The stranger will thus not be considered here in the usual sense of the term, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow—the potential wanderer, so to speak, who, although he has gone no further, has not quite got over the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a certain spatial circle…but his position within it is fundamentally affected by the fact that he does not belong in it initially and that he brings qualities into it that are not, and cannot be, indigenous to it.The stranger is one of Simmel’s social types, similar to Weber’s use of ideal types. He is not here describing the person but instead describing a role that is taken on (or put upon) certain members of society. In this case, when he says that he is both inside the circle but never really a part of it, he describes a role that leaves some people in a position that is perpetually outside the group.
Another expression of this constellation is to be found in the objectivity of the stranger. Because he is not bound by roots to the particular constituents and partisan dispositions of the group, he confronts all of these with a distinctly ‘objective’ attitude.This belief that an outsider is more ‘objective’ is widespread in our society. Perhaps one of the most structured ways that this comes about is in jury selection. Individuals who know the defendant are excluded from juries, and often the phase of jury selection seeks to eliminate those with potential prejudice, including those who might be too close to the case. Imagine, for example, a victim’s sibling serving on the jury of someone accused of harming her brother. We would imagine that this person could not evaluate the evidence of the case “objectively” because she is too close to it. We often imagine that distance will allow for greater objectivity.
From earliest times, in uprisings of all sorts the attacked party has claimed that there has been incitement from the outside, by foreign emissaries and agitators. Insofar as this has happened, it represents an exaggeration of the specific role of the stranger; he is the freer man, practically and theoretically; he examines conditions with less prejudice; he assesses them against standards that are more general and more objective; and his actions are not confined by custom, piety, or precedent.We can see this process of assigning “less prejudice” to outsiders in the use of management consultants in many large businesses. Because they are believed to be independent of the company and unattached to the employees, management consultants are often trusted (and highly rewarded) for dispensing advice, even if they may not know the company as well as insiders.
The stranger is close to us insofar as we feel between him and ourselves similarities of nationality or social position, of occupation or of general human nature. He is far from us insofar as these similarities extend beyond him and us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people.This is the crux of the stranger. The stranger is both near and far at the same time. The similarities might not extend beyond living in the same country or working in the same industry. Yet beyond these common experiences, other factors loom large to make the stranger into an other. These differences might be based on race, nationality, education, social class, sexual identity, religion, or many other things.
…the stranger is near and far at the same time, as in any relationship based on merely universal human similarities. Between these two factors of nearness and distance, however, a peculiar tension arises, since the consciousness of having only the absolutely general in common has exactly the effect of putting a special emphasis on that which is not common.Simmel is pointing here to the salience of the factor that differentiates the stranger from others. This is similar to the concept of master status, where one aspect of identity looms large, overriding other factors. A young woman wearing a headscarf in a college classroom for religious reasons, for example, may have much in common with her classmates—they are students, they may be the same age, they may share a nationality. But the headscarf may signify to others that she is different in a meaningful way, and the similarities may seem to recede while that difference looms large.