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Between Destructiveness and Vitalism: Simmel’s Sociology of Crowds

Entre destructivité et vitalisme : la sociologie des foules de Georg Simmel
Christian Borch


Cet article étudie la contribution de Georg Simmel à la sociologie des foules. Son objectif est 1) de démontrer l’importance accordée par Simmel à la foule comme sujet d’étude, 2) de montrer comment, dans ses premiers travaux, sa vision de la foule était inspirée des principaux théoriciens de l’époque, et 3) de restituer une conception vitaliste de la foule à partir des écrits plus tardifs de Simmel. La première partie de l’article trace un portrait général de la perspective de Simmel sur la foule telle que présentée dans ses principaux écrits. Les parties suivantes s’appuient sur des écrits moins étudiés, dont notamment les comptes-rendus de Simmel sur les livres de Gustave Le Bon, Scipio Sighele et Gabriel Tarde. La deuxième partie présente une analyse des commentaires de Simmel sur Tarde et Le Bon et la troisième partie montre comment l’explication de Simmel sur le comportement destructeur de la foule s’inspire de sa lecture des travaux de Sighele. Finalement, la quatrième partie examine la problématique de la foule à la lumière des essais de Simmel sur la métropole et la sociabilité. L’article défend que ces travaux de Simmel ouvrent la voie à une interprétation vitaliste des foules, qui se distingue particulièrement des conceptions de Le Bon, Sighele et Tarde, et anticipe la contribution théorique d’Élias Canetti.

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1At the end of the nineteenth century a comprehensive scholarly interest in crowds and their allegedly destructive nature emerged. This was in many respects an attempt to come to terms with the French Revolution and its aftermath as well as with recent mass phenomena such as urbanization. The crowd psychologists whose work arguably received the widest attention was Gustave Le Bon. In his seminal 1895 study of The Crowd, he argued that modern society was on the verge of an entirely new social order, one in which the crowd was the main defining feature. In Le Bon’s famous words, ‘[t]he age we are about to enter will in truth be the ERA OF CROWDS’ (1960: 14, emphasis in original). Le Bon was not the only scholar to stress the societal importance of this new mass phenomenon. Other key theorists belonging to this ‘first generation’ of crowd theory included the sociologist Gabriel Tarde (1892; 1893) and the criminologist Scipio Sighele (1897). The research agenda promoted by these scholars described crowds and crowd behavior in almost exclusively negative terms and often associated them with feminine, socialist, and barbarian traits. Moreover, crowds were seen as essentially unruly and irrational entities that hypnotized their members to commit acts they would never carry out under normal circumstances, i.e., when not under the spell of the crowd and especially its leader. Related to this, crowds were believed to have de-individualizing effects; they suspended any individual traits and subsumed the crowd members under a collective identity.

2While Le Bon and Sighele only belonged to the margins of sociology in the sense that the latter’s work mainly revolved around criminological debates and that the former was never really accepted by the sociologists of his time, things were quite different for Tarde. Thus, even if several of his contributions to crowd debates had a criminological framing, he was a highly respected sociologist and he managed to demonstrate the sociological significance of taking the crowd topic seriously. Although the sociological debates on crowds started out as a predominantly French affair, they soon spread. In the USA, for example, Robert E. Park became a crucial advocate of the sociology of crowds or collective behavior, as he and Ernest W. Burgess would later call it. Yet crowds were also discussed among central German sociologists, including Georg Simmel, whose view on crowds I shall discuss in this article.

3Besides demonstrating the importance Simmel attributed to the crowd issue, the article has two objectives. First, I wish to illustrate how Simmel’s early analysis of crowds was developed in close dialogue with the work of Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde. As mentioned above, these scholars characterized the crowd as a destructive, irrational entity, and Simmel’s early analyses largely subscribed to that image, which expressed a fear or anxiety of crowds. This changed in his later work where, even if he retained his interest in the crowd issue, his general approach to it was modified. This was related to a rupture in his thinking where he moved beyond his evolutionist perspective of the 1890s. In line with this, the second objective of the article is to demonstrate that, contrary to the negative view on crowds that Simmel expressed in his early discussions of the topic, it is possible to derive an alternative and much more positive account of crowds from Simmel’s subsequent writings. This alternative account, which I identify in Simmel’s work on sociability, is characterized by a vitalist impulse, and it is one that anticipates Elias Canetti’s vitalist theory of crowds.

4The two objectives point to the double-sided character of the article. On the one hand, it offers a historical contextualization of Simmel’s analyses of crowds in the sense that it shows how these analyses were deeply embedded in the discussions of his time. This historical contextualization should not be confounded with the historical approach presented by scholars such as Rudé (1959) and Thomson (1971) who have analyzed specific crowd occurrences. Rather, the article aims to contribute to the understanding of particular aspects of a more general history of sociological crowd semantics, i.e., the history of the theoretical, conceptual, and analytical frameworks and ideas on crowds that emanated in France in the late nineteenth century and were then disseminated and modified in social theory throughout the twentieth century. That is, the article offers an attempt to understand how Simmel is situated in this semantic history. On the other hand, the article also has a more theoretical ambition in that it wishes to draw some implications from Simmel’s work that might inform current debates on crowd behavior.

  • 1  Another exception is Frisby (1984a: 83–5) whose discussion of Simmel’s sociology of crowds is very (...)

5Whereas the crowd theories of Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde have been thoroughly analyzed in the past (Barrows, 1981; Borch, 2005; 2009; McClelland, 1989; Nye, 1975; Stewart-Steinberg, 2003; van Ginneken, 1992), only little attention has been paid to the place that the notion of crowds occupies in Simmel’s thought. One notable exception is Fransisco Budi Hardiman (2001: Ch. 1) who discusses Simmel’s contribution to crowd theory at length.1 Beginning with Simmel’s famous excursus, in Soziologie, on the possibility of society, Hardiman develops a Simmelian argument on the epistemological possibility of crowds. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Hardiman ignores a number of Simmel’s explicit engagements with the crowd issue. Although Hardiman’s exposition is both original and interesting, the present article will pursue a different analytical strategy. Specifically, I will emphasize a part of Simmel’s work which is not that well known, namely his book reviews of Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde.

