed a difference between Engels and Marx. For the most part they have made the distinction to the disparagement of Engels, who is regarded as more dogmatically materialist and doctrinaire. Engels's late essay ( 1873-1874) applying the dialectic to physical science was criticized by philosophical Marxists of the 1920s such as Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch. Recent Marxists (e.g., Norman Levine, The Tragic Deception: Marx Contra Engels, Oxford: Clio Press, 1975) have attacked Engels for lacking Marx's humanistic vision, which was derived from the Young Hegelians. As a result Engels was allegedly the forbear of Stalinist oppression that the more humanistic Marx would have disavowed. The attack 'is completely wrongheaded. It is true that increasingly "soft" Hegelian reinterpretations of Marx have become popular in the last few decades (and the revival of interest in Lukács and Korsch, both of them Hegelian philosophers, is part of this mood), but this is largely because a declining faith in the economic inevitability of capitalist crisis, and a general mood of antagonism to science: a mood that neither Marx nor Engels shared. The Hegelianism is largely an element of mystification, which keeps us from seeing the actual sociological processes that Engel opened up. The real difficulty of Marx's economic system, in fact, is the way that he continually tried to fit it into the frame of Hegelian categories. Engels opposed paying so much attention to the Young Hegelians (he did not want to add a long section on Feuerbach to The German Ideology, regarding him as unrealistic; among all the manuscripts of Marx that Engels did publish posthumously, he did not include the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844"). This has been taken as a weakness on Engels' part, and so has his lack of interest in the more abstract convolutions of Marx's economics. But one could say more justly that Engels had a better sense of what was worthwhile as a realistic analysis of the social world. Moreover it is hardly the case that Engels was the more dogmatic of the two. His essays on the "dialectics of nature" are not notably successful and only point out a



  kind of metaphorical resemblance between the dialectic and various physical and biological processes. But the effort showed Engels' intellectual breadth and his interest in the laws of nature, which was part of his general push towards making a science of society as well. He used the dialectic on his own turf merely to sensitize one to processes of conflict and change, as one can see in his historical writings. In fact Engels gave considerable weight to the priority of empirical complexities over preconceived theory, and he used the dialectic as a way of overcoming any crude materialism. He was willing to give the "superstructure" of politics and ideology the dignity of an independent pole in the dialectic with the economic "base" ( Leonard Krieger, "Introduction" to Friedrich Engels, The German Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967: xx).
Characteristically, Engels gave credit to Marx, whose ideas he claimed he was merely elaborating. This seems dubious. Engels's theory became the rallying point for radical feminism; under its influence, the German socialist party took a strongly pro-feminist stance, claiming that the only way to achieve sexual equality was to replace capitalism by socialism. Marx, on the other hand, was rather strongly antifeminist. In 1872, he ordered the International Workingman's Association to expel an American chapter, led by Victoria Woodhull, that had feminism (along with Negro rights) among its top priorities. Marx declared that the association must rid itself of those who gave "precedence to the women's question over the question of labor" and who advocated "women's franchise, and . . . all sorts of nonsense" (in Hans Gerth, ed., The First International: Minutes of the Hague Conference of 1872, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1958: 177-78, 194-95, 248, 264-67). Privately, as well, Marx was very much a traditional sexist. He ran an authoritarian, Victorian home, regarded his wife as little more than housekeeper and mother of his children, and referred to her in his letters to Engels as merely a harried, "silly" creature ( Levine, 1975: 232, 238-39). Marx's daughter, who worshipped him, lists his answers to the questions: "Your favorite virtue in man: Strength. Your favorite virtue in women: Weakness" [quoted in Erich Fromm, ed., Marx's. Concept of Man ( N.Y.: Frederick Ungar, 1961: 257)]. Marx seemed to think that the relation of man to woman was simply a natural relationship [in his "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844," Ibid., p. 126 ]. Engels was on the contrary somewhat of a romantic and a supporter of the new underground ideals of sexual liberation. He supported and lived with a working-class Irish woman, Mary Burns. But Marx and his wife pointedly snubbed Mary Burns when Engels tried to introduce her



  to them because she and Engels were not married; their moral disapproval fell totally on Mary Burns, not on her male partner. The one time in their relationship that Engels was genuinely hurt by Marx was when Mary Burns died and Marx refused to extend any condolences. Given these sharp differences in their attitudes, it is not surprising that Engels did not publish The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State until the year after Marx died.
Weber's theory is not well known and has remained buried in his lengthy works, especially his encyclopedic Economy and Society as well as in his lectures on General Economic History. For an exposition and development of this theory, see Randall Collins, "Weber's Theory of the. Family", in my Weberian Sociological Theory ( Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).




Date: 2015-04-20; view: 1353

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