Why do they all seem the same
More than a hundred years ago, the sociologist Georg Simmel put forward a hypothesis on social inequality in a “fairy tale” entitled “Roses”. Its story begins in a fictional agrarian society in which there is an equal distribution of land. All of them have their livelihoods provided, as Simmel notes, they do not need more than the land allows, provided that they adapt their consumption to their income.
Now some of the landowners are also starting to grow roses. This creates noticeable inequality. Simmel traces them back to existing differences: small differences in wealth, different leisure activities, differently favorable soil qualities in growing roses, different skill levels. I mean: it doesn't take much to make a difference.
But offshoots turn the roses into more roses, and the rose growers also learn why they refine their products more and more. As a result, they and their gardens stand out more and more from the non-rose breeders. So differences are amplified.
There is a protest against this. It is based partly on a feeling for injustice, partly on admiration for the roses, and partly on outrage at the randomness of privileges. Different motives go into the inequality not only, but also into the demand to eliminate it. Simmel therefore advises against recognizing only envy in calls for redistribution.
It comes - Simmel wrote in 1897 in the age of rising social democracy, socialism and the welfare state - the fight between the rose owners and the redistributors. The latter don't just win it because they're the larger group. Even rose owners cannot completely ignore the ideal of social justice. Even the privileged were unable to portray the fact that small differences, mixed with diligence and chance, turned into great inequalities as a historical necessity, God's will or a commandment of efficiency.
So now the rose bushes are being redistributed so that everyone has some. Social peace is restored. Small differences, which still exist because not everyone is equally good at growing roses and the sun shines more favorably here and there, is initially overlooked in view of the great equality that has been achieved. But it doesn't stay that way.
This is where Simmel's criticism of a utilitarian psychology begins. For him, people do not have any consumption plans beyond covering their basic needs, for which land ownership stands in fairy tales, the fulfillment of which satisfies them. If you achieve what you have strived for, do not calm yourself down. Rather, human sensibility lives on every second of comparisons. If he is not offered alternating stimuli or more and less of the same stimuli, life appears empty to him. Uninterrupted bliss is “feared as an equally uninterrupted boredom”. So it is not the absolute size of happiness that satisfies, but the relative size in relation to previous deprivation.
It is easy to give examples of this circumstance, sometimes called “rank happiness” by economists: Anyone who has won German championships x times is only happy about doubles and triples and also likes to quit the coach when they are in second place. Managers who have achieved everything they once hoped for tend to riskier projects, for example trying to buy VW from Porsche. The idea of Juliet and Romeo as a married couple, on the other hand, is proverbial for the fact that a different kind of happiness must be sought when it can no longer be increased in the dimension of the original expectations.
From this, Simmel draws the conclusion that even a strong increase or decrease in property leads, after a short time, to adapting one's emotional life to the new situation. The differences within the new state would be answered with exactly the same joy or displeasure as the much larger differences that were all about before.
In his rose fairy tale, the same outrages about injustice are linked to the differences within the evenly distributed rose population as to the difference between having and not having. The same arrogant pride no longer insists on the possession of roses, but on that of roses of a particular color, size, and fragrance. The same bitterness that once caused the complete lack of roses now triggers the feeling of not having special roses.
It stands to reason that in all of this the roses can easily be replaced by other goods or symbols beyond basic needs. Simmel chose Rosen for his final punchline, namely the insight that there is nothing more indifferent than Rosen, “when nature attaches the same feelings of inequality to her property as she does to her privation”.
This takes the step from a psychology of inequality to its sociology: The decisive factor for the feeling of having and lacking is not whether one has something oneself, but whether others have it or lack it. This feeling refines with each redistribution in order to devote the same energy to differences that older fighters for simpler parallels would not have understood. In addition, technological progress holds out the prospect of greater convenience, which some enjoy at first, but not others. Society is becoming more and more sensitive to inequality without ever being able to arrive at its opposite.
Georg Simmel: “Roses. A social hypothesis ”, in: ders. Complete edition Volume 17, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2004.
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