6The article has four parts. To set the stage I begin by illustrating some of the general characteristics Simmel attributed to crowds. Here I do not distinguish between the various phases in his work. The following two parts analyze in more detail how Simmel explained crowd behavior in his early work. I draw here on his book reviews of Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde and show how the ideas expressed in these reviews corresponded to ideas Simmel developed in his evolutionist treatise Über sociale Differenzierung from 1890. Finally, in the fourth part of the article, I examine the status of the crowd in the light of Simmel’s later essays on the metropolis and sociability. It is in this part of his work that I identify a vitalist theory of crowds.

Simmel’s General Characterization of Crowds

7Contrary to Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde, Simmel never devoted an entire article or book to the study of crowds. Yet the crowd topic does appear in his work, e.g. in Soziologie (1992) and in Grundfragen der Soziologie (1999e). On the very first page of Soziologie, for example, the first edition of which was published in 1908, he placed the very ‘problem of sociology’ in the context of the masses. Simmel described the advent of the science of sociology as a theoretical reflection of the transformation of the power relation between masses and individuals during the nineteenth century. During that century, he argued, the masses experienced a significant rise to power, visible in the fact that people from the lower estates now appeared not as singular individuals but as a ‘unitary mass’ vis-à-vis the higher estates (Simmel, 1992: 13). This acknowledgement did not take Simmel in a Marxist direction, although the opening page of Soziologie did refer to the notion of classes. Here as elsewhere, Simmel was not really concerned with class struggles but rather with sociation (Vergesellschaftung), social forms, and the reciprocal effects (Wechselwirkungen) among individuals. The investigation of these matters must, Simmel believed, pay great attention to crowds and other mass phenomena. Indeed, he asserted, the crowd was a perfect entry to the study of sociality.

8This became clear in the second chapter of Soziologie, where Simmel discussed the topic of crowds. The chapter analyzed how social life in groups was affected by the group size. Having studied the sociological structure of small groups, Simmel turned to larger ones, and one of the larger groups that showed some unique qualities was the crowd. When the mass is not dispersed but as a crowd is characterized by psychical proximity, a peculiar situation unfolds:

innumerable suggestions swing back and forth, resulting in an extraordinary nervous excitation which often overwhelms the individuals, makes every impulse swell like an avalanche, and subjects the mass to whichever among its members happens to be the most passionate. … The fusion of masses under one feeling, in which all specificity and reserve of the personality is suspended, is fundamentally radical and hostile to mediation and consideration. It would lead to nothing but impasses and destructions if it did not usually end before in inner exhaustions and repercussions that are the consequences of the one-sided exaggeration. (Simmel, 1950c: 93–4; 1992: 70)

9This image recalled the picture of the crowd and its de-individualizing effects that had been advanced previously by Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde and which further emphasized that the crowd’s intellectual level was lower than that of isolated individuals (Le Bon, 1960; Sighele, 1897; Tarde, 1892; 1893).

10Several other quotes may substantiate Simmel’s observations from the passage just cited. At one point, for example, Simmel asserted that ‘[i]n a crowd, therefore, the most ephemeral incitations often grow, like avalanches, into the most disproportionate impulses, and thus appear to eliminate the higher, differentiated and critical functions of the individual’ (1950c: 227–8; 1992: 206). This, Simmel believed, implicitly referring to Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde, was the reason for the ‘innumerable observations concerning the “stupidity” of crowds’ (1950c: 228; 1992: 206). In another context he argued that the crowd, like any large group, is based on a social bond of negativity (1950c: 396 ff.; 1992: 533 ff.). Similarly, in his 1917 essay on Grundfragen der Soziologie, Simmel listed a number of examples of how mere physical proximity allegedly produced ‘an extreme intensification of feeling’, and he reported a Quaker description of how ‘by virtue of the members’ unification into one body, the ecstasy of an individual often spreads to all others’ (1950b: 35, 36; 1999e: 98).

11It may be argued that, in spite of his general fear of crowds, Tarde’s conception of sociality as imitation-suggestion proposed a perspective according to which the crowd constitutes the most intense form of sociality (Borch, 2005). Simmel made a similar assertion when claiming that sociality is best observed in crowds. In Simmel’s terminology the crucial notion was not imitation but reciprocal effects. According to Simmel, it is in the crowd that ‘the purest reciprocal effects take place’ (1989: 211). ‘It is’, he claimed in Grundfragen der Soziologie, ‘one of the most revealing, purely sociological phenomena that the individual feels himself [sic] carried by the “mood” of the mass’ (1950c: 35; 1999e: 97–8, emphasis added). So, far from being a marginal social phenomenon, the crowd was conceived by Simmel as the social entity par excellence: In the crowd we face the most intense reciprocal impulses. Simmel was aware that the ‘extraordinary nervous excitation’ of the crowd (see quote above) made it a rather unstable entity. This extreme intensity of crowds explained, he believed, the ‘often immense effects of passing stimulations’ which were said to be visible in crowds and which implied that ‘the slightest impulses of love and hate’ could ‘swell like an avalanche’ (Simmel, 1989: 212).

12It is well known that Simmel was an eclectic writer, famous for not offering many details about his sources and for often not being very explicit about the theoretical sources he drew upon and reacted to in his work. This is also true of his discussions of crowds. Outside his book reviews there is no mention of Tarde, Le Bon, and Sighele in Simmel’s analyses of crowd behavior. I will therefore center the following discussion upon these reviews so as to make clear both that Simmel was well-acquainted with the work of these scholars and how his own perspective gained substantial input – but also diverged – from these.

