Georg Simmel on Sociologically Positive Conflict and Urban Life

A quiet span of days with a national holiday mid-week, rare access to expansive living spaces, no subway riding. So, by virtue of having occupied a ‘retreat-like’ space and by taking a step back from the madding crowd, back to a slower pace, there is time to reflect on the space-living-crowds bargain that New York City exacts from its denizens.

Some useful thoughts on that theme may be found in Georg Simmel‘s theory of conflict as an integrative force in groups:

[The opposition of one individual element to another in the same association is by no means merely a negative social factor, but it is in many ways the only means through which coexistence with individuals intolerable in themselves could be possible. If we had not power and right to oppose tyranny and obstinacy, caprice and tactlessness, we could not endure relations with people who betray such characteristics. We should be driven to deeds of desperation which would put the relationships to an end. This follows not alone for the self-evident reason…that such disagreeable circumstances tend to become intensified if they are endured quietly and without protest; but, more than this, opposition affords us a subjective satisfaction, diversion, relief, just as under other psychological conditions…the same results are brought about by humility and patience. Our opposition gives us the feeling that we are not completely crushed in the relationship. It permits us to preserve a consciousness of energy, and thus lends a vitality and a reciprocity to relationships from which, without this corrective, we should have extricated ourselves at any price….

[O]pposition is an integrating component of the relationship itself….Opposition is not merely a means of conserving the total relationship, but it is one of the concrete functions in which the relationship in reality consists. In case the relationships are purely external, and consequently do not reach deeply into the practical, the latent form of conflict discharges this service: i. e., aversion, the feeling of reciprocal alienation and repulsion, which in the moment of a more intimate contact of any sort is at once transformed into positive hatred and conflict.

Without this aversion life in a great city, which daily brings each into contact with countless others, would have no thinkable form. The whole internal organization of this commerce rests on an extremely complicated gradation of sympathies, indifferences, and aversions of the most transient or most permanent sort. The sphere of indifference is in all this relatively restricted. The activity of our minds responds to almost every impression s received from other people in some sort of a definite feeling, all the unconsciousness, transience, and variability of which seems to remain only in the form of a certain indifference. In fact, this latter would be as unnatural for us as it would be intolerable to be swamped under a multitude of suggestions among which we have no choice. Antipathy protects us against these two typical dangers of the great city. It is the initial stage of practical antagonism. It produces the distances and the buffers without which this kind of life could not be led at all. The mass and the mixtures of this life, the forms in which it is carried on, the rhythm of its rise and fall—these unite with the unifying motives, in the narrower sense, to give to a great city the character of an indissoluble whole. Whatever in this whole seems to be an element of division is thus in reality only one of its elementary forms of socialization.

Ref: Georg Simmel. “The Sociology of Conflict: I” American Journal of Sociology 9 (1903): 490-525

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