Who Was Sociologist Georg Simmel?

Meet the pioneering scholar who helped establish the field of sociology

Georg Simmel
Julius Cornelius Schaarwächter/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Georg Simmel was an early German sociologist and structural theorist who focused on urban life and the form of the metropolis. He was known for creating social theories that fostered an approach to the study of society that broke with the then-accepted scientific methodology used to examine the natural world. Simmel is widely taught alongside his contemporary Max Weber, as well as Marx and Durkheim, in courses on classical social theory.

Simmel's Early History and Education

Simmel was born on March 1, 1858, in Berlin (which, at the time, was the Kingdom of Prussia, prior to the creation of the German state). Though he was born into a large family and his father died when Simmel was relatively young, he received a comfortable inheritance that allowed him to pursue a life of scholarship.

Simmel studied philosophy and history at the University of Berlin. (Sociology as a discipline was beginning to take shape, but was not yet fully developed.) He received his Ph.D. in 1881 based on a study of Immanuel Kant's theories of philosophy. Following his degree, Simmel taught philosophy, psychology, and early sociology courses at his alma mater.

Career Highlights and Obstacles

Over the course of the next 15 years, Simmel lectured and worked as a public sociologist, authoring numerous articles on his topics of study for newspapers and magazines. His writing became popular, making him well-known and respected across Europe and in the United States.

Ironically, Simmel's groundbreaking body of work was shunned by conservative members of the academy, who refused to recognize his achievements with formal academic appointments. Exacerbating Simmel's frustrations were the chilling effects of the rising anti-Semitism he faced as a Jew. 

Refusing to knuckle under, Simmel, redoubled his commitment to advancing sociological thinking and his burgeoning discipline. In 1909, along with Ferdinand Tonnies and Max Weber, he co-founded the German Society for Sociology.

Death and Legacy

Simmel wrote prolifically throughout his career, penning more than 200 articles for various outlets, both scholarly and non-academic, as well as 15 very highly regarded books. He passed away in 1918, after succumbing to a battle with liver cancer.

Simmel's work laid the foundation for the development of structuralist approaches to studying society, and to the development of the discipline of sociology in general. His works proved especially inspiring to those who pioneered the field of urban sociology in the United States, including the Chicago School of Sociology's Robert Park.

Simmel's legacy in Europe includes shaping the intellectual development and writing of social theorists György Lukács, Ernst Bloch, and Karl Mannheim, among others. Simmel's approach to studying mass culture also served as a theoretical foundation for members of The Frankfort School.

Major Publications

  • "On Social Differentiation" (1890)
  • "The Problems of the Philosophy of History" (1892)
  • "Introduction to the Science of Ethics" (1892-1893)
  • "The Philosophy of Money" (1900)
  • "Sociology: Investigations on the Forms of Sociation" (1908)