Simmel on Tarde and Le Bon: The Primitivism of Crowds

  • 2  Simmel also followed Tarde’s subsequent work as is evident from a letter he sent to Tarde in 1894, (...)
  • 3  Simmel would later use the competition example to explain the difference between form and content (...)

13Simmel showed the greatest respect for Tarde and his Laws of Imitation.2 In his review of the first edition of this book, published in 1890, Simmel characterized it as ‘thoughtful’, ‘stimulating’, ‘creditable’, and ‘original’, and he emphasized the ‘very interesting manner’ in which Tarde had demonstrated ‘that imitation [is] a kind of hypnotic suggestion’ (Simmel, 1999a: 248, 250). He further praised Tarde for, as he put it, distinguishing between the form and content of imitation. Imitation has a general form which can be analyzed independently of the various ways in which it appears in practice. This quality, Simmel (1999a: 249) said, is equal to competition, for instance.3 A final laudatory remark regarded the relation between psychology and sociology. According to Simmel, Tarde had successfully demonstrated how ‘individual psychology’ had to be supplemented with an understanding of the events taking place in ‘the social group’ (1999a: 250). Simmel’s review of Tarde was not all backslapping, however. For example, he criticized Tarde for not giving adequate attention to opposition and antagonism, an objection which was not entirely unjustified in the case of Laws of Imitation but which was not warranted with respect to Tarde’s subsequent work (most notably, Tarde, 1999a).

14One may argue that, on the topic of crowds, Tarde’s Laws of Imitation is far less important than some of his essays devoted explicitly to the subject. However, Simmel’s review of this book is nevertheless interesting because it demonstrates that at this point (i.e., 1890–91) Simmel was very fascinated with the idea of hypnotic suggestion, which would soon constitute the theoretical cornerstone in the European crowd debates. This fascination was about to change. As it will be demonstrated below, Simmel later became skeptical about this notion.

15The next famous crowd scholar to have his work scrutinized by Simmel was Le Bon whose The Crowd he reviewed when it was published in 1895. Simmel found the explanatory horizon of the book superficial in several respects and he argued that Le Bon did not clearly distinguish between the various forms of crowds that he described. In spite of this, and even if Simmel misjudged the political impact of The Crowd when asserting that ‘[t]he book in itself is not very important’ (1999b: 354), he praised the book for being ‘one of the rare attempts to make a psychology of the human being as a mere social creature’ (1999b: 354). I will pinpoint four elements from Simmel’s discussion of Le Bon that I find important. First, he noted Le Bon’s emphasis on suggestion (1999b: 354), and he did so with no further qualification, which suggests that in 1895 he was still not critical of this vocabulary. Second, Simmel briefly praised the crucial sociological value that could be gained (even beyond crowd theory) from Le Bon’s observations on the ability of the crowd leader to lead through prestige (Le Bon, 1960: 129–40; Simmel, 1999b: 355).

  • 4  Simmel did not seem to be aware that this explanatory framework was surprisingly akin to Le Bon’s (...)
  • 5  In Grundfragen der Soziologie Simmel described the hierarchy between feelings and intellect in the (...)

16Third, Simmel emphasized Le Bon’s idea that crowds are characterized by lower intellectual and ethical capabilities than the individual crowd members if left to themselves. Simmel accepted this idea – calling it the ‘sociological tragedy as such’ (1950b: 32; 1999e: 94) – but offered his own explanation of the alleged primitivism of crowds, an explanation which, he believed, was based on a ‘deeper psychological’ foundation (1999b: 356). Thus, Simmel asserted in a partly evolutionist argument, the psychological qualities that are common to different persons are always only the lower ones and the ones which have been transmitted hereditarily (see also Simmel, 1950b; 1999e: 90–1).4 This presumed a hierarchy between lower qualities (e.g. feelings and instincts) and higher qualities (e.g. intellect and civility) which ultimately cast crowds as a threat to everything that civilization had accomplished. When a large and diverse group of people act in unity, it is only the primitive and lowest psychological qualities (e.g. feelings and instincts in contrast to intellect and civility) which are certainly present in every member of the group/crowd.5 It is therefore only these primitive qualities that can be the foundation of the crowd’s action, Simmel thought (1999b: 356–7). Consequently, the crowd’s action is never a reflection of the average qualities of the singular crowd members (i.e., the average of higher and lower qualities); rather, the crowd reflects the common denominator which will always be lower than the average.

  • 6  The argument being that, if crowd behavior is mainly to be explained through suggestion, then the (...)
  • 7  Or to be more precise, this would most often be the case, but Simmel did observe a few exceptions (...)

17It is interesting that Simmel accepted the basically Le Bonian view of the intellectual and ethical inferiority of crowds and simply advanced his own explanation. For, just as one may argue against Le Bon that the great interest in the alleged intellectual primitivism of crowds is not necessarily consistent with the importance attributed to hypnotic suggestion,6 so may one find Simmel’s explanation equally inadequate in this respect. Be this as it may, Simmel drew two consequences from his argument. First, educational strategies would matter little vis-à-vis the intellectual and ethical derangement of crowds. Even the most skilled group of individuals will fall back on the lowest common denominator.7 Enlightenment and civilization seemed in other words to face their limits in crowd action. Second, Simmel agreed with Le Bon that the ‘crowd regime’ should be strongly condemned and that it was warranted to ‘speak of the idiotic, blunt, insane [unzurechnungsfähigen] crowd without these attributes thereby being valid for any of its members’ (1999b: 358).

  • 8  There is also a more theoretical explanation, though, as Simmel considered hypnotic suggestion a t (...)

