Soziologie der Konkurrenz-Sociology of Competition by Georg Simmel

By Helle, Horst J. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Soziologie der Konkurrenz-Sociology of Competition by Georg Simmel


Helle, Horst J., Canadian Journal of Sociology


Introduction

A. THE AUTHOR AND THE CONTEXT

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) published his journal article on competition in 1903, one year before Max Weber began to publish his ideas on the religious components of modern rational capitalism. Competition "is a form of struggle fought by means of objective performances, to the advantage of a third person" (Simmel 1903a:1021), that third person usually being the customer. However, it is not as simple a phenomenon as this short definition by Simmel suggests. Competition can be discussed from many different points of view. In doing that, Simmel presents it as an intricate and fascinating subject.

There is, to begin with, the evolutionist perspective which ties competition to modernity.

   What we are dealing with here are stages of evolution in which the
   absolute competition of the struggle for existence among animals
   changes gradually toward relative competition. This means that
   slowly those frictions and rigid forms of wasting energy are
   excluded from the process because they are not needed in
   competition. (1903a:1018)

In the human past, the emphasis was more toward solidarity. But

   the last few centuries have, on the one hand, given to objective
   interests and material culture a power and independence previously
   unheard of; on the other hand ... they have given an incredible
   depth to the subjectivity of the self.... (1903a:1023)

As a result "competition presents itself as one of the decisive traits in modern life" (1903a:1023).

Another perspective from which Simmel looks at competition is the tension between individualism and collectivism. A decade before his book on money ([1900] 1907) Simmel published On Social Differentiation (Simmel 1890) to clarify his notion of differentiation and individualization. Simmel does not associate the processes of differentiation exclusively with the division of labour and the specialization of occupations. Rather, the thought of individualization emerges here as an evolutionary tendency that is inherent in the mutual exchange among persons.

   What is more, with such a differentiation of the social group there
   will be a growing compulsion and inclination to go beyond its
   original boundaries in terms of spatial, economic, and mental
   relationships, and to place next to the initial centripetal
   character of the single group, with growing individuality and the
   repulsion of its elements which thereby occurs, a centrifugal
   tendency as a bridge to other groups. (1890:46)

What Simmel is referring to with this general concept of change, he makes clear in a series of vivid examples, thereby illustrating the connection between regional enlargement and individualization. Simmel sees in individualization both the liberation from the narrow, rather provincial, realm of social relationships that provide security because of their limited number, and the basis for initiating contacts with human beings who live far away in a cosmopolitan or global orientation. To him the concept of a world society of humankind--as if it were a cosmopolitan value--is the consequence of an individuality that is ever more widely extended.

By no longer reflecting predominantly on memberships in groups within easy reach, a person does not identify primarily as a Bavarian or a Berliner but rather as that incomparable, unique individual that only he or she is; to the extent to which this orientation prevails--so the implicit hope of Simmel--humankind will grow towards a society that is cosmopolitan in orientation. This process of cultivation, carried by very individual qualities in every human being, allows a decline in the importance of those mutual exchanges which are organized on a small-scale basis, i.e., with a provincial value overtone, and the rise of the feeling of being allied with all people of the world regardless of where they live. …

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