I have been trying to wrap my mind around two ideas that Kendall and Kadushin attribute to Georg Simmel, a turn-of-the-century sociologist. According to Kendall, Simmel believed that the move toward individualism in Western culture was tied to the increase or cross-cutting in people’s social networks. Kadushin reports that for Simmel clusters within networks provide bridges between different status and circles and serve to integrate society.
A few centuries ago, we would have almost been guaranteed to have smaller denser networks than we do now. where Plop me down in the 15th or 16th Century and there’s a good chance, I would grow up in a farming community, marry a farmer, have kids who would become farmers (or marry them), attend church, and die in the same community; within that community, virtually everything including hobbies, knowledge, experience would be things I shared in common with the entire community. At the end of today’s class, I wound up in the “everyone else group” that did not share any of the commonalities that determined the other groups (having a cat, reading the rankings on red wine bottles, running, etc.) To have so little in common would never have happened even 60 or 70 years ago, we all would have belonged to most of the same clubs and associations. Now there are so many organizational affiliations to chose from – your network is unique to you. Simmel suggests that the different groups, identifications, networks that we have access to now have influenced our culture’s leaning toward individualism. When we start to have less in common, it is a lot easier to focus on ourselves and how we’re different.
Yet, alongside this dark, fractionated individualism, Simmel suggests that the clusters and varied affiliations within our networks – the same ones that enable individualism – also serve to integrate our society. The small world novel suggests that these social circles intertwine us into society in a much broader way that begins to undermine borders, class systems, glass ceilings, etc. Its an interesting tradeoff between between bonding and bridging ties that carries with it a lot of cultural implications.