18The potential theoretical inconsistency between suggestion and the intellectual inferiority of crowds might in Simmel’s case be explained by the fact that he had developed the idea of the lowest common denominator before he began to associate crowd action with suggestion (and that he did not subsequently realize that the suggestion doctrine potentially undermined his evolutionist scheme).8 Thus his 1890 treatise Über sociale Differenzierung (1989) anticipated several of the remarks he would later make in his review of Le Bon. In this book, Simmel developed his evolutionist argument that only the lower qualities are common to everybody and that joint action will always be based on precisely these lower traits. He quoted Schiller’s epigram affirmatively, that everyone is clever on his or her own, but an idiot when acting in concert (Simmel, 1989: 205). And he even applied his evolutionist idea to explain that, ‘[w]hen a crowd acts in unity this always happens on the basis of the simplest possible ideas’ (1989: 206). Also, Simmel’s argument on the inability to change the nature of crowds through education was already developed in Über sociale Differenzierung: since crowds are characterized by lower rather than higher qualities, and since ‘feelings belong without doubt to a phylogenetically lower level than thinking’, crowds cannot be governed through ‘theoretical convictions, but rather essentially by appealing to their feelings’ (1989: 210). In other words, crowds do not react to rational arguments but only to those feelings that correspond to their lower qualities.

  • 9  Similar arguments about the diminishing individual responsibility that were said to follow from a (...)

19The fourth and final point from Simmel’s discussion of Le Bon that I will draw attention to here regards the ‘diminishing feeling of responsibility’ which the individual, according to Simmel (1999b: 358), experiences while being in a group. Simmel’s considerations on this matter are interesting because they demonstrate how he extended the apparent qualities of the crowd to a wider range of social phenomena, specifically the relations between individual and group. Illustratively, the examples he referred to were not taken from the realm of crowd behavior in any traditional sense. He argued, for instance, that the introduction in American cities of regulative boards, constituted by several members to take care of specific administrative duties, made every single member feel less responsible for actions taken in common.9

20As a last remark on Simmel’s review of Le Bon I would like to return to his claim that Le Bon did not present a satisfactory distinction between the different forms of crowds that he analyzed. While this was a fair objection, it was nevertheless somewhat surprising given the fact that Simmel himself was even more reluctant to provide classificatory precision. Thus, Simmel’s notion of crowds remained rather abstract although it usually referred to situations of physical co-presence.

Explaining Destructive Crowd Behavior: The Inspiration from Sighele

  • 10  A similar point has recently been made by Teresa Brennan in her brilliant study of the Transmissio (...)

21Simmel offered two somewhat interrelated explanations of the behavior of crowds in Über sociale Differenzierung (1989: 214 ff.). The first was based on a bio-social argument. When people are in close physical proximity to one another, they experience so many stimulations that each person feels an ‘inner nervous excitement’. Simmel did not advance any biological reductionism here. Quite the opposite, he was simply emphasizing the ‘enhancement of the nervous life which is caused by sociation’ (1989: 214).10 This explanatory horizon might suggest that the ability to gather physically was to blame for the irrational insurrections produced by crowds and that face-to-face encounters in large groups therefore had to be prevented. This would not really touch the deeper logic of crowd behavior, however. For in addition to the physiological explanation, Simmel proposed a more sociological, and to him ‘more important’ (1989: 214), account based on the notion of imitation.

  • 11  It is very hard not to see in Simmel’s discussion of imitation a strong influence from Tarde whose (...)

22According to Simmel, imitation is a fundamental feature of social life. We instinctively imitate others’ behaviors, ways of dressing, etc. Even if imitation has this instinctive character and thus counts as ‘one of the lower intellectual functions’, in social life imitation is ‘of great, and in no way sufficiently accentuated, importance’ (1989: 216). This becomes very obvious in the crowd where, Simmel claimed, the urge to imitate others is significantly magnified and where we are likely to imitate not only the acts of others but even their affective states (1989: 215). If our fellow crowd members express a certain feeling (love, hate, anger, etc.), then we are apt to imitate, and hence subscribe to and further intensify, that feeling. It is important to stress that this Simmelian explanation relied on a purely sociological understanding of imitation and that, for Simmel (as well as for Tarde), imitation did not require physical proximity. Yet while imitation (and the transmission of affect) is certainly possible at a distance, there is no doubt that it is more likely to take place when people are physically close to one another. In this sense the two explanations offered by Simmel – the one focusing on physio-psychological aspects, the other on imitation – were interconnected.11

23The interrelatedness of the physiological and social (imitative) factors did not seem to become clear to Simmel before reading the Italian criminologist and crowd theorist, Scipio Sighele’s book on criminal crowds. Simmel reviewed the German translation of this book, Psychologie des Auflaufs und der Massenverbrechen, when it was published in 1897. The review began very critically and it did so on a somewhat surprising ground. Simmel rejected explanations which take recourse to phenomena such as ‘human nature’, ‘force’, or the ‘milieu’. But, he continued, the tendency of his time to explain various incidents through suggestion was equally problematic. Indeed, he claimed, suggestion had turned into a ‘magic formula’, it signified ‘superficialities’, and was applied mainly by ‘dilettantes’ (Simmel, 1999c: 389). What disturbed Simmel in the case of Sighele was precisely that the latter used suggestion as the principal, even universal, explanation of crowd behavior, and that he subsumed other important concepts, such as for instance imitation, into that of suggestion (Simmel, 1999c: 394). The reason why this critique appears astonishing is that, as noted above, a few years earlier Simmel had applauded Tarde for describing imitation as ‘a kind of hypnotic suggestion’ (1999a: 248). Yet Simmel had not completely changed his mind on suggestion. He did not intend to dismiss the notion entirely, but merely wanted to reserve it to one specific group of events. Rather than referring to any influence or stimulation of one person on another, a proper definition of suggestion should, according to Simmel, point only to situations where the power of ideas, feelings, etc. of ‘one soul leads to the same emotions in other souls’ (1999c: 395, emphasis added). Thus defined, suggestion could be relevant to the study of crowds.

