Georg Simmel’s Thought and the Sociology of Public Opinion

Monday, 16 July 2018: 18:30
Oral Presentation
Yukichi HONJI, Univerity of Tokyo, Japan
What has Georg Simmel’s contribution been to sociology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Many sociologists have used his insights into various research subjects, for example, sociological theory, urban life, social relationships, and so on. This presentation, however, focuses on an area not generally associated with his name, that is, the analysis of public opinion. Simmel himself was little interested in public opinion. His work, however, inspired other sociologists to investigate it as a sociological subject in the interwar period. Moreover, Simmel’s insight made it easy to focus on various small phenomena which lie under public opinion and mass-communication.

I will speak in particular three important works from the interwar-period. The first one that will be examined is, “Öffentliche Meinung und Presse” (“Public Opinion and Press,” 1928) by Gerhard Münzner, a German sociologist. The second is “Gerüchte” (“Rumors,” 1928) by Leonty A. Bysow, a Russian social psychologist. The third is “Ryu-Gen Hi-Go” (“Groundless Rumors,” 1937) by Ikutaro Shimizu, a Japanese sociologist. Interestingly, Münzner, Bysow and Shimizu, obviously influenced by Simmel, put emphasis on face-to-face interactions among individuals and described how such interactions led to crises of the mass-media and public opinion in their own countries. For example, Shimizu referred to Simmel’s famous analysis of the secret and the individual personality in Soziologie, and showed how individual emotions are still alive in public opinion and endanger the system of mass-media and public opinion in Japanese society.

In today’s political debate about public opinion, interpersonal communication processes has become more and more important. Lies, groundless rumors, and “fake news” sometimes develop enormously through various personal interactions. Sociological analyses done by these three sociologists suggest that we can use Simmel’s point of view in order to describe how interpersonal communication processes influence, empower, and sometimes endanger public opinion of our society.