What is society according to sociologists Georg Simmel and David Émile Durkheim?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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David Émile Durkheim is considered "the principle architect of modern social science and the father of sociology," which is the study of behavior within society ("Emile Durkheim"). Durkheim particularly wanted to understand how societies could remain whole and unified, especially in an era when sharing religion or ethnicity was no longer seen as important. He saught to investigate how "laws, religion, education and similar forces" affected the integration of society" ("Emile Durkheim"). He further defined society as the merged interactions of individuals in such a way that the individuals created a brand new reality that is "completely new and greater than the sum of its parts"; for Durkheim, society was more than just a group of individuals living and interacting in the same spot; instead, society was a "collective consciousness" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)"). In other words, based on Durkheim's ideas, the entire universe could form one society through merged interactions. He called these merged interactions of individuals "social facts," and these social facts were more than just the actions of individuals and significantly influenced individuals ("Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)"). Durkheim defines social facts as "manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which exercise control over him" (as cited in "Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)"). While social facts are sensed and experienced by individuals and therefore internalized by individuals, they are brought into being through interactions outside of the individual and therefore external to the individual. Examples of social facts can be "ideas, beliefs, and sentiments ... realized through individuals" yet brought into being through the interactions of the collective consciousness ("Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)").

Georg Simmel was one of the first German sociologists and the first to explore sociology of culture, a study that strives to methodically analyze culture. Simmel saw culture as propagated by individuals "through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history" ("Sociology of Culture"). By "external forms," Simmel refers to the different social groups that society forms, which can also be called "forms of sociation"(Deflem, "Georg Simmel (1858-1918): The Forms of Social Life"). More specifically, Simmel wanted to explore the answer to the question, "What is society?" In his exploration, Simmel developed four different levels of concern: (1) He wanted to see how psychology played a role within society as a whole rather than just within the individual; (2) he wanted to analyze "interpersonal relationships"; (3) he wanted to analyze why society changes over time; and (4) he saw different levels in society and observed what he called "emergence," meaning that "higher levels [of society] emerge from lower levels" (as cited in "Georg Simmel").

Like Durkheim, while Simmel saw society as interconnections of individuals, he also studied these interconnections on a "small group level," not as a universal consciousness, making Simmel's work different from Durkheim's ("Notes on Georg Simmel"). Simmel was particularly interested in the fact that mankind has an "impulse" to not remain as individuals but to group themselves into social structures in which "the solitariness of the individuals is resolved into togetherness, a union with others" (as cited in "Georg Simmel"). There were three different social groupings Simmel observed: (1) society at large, which he saw as the "higher unity"; (2) a dyad, which is a grouping of two people; and (3) a triad, which is a grouping of three people (as cited in "Georg Simmel"). According to Deflem, Simmel defines a dyad as the "simplest," most "intimate," and most "trivial" union; it is particularly trivial because it is so easy to be broken, making it the most unstable union ("Georg Simmel (1858-1918)"). Marriage is the most obvious example of a dyad, and the dyad is broken once the couple has a child, becoming instead a triad. It is unstable because it is more difficult for just two people to resolve conflicts; a third person in a union much more easily acts as a mediator (Deflem).


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