24Even if Sighele, due to his broadly conceived notion of suggestion, counted as a dilettante in Simmel’s eyes, the latter nevertheless felt that Psychologie des Auflaufs und der Massenverbrechen was concerned with ‘such a great number of the most important problems in social philosophy’ (1999c: 390) that it merited a careful investigation. One point in particular attracted Simmel’s attention and it concerned the abovementioned relation between physiological and sociological dimensions. Simmel repeated his argument from Über sociale Differenzierung that people tend to imitate one another instinctively and that the affective state of one person may be transmitted to others through imitation. The original suggestion of Sighele was now, Simmel claimed, that ‘mild, conciliatory, moral’ affects are expressed less energetically and less impressionably than ‘bad, wild, and corrupt’ ones (1999c: 396). The underlying argument was that, ‘[w]hile the physiognomy and the gesticulations of a mild and peace-loving individual are quiet, contained, and discrete, hate, brutality, and offensive impulses produce greatly conspicuous gestures, noises, and violent transformations of the physical nature’ (1999c: 396). Since, so the argument went, aggressive affects are stamped more easily on our facial expressions and are more easily represented in physical gestures, they are also more likely to be transmitted to and reproduced by others than are caring and friendly feelings. It was this relation which, according to Simmel, explained why in ‘a crowd, which is dominated by suggestions, the influence of violent and brutal personalities has an extraordinary lead’ over mild and pleasant ones (1999c: 396). It was in other words not least because of these bio-sociological factors that crowds tended to be violent and destructive rather than peaceful (see also Sighele, 1897: 93 ff.).

Metropolitan Crowd Sociability: Anticipating Canetti’s Vitalism

25While Simmel’s early sociology of crowds came very close to ideas developed by major contemporary crowd theorists such as Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde, Simmel’s later work was characterized by a new and different conception of crowds. Rather than focusing on the alleged primitivism and destructiveness of crowds, he gradually opened up for a more positive view of crowd behavior. Before arriving at this positive account, however, it is important to examine Simmel’s analysis of metropolitan life – the spatial setting of crowds.

26This spatial-metropolitan setting is interesting because Simmel’s emphasis on the bio-social side of crowd behavior may suggests that crowd phenomena are predominant in metropolises where many people are in close physical proximity with one another. It is, one may argue, especially in cities that the suggestions of crowds are likely to give rise to ‘an extraordinary nervous excitation which often overwhelms the individuals’ (1950c: 93; 1992: 70). The metropolis seems in other words to provide the material background for a mental life that is particularly predisposed for crowd behavior (Frisby, 1984a: 131). While this claim would fit well with Tarde’s analysis (Borch, 2005), Simmel argued for an understanding of metropolitan life that seemed to run counter to this assertion about the urban crowd disposition. In his famous 1902–03 essay on ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ Simmel thus described how the metropolitan individual is constantly exposed to the city’s ‘rapidly changing and closely compressed contrasting stimulations of the nerves’ (1950a: 414). Because of these stimulations – the numerous and constantly changing impressions – the individual eventually relaxes his or her nervous system, and evermore radical impressions are therefore required to wake him or her from the state of indifference. As a result, Simmel said, the metropolitan individual develops a blasé attitude toward things, but possibly, one might speculate, also toward crowd phenomena. Indeed, the metropolitan individual might gradually develop inhibitions against the suggestive influences of crowds. Or to put it differently, the crowd has to exert an extremely intense suggestive force in order to attract the attention of, and then hypnotize, the metropolitan individual.

27Moreover, Simmel (1950a: 410) claimed, the metropolis has a more intellectual and sophisticated nature than the village, the mental life of which is characterized by feelings. In a sense, this idea was also at odds with the hypothesis about the urban disposition to crowd behavior. For does not the crowd produce eruptions of feelings, rather than intellectual deliberation? One might see in Simmel’s (1950a: 410) opposition of the ‘head’ of the metropolis and the ‘heart’ of the village a reiteration of a classical antagonism between civilization and affect/passions. But one may also interpret it more specifically as yet another indication of the exceptional and de-individualizing nature of crowds. After all, while intellectuality is a way for the individual to protect him or herself ‘against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his [or her] external environment’, and which thereby ‘preserve[s] subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life’ (1950a: 410, 411), the crowd signifies an outburst of passions that undermines the intellectuality and personality of the crowd members.

28On closer inspection, however, the metropolitan attitude is not entirely concomitant with intellectualism; it includes an affective dimension as well. Thus, argued Simmel, the metropolitan individual develops a distance, a reserve to other people. On the one hand, this distance has something cool and impassionate about it, but on the other hand,

the inner aspect of this outer reserve is not only indifference but, more often than we are aware, it is a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion, which will break into hatred and fight at the moment of a closer contact, however caused. (1950a: 415–6, emphasis added)

29So the blasé attitude toward things, which is developed in order to cope with the numerous nervous stimulations in the metropolis, is combined with a reserve to other people, which itself is based on an underlying fear of being touched physically. Our social reserve to other people in other words operates in tandem with a physical distance that cannot be violated without producing anxiety. Simmel here touched upon an important theme which would later be further developed by Elias Canetti in his Crowds and Power (1984; see also Hardiman, 2001: 55). Canetti famously opened this book by emphasizing our ‘repugnance to being touched [which] remains with us when we go about among people; the way we move in a busy street, in restaurants, trains or busses, is governed by it’ (1984: 15). According to Canetti, this fear of being touched is suspended in crowds. Contrary to Canetti’s account, in which this fear is seen as an anthropological constant, Simmel argued that it is intimately related to a particular metropolitan attitude. That is, in Simmel’s sociological analysis it is the urban environment which incites the repugnance to being touched by others. And this repulsion requires an exceptional occurrence to disappear, an occurrence like the formation of a crowd.

