What is the Stranger Sociology of the Stranger George Simmels the Stranger

“The stranger’ is but one of the many concepts which contemporary sociologists have received from the fertile mind of Georg Simmel. The sociological form of the stranger’ reveals Simmel’s love of the paradox by emphasizing a mixture of opposites” (McLemore 86). “People always have been concerned about the entrance of a new person into the group”(McLemore 87). The stranger brings a potential for change, and change can be threatening for a group. If a group is unsure of how to deal with the confrontation of a stranger and is not equipped to deal with appearance of possible change, the group has a tendency to retreat into the traditional and inflexible standards (Heinke 3). This essay will deal with what a stranger is, how he is viewed and treated by a group he comes in contact with, how he views his own strangeness, and why a stranger is threatening to the individual members of a group.
When we think of a stranger, we think of the dictionary definition: “a person with whom no one has had no personal acquaintance; a newcomer in a place and locality; an outsider; a person who is unacquainted with or unaccustomed to something; a person who is not a member of the family, group, community; one not privy or party to an act, proceeding, etc” (dictionary.com). This definition is true, yet Georg Simmel made the stranger more complex:
The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself (Simmel 1).

“When the stranger arrives, he is outside the system of social relationships and poses a set of problems for the existing order. The factors governing the processes whereby the group may be altered to include the newcomer, and some consequences of these changes, are analyzed in relation to the fundamental system of social integration, the local community pattern, and the particular circumstances and personalities involved” (McLemore 87). The stranger is set apart from a particular in-group by his different attributes: the time and place of origin, not belonging to the group socially, and also independence in moving and staying compared to the rest of the society he enters. Because behavior termed as normal inside this group serves as a standard, other’ behaviors are as seen as deviant and negative. This standard of behavior has to do with the group’s expectations of how newcomer and immigrants (essentially strangers) should assimilate (Heinke 1).
Yet, Simmel doesn’t focus primarily on the stranger and his assigned place in the social structure. He looks at the stranger who “fails to become a fully participating member of the group” (McLemore 88). The stranger fails to become a full member of a group because of three things: his objectivity, his lack of ownership, and his own sense of strangeness.
As an outsider to a particular group, the stranger approaches the unique and peculiar tendencies of a group with an attitude of objectivity.
Because he is not bound by roots to particular constituents and partisan dispositions of the group, he confronts all of these with a distinctly objective’ attitude, an attitude that does not signify mere detachment and nonparticipation, but is a distinct structure composed of remoteness and nearness, indifference and involvement” (Adams and Sydie 216).
Objectivity can be termed as freedom: the individual is not bound by commitments that could cause prejudice to his perception, understanding, and evaluation of a group. The stranger is able to treat his experiences and close relationships with a group with clarity and objectivity. “He is freer practically and theoretically; he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent” (Simmel 2).

The stranger usually owns no soil. Although in relationships, “he may develop all kinds of charm and significance, as long as he is considered a stranger in the eyes of the other, he is not an owner of soil'” (Simmel 2). Fundamentally, a stranger is free and mobile, without a set group; thus, since he is not “organically connected, through ties of kinship, locality, and occupation, with any single one,” he is considered outside of the group because of lack of connectivity to anything permanent (Simmel 2).
A stranger can also be a stranger because he also feels a sense of strangeness about himself in relation to a group.
As the stranger’s point of view moves inexorably in the direction of host norms, it might be supposed that he feels an increasing affinity with them. The paradox is that he does not. As he becomes more like the hosts he feels (up to a certain point) more of an outsider. His greater familiarity with the hosts and their ways tend to make him more away of the gulf which separates him from them (Nash 153).
In other words, as a stranger becomes more ingrained in his lifestyle with a group, a part of him will begin to compare his old group, or frame of reference, with his new group. He will begin to compare how the old group settled problems and how the new group differs. That is when he begins to see himself as a stranger. “As a group member, he is near and far at the same time, as is characteristic of relations founded only on general human commonness. But between the nearness and distance, there arises a specific tensionwhich is not common” (Simmel 3).
I believe the members of a group, confronted with a stranger, act a certain way because they are confronted with the strangeness they feel inside about themselves. Everyone defines himself individually while setting himself into opposition with other individuals; therefore, it is not completely possible to express one’s identity, in relation to other individuals, completely. Everyone is socialized differently through his experiences and circumstances of life; so, his definition of meaning and way of thinking are entirely exclusive to himself a unique individual. Because everyone is essentially unique, everyone is essentially a stranger and unknown to each other. Even though all members of the group are strangers to themselves and to others, there are some characteristics beliefs, expectations, ideas which are the same.
“Again, during socialization a whole group or society is formed in certain ways of thinking and behaving. Not only language but also the political system, cultural values, moral standards and ethics or the relation between sexes belong to a set of pieces which complete a cultural identity. Comparing the own set of values with other societies or minority groups with a society, the similarities among many produce a feeling of togetherness, they form a we-feeling'”(Heinke 1).

When the group is confronted by the presence of the stranger, the members of the group are also confronted with the strangeness of themselves, i.e., their beliefs and expectations and ideas that do perhaps differ with the popular majority of the group. When those differences are magnified, members of the group, in order to maintain the we-feeling,’ immediately see the stranger as an outside group, a competitor, and as negative. More often than not, that confrontation leads to stereotypes: “Their frequent usage is the expression of being unsure of oneself in certain because with everything which is strange or new to us we have to define ourselves anew in the relation to that object of strangeness” (Heinke 3)
The principle of the stranger is a powerful theory and concept because it forced the world to look at how groups define other groups and how a group can define one person who is not a member. The stranger has the power to disrupt every thing in a group’s lives. Strangeness does indeed become a threat because the stranger challenges its ideas, prejudices, beliefs, and practices (Heinke 3-4). Even if the stranger wanted to be and was accepted into a group, he would still be an inside-outsider because of his objectivity, lack of ownership, and his magnified sense of his own strangeness. “As described by Georg Simmel the man who comes today and stays tomorrow, the potential wanderer has not quite gotten over the freedom of coming and going.’ He may settle for a time, usually a trader not fixed in space. Where he remains or not depends on the circumstances, but as long as he is regarded as a stranger, he retains the earmarks of being a member of an out-group'”(Greifer 739).
“If people are sure enough of themselves and their identity and have sufficient possibilities and the ability to handle and interpret information they are the ones who can win from experiences with the unknown” (Heinke 4).

Works Cited

Adams, Bert N. and Sydie, R.A. Sociological Theory. Boston: Pine Forge Press, 2001.
Greifer, Julian L. “Attitudes to the Stranger: a Study of the Attitudes of Primitive Society and Early Hebrew Culture.” American Sociological Review December 1945: 739-745.
Heinke, Jorg. “George Simmel, Strangeness, and the Stranger.” www.thecore.nus.edu.sg/post/australia/malouf/jh2.html. 25 September 2007.
McLemore, S. Dale. “Simmel’s Stranger’: a Critique of the Concept.” The Pacific Sociological Review Spring 1970: 86-94.
Nash, Dennison. “The Ethnologist as Stranger: An Essay in the Sociology of Knowledge.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology Summer 1963: 149-167.
Simmel, Georg. “The Stranger.” from Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950: 402-408.
Dictionary.com, 9/27/2007.