Sociology of Competition

By Simmel, Georg | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Sociology of Competition


Simmel, Georg, Canadian Journal of Sociology


So much suffering and misery has accrued to humankind from discord and fighting that it was possible for the ideal of the pax hominibus to develop as the acme of human existence. For when we evaluate one element of life, we almost inevitably apply it to the whole; and we are hard put to acknowledge the completely opposing meanings that can be attributed to one and the same thing, depending on its extent, its utility, and its efficacy in conjunction with other elements. For the ideal of peace is repudiated not only by those who by their very nature enjoy fighting, and who see in conflict a definitive and self-justifying value; nor only by the psychologist who recognizes in fighting the manifestation of irrepressible drives, and thus an indispensable element of mental life in all its grandeur and beauty; but also by the sociologist for whom a group that simply harmoniously attracts its members to a centre would be nothing more than an "association," not only empirically unreal, but also lacking any genuine life process. The society of saints whom Dante beholds in the rose of paradise may conduct itself in such a way, but it is also devoid of any change and development; while, on the other hand, the holy assembly of the Church Fathers in Raphael's Disputa presents itself, if not as engaged in actual fighting, at least as comprising considerable differences of attitudes and orientations, from which springs all of the vibrancy and the real organic coherence of that gathering.

Just as the cosmos needs "love and hate," forces of attraction and repulsion, in order to arrive at a form, so too society needs a particular quantitative relationship of harmony and disharmony, association and competition, favour and disfavour, in order to take shape in a specific way. These dichotomies are in no way simply sociological liabilities, negative forces, such that the definitive, real society comes about only as the result of other and positive social forces, and indeed only to the extent to which the negative ones do not inhibit it. This widespread view is quite superficial. Society, as given, is the result of both types of interactions, which in this respect both appear completely positive. In reality, what appears to be negative and injurious between individuals, if viewed in a certain perspective and in isolation, need not have the same effect within the totality of the relationship; for here, in conjunction with other interactions that are not immediately affected by it, a new image arises in which, after subtracting what has been destroyed in terms of unique relationships, the negative and dualistic elements play a decidedly positive role.

Certainly, a richer and fuller communal life would not always result if the repulsive and (as they appear in isolation) even destructive energies in it were to disappear--as more valuable assets, unchanged in quality, would result if the negative entries on the ledger were to drop out--but rather, there would be just as altered, and often just as impracticable, an image as would be the case if the forces of cooperation and [page break in the German original: 1009-1010] attraction, of mutual aid and harmony of interests, were to cease to exist. To demonstrate how fighting is woven into the web of social life, how it is a particular manner of interaction influencing the unity of society, which is nothing but a sum of interactions--that is what these observations are intended to explain for a peculiar form of fighting: for competition [Simmel's paragraph].

First of all, a definitive aspect of the sociological essence of competition is that it is an indirect form of fighting. Whoever injures his competitor directly, or gets rid of him, no longer competes with him. Everyday language use generally restricts the use of this word to fights that consist in the parallel efforts of both parties focused on the one identical prize to be gained in the fight. The differences in comparison to other forms of fighting can be described in detail as follows. …

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