  • 12  This idea runs counter to the approach advanced by Rudé, Thomson, and other historians of crowd be (...)

30One might point to an additional parallel between Canetti’s crowd theory and Simmel’s sociology. In a paper presented in 1910 Simmel developed his notion of sociability (Geselligkeit). Simmel did not explicitly address the crowd issue in this essay. I will nevertheless claim that several of the ideas he put forward in this essay can be applied to the study of crowd behavior. Most importantly, Simmel identified ‘an impulse to sociability in man’ and argued that associations [Vergesellschaftungen], whatever their specific purpose, ‘are accompanied by a feeling for, by a satisfaction in, the very fact that one is associated with others and that the solitariness of the individual is resolved into togetherness, a union with others’ (Simmel, 1971: 128). It may be argued that this impulse to come together with others is an important driving force behind crowd behavior, as the individual is here relieved of his or her loneliness and people are brought together in multiplicity. The crowd might be associated with specific purposes such as, for instance, revolutionary intent. Yet, following Simmel’s analysis, it appears that irrespective of these purposes the crowd’s primary function is ‘the satisfaction of the impulse to sociability’ (1971: 130). More simply, the fundamental feature of the crowd is its sociability; it is formed to bring people together and is only subsequently endowed with an external objective (e.g. improvement of the social conditions through revolutionary action).12 And by acquiring such external objectives, the crowd ‘loses the essential quality of sociability and becomes an association determined by a content’ (1971: 131).

31Simmel’s analysis suggests that the crowd in its pure sociable form can be seen to create ‘an ideal sociological world’ where ‘the pleasure of the individual is always contingent upon the joy of others’ (1971: 132). So rather than constituting a threatening alternative to a rational, civilized social order (as Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde used to argue), the crowd may give vent to an affective cohesion of rare purity. In addition, this ideal social order held great democratic potential. According to Simmel,

This world of sociability, the only one in which a democracy of equals is possible without friction, is an artificial world, made up of beings who have renounced both the objective and the purely personal features of the intensity and extensiveness of life in order to bring among themselves a pure interaction [Wechselwirkung], free of any disturbing material accent. If we now have the conception that we enter into sociability purely as ‘human beings,’ as that which we really are, lacking all the burdens, the agitations, the inequalities with which real life disturbs the purity of our picture, it is because modern life is overburdened with objective content and material demands. Ridding ourselves of this burden in sociable circles [including crowds, CB], we believe we return to our natural-personal being and overlook the fact that this personal aspect also does not consist in its full uniqueness and natural completeness, but only in a certain reserve and stylizing of the sociable man. … If association itself is interaction [Wechselwirkung], it appears in its purest and most stylized form when it goes on among equals. (1971: 132–3, emphasis in original)

32This quote contains crucial parallels to Canetti, who argued that the crowd provides the individual with the opportunity to rid him or herself of the inequalities of everyday life, the ‘burdens of distance’ in Canetti’s terminology. In the crowd ‘distinctions are thrown off and all feel equal’, Canetti stated (1984: 18, emphasis in original). This has a double effect: an ideal democratic entity is created in which no-one is above the others; and by being freed from the burdens of distance and inequality, each individual acquires the ability to transform him or herself. As Canetti put it, ‘[i]n the crowd the individual feels that he [sic] is transcending the limits of his own person’ (1984: 20). This basically emancipating aspect is also present in Simmel’s account of sociability. However, as both Simmel and Canetti were aware, no full and independent liberating transformation is possible – in Simmel’s eyes because the sociable being is itself socially mediated (stylized), in Canetti’s eyes because the crowd only exists momentarily, soon after its discharge the individuals return to their homes and to their burdens of distance.

33There is one more parallel between Simmel and Canetti to be emphasized. Thus the impulse to sociability that Simmel refers to, and which, I have argued, can be identified in crowd behavior, signifies a vitalist urge. It points to a desire to gather for the purpose of celebrating life itself (on Simmel’s vitalism, see also Lash, 2005). This vitalist dimension marks a clear contrast to the view of Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde who tended to see crowd behavior as a threat to life. Serge Moscovici has analyzed the vitalist dimension in Canetti very convincingly. As Moscovici makes clear, Canetti’s vitalist account plays both on the sheer life-producing joy of the crowd and on the vitalism that is associated with its destructive actions. Whereas the former element has to do with the freedom that the crowd offers (the suspension of the burdens of distance), the latter element is explained by the (alleged) fact that by acting destructively and violently – by ultimately destroying life – the crowd confirms its own vitality. As Moscovici puts it, ‘[i]f body-to-body contact with a living individual frees us of our fear of being touched in the crowd, body contact with a lifeless individual frees us of the fear of death’ (1987: 53).

34The recognition of this vitalist interpretation of crowd behavior suggests two tensions in Simmel’s work. First, there seems to be a tension between the vitalist urge and the fear of being touched in the metropolis. The impulse to sociability tends to bring people together, whereas the fear of being touched works in an opposite direction. What then is the stronger tendency? One of Simmel’s reflections on space suggests that the sociability is likely to be predominant. In Soziologie, Simmel thus argued for an intimate relation between a crowd’s suggestibility and its spatial setting:

The suggestive and stimulative effects of a great mass of people and their overall psychological manifestations, in whose form the individual no longer recognizes his or her own contribution, increase in proportion to the crowdedness and, more significantly, the size of the space that the crowd occupies. A locality that offers the individual a breathing space of an unaccustomed size through a dense crowd, necessarily favours that feeling of an expansion extending into the unknown and that heightening of powers which is so easily instilled in large masses, and which occurs only occasionally among exceptional individuals in the narrow, easily surveyed confines of an ordinary room. (Simmel, 1992: 704; 1997: 145)

35What are the implications of this observation? Simmel here indicated that particularly urban squares, or other open urban spaces, are likely to stimulate crowd formation. Contrary to narrow streets, these squares endow people with a ‘breathing space [Luftraum]’ which ‘gives people a feeling of freedom of movement, of an ability to venture into the unknown’ (Simmel, 1992: 704; 1997: 145). Besides the almost Sloterdijk-like (2004) emphasis on the atmospheric role of the breathing space, this suggests that the metropolitan crowd produces a double liberation: one which is related to sociability and one which is spatial in character. In sum, therefore, the metropolitan fear of being touched is counteracted or neutralized by the urge to gather as a crowd in urban space.

