simmel and durkheim on anomie

In my undergraduate social theory class, I teach a little bit of Durkhem’s The Division of Labor and Simmel’s essay on the problem of modern culture, as anthologized in the Levine volume. Last week , multiple students asked: How are Simmel and Durkheim’s criticism’s of modernity different?

I had to admit that they formulated very similar criticisms: modern society was dysfuntional because we are disconnected. However, Durkheim and Simmel had very different proximate causes for modernity’s problems. Simmel was not quite obsessed with the development of capitalism as a root problem, while Durkheim, and other classical theorists, definitely though that the capitalist division of labor was the fundamental issue in modernity.

The Simmel take on capitalism was always a bit conflicted. Yes, he could  be extremely critical. When I took an undergraduate theory course, he was presented as a sort of Marxist. The city was the nexus of capitalism, and they city depersonalized you. But if you read Philosophy of Money in its entirety, you’d see he also had a number of very positive things to say about modern economic institutions. So it’s not just a case of anti-capitalist critique.

That leads me to my main point about Simmel’s view of modernity. I think ultimately it’s a cultural argument. The formlessness of modern life, his terminology for anomie, was less about social differentiation (i.e., the capitalist way of organizing work) and more about the lack of values that provided order for the spirit. Individualism, which is not logically connected with modern capitalism, was the culprit. Anomie reflects a shift in culture, not just a technical development.

So, theory heads, did I get this one right?


Written by fabiorojas

November 8, 2010 at 1:03 am

7 Responses

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  1. I think the key to Simmel is the way his style reflects his love of duality: he will almost always seek out the apparent contradiction in some situation, form or circumstance, and then proceed to turn it this way and that, such that just when you think you’re seeing him complete his critique, he twists it again. In the case of anomie, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” presents an image of the urbanite as an all-round asshole: calculating, withdrawn, jaded, blasé, unable to focus — all in contrast to the rube from the sticks. But then he immediately says something like “Of course, this form of life allows grants individuals a variety and volume of freedom that has no analogy in any other circumstances”. So urban life isn’t so bad, after all.

    It seems to me that this characterization is very much connected to Simmel’s views on social differentiation, by the way — it’s the sheer scale of differentiation in urban settings that allows for this kind of individual experience.

    If you want to be crudely biographical about it (and why not?), think of Durkheim making his way from little Épinal in Lorraine to Paris, thus experiencing mechanical and organic solidarity, in that order. Behind “On the Division of Labor” is a man who cannot quite believe the milk will be delivered in the morning by a stranger. Simmel, by contrast, was born and raised in Berlin and was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan man who did not fear anomie in the same way.



    November 8, 2010 at 2:04 am

  2. I’m re-reading Polanyi right now, so my question is very much coming from that headspace, but how are modern capitalism and individualism not logically connected? And is that an argument you’re reading in Simmel, or one you’re adding to the mix?


    Dan Hirschman

    November 8, 2010 at 2:04 am

  3. @Kieran: Fair point. The duality of Simmel’s approach of things is kind of tough to teach to undergrads, especially in a “greatest hits” course like mine.

    @Dan: All I meant was that “individualism is neither sufficient or necessary for capitalism.” Empirically, I’m open to debate on the issue.



    November 8, 2010 at 2:44 am

  4. The duality of Simmel’s approach of things is kind of tough to teach to undergrads, especially in a “greatest hits” course like mine.

    See above re “crudely biographical”.



    November 8, 2010 at 10:26 am

  5. It’s worth also noting how close Simmel was to the emerging field of neo-classical economics at the time. He has a very subjectivist notion of value, which he develops in the direction of aesthetic modernism, as a form of dandyism. Sociological critics of neo-classical economics probably under-appreciate the extent to which the market economy facilitated the sensibility of heroic modernist figures such as Walter Benjamin. But Simmel’s stance towards money and the market seems to offer a rare bridge between marginalism and modernism.

    Incidentally, one figure picks up some of these themes (as unlikely as it sounds) is Hayek, for whom money and markets were legal-liberal tools for preservation of cultural and normative difference. I read Simmel as arguing something not dissimilar.

    Timothy Mitchell (and I forget the reference I’m afraid) argues that Simmel’s basic intuition regarding money and modernity anticipates the birth of macroeconomics in the 1930s. He was feeling his way towards a Keynesian notion that ‘the economy’ was an objective thing, with the quantity of money obeying its own laws independently of individual activities.

    Finally, if I’m permitted a plug, I’m interested in how we might revive aspects of a cultural defence of money, in the era of very large capitalist interests that seek to replace it as a cultural medium, such as Google and facebook. I’ve written about this here.


    Will Davies

    November 8, 2010 at 11:34 am

  6. I heart Simmel. Regarding individualism and capitalism, Simmel explicitly connects individualism to the DoL (a la Durkheim) in The Metropolis and Mental Life. This is on p. 324 of my copy of On Individuality and Social Forms. Teaching this tomorrow, so thanks for the inspiration everyone!



    November 9, 2010 at 4:30 am

  7. Hello, i don’t know if someone will read me but i make the chance. I’m working at this moment with this two authors, and i’m needing for the comparison some texts in english that I cannot find where I live (I’m from Argentina). Most urgently I’m looking for “The Challenge of Durkheim and Simmel” by Kurt H. Wolff that was published in AJS, and “Durkheim: his life and his work” by Steven Lukes. If some of you have a copy in pdf or know where in internet I can find them (cause I’ve searched a lot yet) I would appreciate it. Thanks in advance! Juan Ignacio


    Juan Ignacio

    July 4, 2011 at 11:34 pm

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