Georg Simmel “The Metropolis and Mental Life”

Even though it was written over a century ago, Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life” is an excellent depiction of the contrast between urban versus rural communities and the influence of the culture within each of those communities on the individual and relationships they develop. Simmel focused on two forms of culture, found either in the small town or the large city, subjective and objective. He found that a key urban problem was the increased objective culture. In an objective culture, individuals are not fully engaged in the culture of the community; they are detached and distanced from the community. Objective culture does not mean as much to the individual and it is not readily embraced. Subjective culture, prevalent in small towns, has more meaning to an individual than objective. There is a higher level of attachment to a subjective culture and there is more interaction between individuals. Culture becomes less subjective as the size of community grows, interactions among group members decrease and relationships became more and more rational and less and less emotional.

Characteristics of the modern society that lead to an increase in objective culture are urbanization, division of labor, and money. Simmel purports that entrepreneurship in the urban environment is a major factor leading to the increase in division of labor, rather than a communal effort. With the increased commercial activity that followed urbanization, individuals needed to specialize in a certain field or trade in order to obtain market share. This focus on obtaining money reduces the amount of emotional attachments and intimate ties one has with others. Additionally, in the urban environment, there are vast amounts of social groups to choose to engage with, both factors, money and availability of groups, allow individuals the freedom to be a part of any social group. Although, this is not to say that the relationship or attachment to these various networks is strong. It is instead, rather weak.

Simmel believed the quality of relationships varied between small, rural towns and large, urban cities and this variability greatly impacted psyche. In small towns individuals have more organic social networks that develop naturally based on traditional groups of the family. The limited size and number of groups within the town also factored in to group choice. The choice of groups may be limited but the relationships are more intimate and more meaningful; ties between members of small groups are quite strong. Individuals follow the norms of the small organic group so as not to stand out. Rational groups, on the other hand, are methodically engineered. Calculated even, and are prevalent urban settings, as Simmel points out, mainly because the “the metropolis has always been the seat of money economy”. Here, individuals choose their relationships and social groups for rational reasons. These choices tend to be goal oriented, with some objective end in mind, such as in “what can I get out of this without expending too much of my already depleted energy?” Although humans need groups and social structure, too many complex groups and relationships, as are found in the city, can increase the level of stimuli and contribute to the blasé metropolitan attitude. In other words, we can only invest so much of ourselves into any one group and if we experience too many groups in the urban environment, the overload of stimuli can make us retreat and withdraw.

As I live in a small town and work in a city, I can relate to Simmel’s argument that the city psyche is very different from that of the small town psyche. I always thought that city life was just too fast paced for people to have time for interaction or time to stop and “smell the roses”. However, I find merit in what Simmel is trying to reveal, that the blasé attitude is a defense mechanism to help us preserve emotional energy. I suppose communities can plan activities to increase community involvement, or outreach from local social institutions such as religious institutions, but I honestly do not know the solution to reducing the detachment and lack of emotional relationships prevalent in urban areas, I am sorry to say but I think it is the nature of the large, urban environment that creates the blasé metropolitan attitude.

One thought on “Georg Simmel “The Metropolis and Mental Life”

  • September 3, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    Very good summary and critique. I too agree with Simmel’s assessment of urban life, we have so much stimulithat if we don’t develop a form of armor we will indeed become emotionally depleted. We are all aware of the somewhat dynamic relationships we forge with people in different groups. A great resource to read is “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” by Robert D. Putnam, which discusses the changes in our community activities and the lack of interaction. Putnam discusses how active folks use to be in the PTA and community organizations and how that has changed due to work and family life shifts e.g. women working outside the home, etc.

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