36The second tension concerns Simmel’s theoretical proximity to the crowd scholars of his time and the argument, which I have derived from his later work, that people may have a desire to form crowds, a desire driven by joy and the celebration of life (and, one may add, of the freedom of movement). This tension is not easily reconciled, and perhaps one should not even attempt to do so. In fact, it may be argued that Simmel’s major contribution to the sociology of crowds lies precisely in his sensitivity to both the vitalist dimension and to its opposite, destructive side. This sensitivity is also central to Canetti’s theory of crowds which, as I have tried to demonstrate, finds an early precursor in Simmel (for an analysis of this double sensitivity in Canetti, see Moscovici, 1987).

  • 13  For a recent discussion which embarks on such an endeavor by combining Simmel’s notion of sociabil (...)

37 It is not my intention here to compare the Simmelian position with current theorizing on collective behavior. Suffice to say that John Lofland’s 1982 complaint about the ‘long-standing neglect of collective joy’ (1982: 379) seems to apply just as well to the present situation. In order to ‘bring joy back into the study of collective behavior’, as Lofland (1982: 355–6) called for, one may take as a theoretical starting point a Simmelian vitalist conception of crowd sociability.13 Rather than pursuing this theoretical debate any further, however, I would like to end with a brief historical contextualization. It thus seems as if the double-sided nature of the crowd might be reflected in Simmel’s views on World War I. Similar to many other intellectuals at the time, Simmel was very excited when the war was announced. In a lecture from November 1914, delivered in Strasburg to where he had just moved to take a position as professor, Simmel expressed how the outbreak of the war filled him with hope (see Liebersohn, 1988: 156–8). The title of the talk, ‘Deutschlands innere Wandlung’ [‘Germany’s inner transformation’] (Simmel, 2003), clearly articulated the expectations he had for the war: While recognizing the obviously terrible and destructive (outer) sides of the war, Simmel was primarily occupied with the idea that, in terms of its inner edifice, ‘Germany is once again full of a great opportunity’, namely the possibility of creating ‘a new man [Menschen]’, a new attitude (2003: 283). In particular, Simmel argued, this new German attitude would grow out of the new ‘point of unity and unconditional solidarity’ that the war was believed to evoke (2003: 275).

38Simmel’s reflections are important for several reasons. First, they could be seen as promoting, on a general societal or national level, the kind of transition toward de-personalized unity and cohesion that his sociological work ascribed to the crowd and its sociability. Second, the vitalist, individual transformation that would result from this sociability was dependent on a destructive event, namely the war. Third, the new cohesion would take place in a context where physical proximity was no longer essential. On the contrary, the entire nation would be captured by the new unity. This amounted to a semantic transformation that would later be more fully developed by other scholars, namely the transformation from crowd to mass: The features typically associated with crowds of co-present individuals were said to suddenly seize the entire nation which therefore emerged as a mass.

39Interestingly, Simmel’s war enthusiasm did not last. In 1917, he thus published a book entitled Der Krieg und die geistigen Entscheidungen which contained the 1914 essay on ‘Deutschlands innere Wandlung’, but which also included subsequent and much more skeptical analyses (Simmel, 1999d). In other words, Simmel here had a personal experience to confirm his theoretical point that no complete transformation is possible.


40This article has focused on a part of Simmel’s work that has only received little attention previously, namely, his contribution to the sociology of crowds. I have demonstrated how centrally he placed the crowd in his sociological work, both in the early and later phases, thereby legitimizing the topic as sociologically relevant, if not outright indispensable. I would like to end by emphasizing, and summarizing, three dimensions that Simmel shared with the major crowd scholars of his time. To begin with, he was wary and even fearful of crowds adopted a very frightened notion and described the crowd as a state of exception that ‘arouses the darkest and most primitive instincts of the individual, which ordinarily are under control’ (1950d: 228; 1992: 206). This, second, was related to the fact that the crowd is subject to dynamics of hypnotic suggestion. In the crowd, ‘there emerges a hypnotic paralysis which makes the crowd follow to its extreme every leading, suggestive impulse’ (1950d: 228; 1992: 206). This pointed to the crowd’s de-individualizing capacity but also to the reciprocal effects (Wechselwirkungen) which was the notion in Simmel’s theory that tended to subsume that of hypnotic suggestion. Third, Simmel agreed that the crowd was not merely a sum of individuals. ‘It is a new phenomenon made up, not of the total individualities of its members’, but rather, and this was of course Simmel’s own contribution, ‘only of those fragments of each of them in which he coincides with all others’, namely ‘the lowest and most primitive’ fragments (1950b: 33; 1999e: 95–6).

41While these three dimensions suggest a strong agreement between Simmel and Le Bon, Sighele, and Tarde, Simmel’s conception of crowds also differed from that of his contemporaries. Most importantly, I have argued, the vitalist interpretation of crowds that I have derived from Simmel anticipates Canetti’s point that crowds may actually express enjoyment, democracy, and liberation. And this is where Simmel’s major contribution to the sociology of crowds and collective behavior lies: in this combined awareness of the crowd’s destructive potential and the recognition of its ability to promote life.

I am grateful to the Editor, anonymous reviewers, and Thomas Basbøll for valuable comments. Research for this article was funded by a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation.

