Simmel, Georg. 1922. "The Web of Group-Affiliations." (R032) (Westbrook Thrower)


Simmel begins his article by stating that the unity of a group grows from primitive behavior, and is not always that of rational character. The external and internal make-up of an individual are founded upon equally deep-seated causes that lie beyond the control of the individual.  He talks about affiliation with two groups of different types, and gives the example in modern day family life. Regarding the division of sexes, a mother’s instinct may cause her to side with her son in a dispute between him and his wife.  But on another occasion she may side with the daughter in-law as a member of her own sex.  Simmel says that people of the same sex will act organic and natural in collective action, while other instances of collective action may be individual, intentional, and conscious.  

The division of age groups is a cause of group formation, which combines personal and objective criteria.  Group-affiliations that are formed from objective criteria have a super structure that develops over and above other group affiliations which are formed according to natural, immediately given criteria.  A simple example of this would be the ‘family group’ which is modified as the individuals in the family are introduced to other group affiliations. 

When discussing group-affiliations and the individual personality, Simmel says that though it is true that internal and external conflicts will arise with multiple group affiliations, it can also strengthen the individual and enforce the integration of his personality. He uses the example of marriage and how both spouses belong to new families, expanding ones interests and relationships, yet at the same time they can intensify ones conflicts. (L Thrower)

316.4 A mother may ally with her son organically through family ties, or her daughter in law, through alliance of the sexes.
316.4 Group unity is primitive, need not be rational. External position/internal makup of individual special if uncontrolled.
316.6 When tribes fight, members of same gent won't fight, find dif opponent Sex between gent members even if from other tribe
316.9 Being of the same sex is an organic/instinctual cause of collective action.
317.5 Age is also a cause of collective action and likewise to sex, is midway between organic and rational.
317.6 With intellectual life, solidarity between groups of thought. W/o intellectual life, age is source of group solidarity.
317.8 Group affiliation by age occurs because age is a readily determinable fact that reflects one’s outlook on life.
318.1 Group affiliations through similarities of thinking act as links between groups formed through organic means like age.
318.5 In the 14th century, great works were not separated by disciplines, but all placed together as equally important.
318.8 200 years later, more limited form. Francis I proposed an academy to explore knowledge/teaching w/o a practical purpose.
318.9 The diversity of the humanistic group opened the way to further and important differentiation of the social structure.
319.2 Groups formed by intellectual and rational interests create links between primary group connected through age, sex…
319.5 important part of culture= # of groups participated in. modern arrangement: familial, occupational, social status, clubs
319.8 in the middle ages, individuals could join group w/ affiliations outside the community and those within the community.
320.2 These groups incorporated their members into other, non-overlapping groups through de-individualization.
320.3 medieval group formation: only equals can be associated. Modern group formation: freedom of individual to join groups.
320.5 No individualization in medieval groups, so members did not gain differentiation of personality through group membership
320.7 Groups act as coordinates, pin down personality. More groups, more exact. Individuality = unique pattern of affiliation.
321.2 Formation of personality works both ways. Group membership shapes personality/personality shapes what groups are joined
321.5 Multiple group ties cause conflicts through loss of single-affiliation-security, but can also strengthen a personality.
321.9 Membership to maternal clan is spiritual, membership to paternal clan is material.
322.2 In aboriginal culture, maternal lineage scattered through different tribes. No effect on daily life, only ceremonial.
322.5 Paternal heritage has no need for symbols because of the community feelings fostered by living day-to-day life together.


A basic question in this excerpt is what sorts of things — characteristics, facts — can become the basis for defining "groupness." A few are mentioned at the start: family, sex, age. He then introduces (318.2) "objective criteria" for groups in contrast to "natural, immediately given" criteria (such as sex or age). By objective here Simmel means something like rationally constructed. Such group construction on the basis of an idea is associated with a process we sometimes call "lumping and splitting."


Georg Simmel was born in 1858 and died in 1918. Among the leading social theorists of his generation he is probably the most original and provocative and the one who less than any other left no legacy in the form of a "school of thought." This selection is from a manuscript published in English as Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations (translated by R. Bendix and published by Free Press in 1955).


gens (pl. gentes) — a term from Roman law describing a family structure sharing a name and a common anscestor. In the current context, describing a subpart of a tribe of Australian aborigines, the term is equivalent to what, in Durkheim, we called clans.
Mortlack Islanders — this is probably what is now written "Mortlock" and refers to islands in Micronesia.

Leading Questions


2. At 318.3ff Simmel goes into a few paragraphs on the emergence of independent groups in the Renaissance, groups based on ideas or the pursuit of learning. A member of such groups, Simmel notes, "spent his life in a colorful variety of life-situations." What is the significance of this for social organization?

3. What are some of the groups to which an individual belongs mentioned by Simmel in "Multiple Group-Affiliations which are not in Conflict" (319)?

4. For the sake of argument, Simmel develops a sort of "ideal type" of group affiliation in the Middle Ages (in anticipation of contrasting this with the modern). What are its features?

5. Simmel's geometric imagination (and, perhaps, his most important pre-contribution to contemporary network oriented theories) really takes off in the section "Group Affiliations and the Individual Personality."



  1. Affiliation with Two Groups of Different Types
  2. Examples: clans/tribes; sex/family
  3. Organic and Rational Criteria for Group Formation
  4. Multiple Group-Affiliations which are not in Conflict
  5. Group Affiliations and the Individual Personality

See also