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1  Another exception is Frisby (1984a: 83–5) whose discussion of Simmel’s sociology of crowds is very brief, though.

2  Simmel also followed Tarde’s subsequent work as is evident from a letter he sent to Tarde in 1894, writing that he looked forward to receiving the latter’s La logique sociale (Simmel, 2005: 135; Tarde, 1999b). Simmel’s review of Laws of Imitation is mentioned by Köhnke (1984: 411–2), who goes through a number of Simmel’s early book reviews, depicting the great variety in Simmel’s theoretical interests. However, Köhnke only discusses Simmel’s reviews of books published from 1884–92 and thereby excludes Simmel’s appraisals of the work of Le Bon and Sighele. All three reviews (of Le Bon, Tarde, and Sighele) are discussed instead by Frisby (1984b: 116–7; 1992: 34–5).

3  Simmel would later use the competition example to explain the difference between form and content in his discussion of ‘the problem of sociology’ (Simmel, 1992: 26). See also Frisby (1984b: 117).

4  Simmel did not seem to be aware that this explanatory framework was surprisingly akin to Le Bon’s (1960: 82, 83) emphasis on racial and hereditary factors.

5  In Grundfragen der Soziologie Simmel described the hierarchy between feelings and intellect in the following manner: ‘If one arranges psychological manifestations in a genetic and systematic hierarchy, one will certainly place, at its basis, feeling (though naturally not all feelings), rather than the intellect. Pleasure and pain, as well as certain instinctive feelings that serve the preservation of individual and species, have developed prior to all operation with concepts, judgments, and conclusions.’ (1950b: 34; 1999e: 96–7, emphasis in original)

6  The argument being that, if crowd behavior is mainly to be explained through suggestion, then the intellectual height of the crowd should be analyzed on the level of the person from which this suggestion radiates.

7  Or to be more precise, this would most often be the case, but Simmel did observe a few exceptions to this general tendency. He thus granted very ‘noble and intellectual personalities’, characterized by truly decent and honorable traits, the ability to suppress the inferior elements and to adhere strictly to their higher ones, ethically as well as intellectually (1950b: 38–9; 1999e: 101–2). Further, in Le Bonian style he argued that, in spite of the ethical derangement of crowds: ‘[m]ass excitement … also has its ethically valuable aspect: it may produce noble enthusiasm and an unlimited readiness to sacrifice. Yet this does not eliminate its distorted character and its irresponsibility [see also the fourth point in my discussion of Simmel’s Le Bon review, CB]. It only stresses our removal from the value standards that individual consciousness has developed, whether practically effective or not.’ (1950b: 36; 1999e: 99)

8  There is also a more theoretical explanation, though, as Simmel considered hypnotic suggestion a two-way rather than a unidirectional phenomenon. In a discussion, which echoed Tarde’s remarks from L’opinion et la foule on the mutual influence of a journalist and his or her public (Tarde, 1989: 41), Simmel claimed that this reciprocal influence was visible not least in the case of journalists: ‘The journalist gives content and direction to the opinions of a mute multitude. But he is nevertheless forced to listen, combine, and guess what the tendencies of this multitude are, what it desires to hear and to have confirmed, and whither it wants to be led. While apparently it is only the public which is exposed to his suggestions, actually he is as much under the sway of the public’s suggestion.’ (1950c: 185–6; 1992: 164–5, emphasis in original)

This was merely one illustration of a general fact, to be detected even in hypnotic suggestion in its pure form: ‘in every hypnosis the hypnotized has an effect upon the hypnotist’, hence hypnotic suggestion too ‘conceals an interaction [Wechselwirkung], an exchange of influences, which transforms the pure one-sidedness of superordination and subordination into a sociological form’ (1950c: 186; 1992: 165, emphasis in original).

9  Similar arguments about the diminishing individual responsibility that were said to follow from a quantitative enlargement of groups were developed in more detail in Simmel (1989: Ch. 2).

10  A similar point has recently been made by Teresa Brennan in her brilliant study of the Transmission of Affect (2004).

11  It is very hard not to see in Simmel’s discussion of imitation a strong influence from Tarde whose Laws of Imitation he reviewed the same year as Über sociale Differenzierung was published. However, he opposed the Tardean model in one important respect by rejecting the idea of searching for almost natural laws in the social realm (Simmel, 1989: 217 ff.). This ran counter to Tarde’s (1962) wish to describe the course of imitation as following specific logical and extra-logical laws.

12  This idea runs counter to the approach advanced by Rudé, Thomson, and other historians of crowd behavior who have argued that crowds are rational and moral responses to social injustices and hence characterized by clear objectives. The Simmelian point is that such a perspective underplays the independent attraction of forming a social collective.

13  For a recent discussion which embarks on such an endeavor by combining Simmel’s notion of sociability with Michel Maffesoli’s theory of postmodern tribalism, see de la Fuente (2007).

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Christian Borch, « Between Destructiveness and Vitalism: Simmel’s Sociology of Crowds », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #8 | 2010, mis en ligne le 25 septembre 2010, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :

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Christian Borch

is an Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research interests include architecture, urban theory, crowd theory, economic sociology, and politics. His articles on crowd theory have appeared in journals such as Acta Sociologica, Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, Economy and Society, European Journal of Social Theory, and Theory, Culture & Society. He is currently completing a book on the history of crowd semantics.
Christian Borch
est Professeur associé au Département de Management, Politique et Philosophie à la Copenhagen Business School au Danemark. Ses intérêts de recherche sont notamment l‘architecture, les théories des villes, les théories des foules, la sociologie économique et la politique. Ses articles sur la théorie des foules ont été publiés dans des revues telles que Acta Sociologica, Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, Economy and Society, European Journal of Social Theory et Theory, Culture & Society. Il complète présentement un livre sur l‘histoire des sémantiques de la foule.

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