A branch of sociology that traces its origins to Georg Simmel. It aims to capture the underlying forms of social relations, and thus to provide a ‘geometry of social life’. Followers of Simmel in Germany included Leopold von Wiese and Alfred Vierkandt.
Simmel distinguished the ‘content’ of social life (wars, families, education, politics) from its ‘forms’ (such as, for example, conflict), which cut across all such areas, and through which social life is patterned. Conflict, as a social form, may be found in situations as diverse as those of family life and politics, and to it certain common features will accrue. Contents vary—but forms emerge as the central organizing features of social life. Among the forms central to Simmel's thinking were the significance of numbers for group alignments (isolated individuals, dyads, triads), patterns of superordination and subordination, group relationships (conflicts, competitions, coalitions), identities and roles (the stranger, the poor), disclosures (secrets, the secret society), and evaluations (prices, exchanges).
Most sociology concentrates upon content: there are sociologies of education, the family, the media, and so forth. Formalism shuns this approach to sociology, by cutting across such topics, and seeking to identify generic processes and patterns through which they are socially constituted: stigma, stratification, and secrecy, for instance, may be forms cutting through the substantive areas of education, family, and media. The best commentary on Simmel's formal sociology remains Nicholas Spykman 's The Social Theory of Georg Simmel (1925).
After Simmel and his immediate followers, the earliest development of such an approach was to be found in the work of the Chicago interactionists. Robert Park was a student of Simmel's, and brought to Chicago a concern both to study the richness of the empirical world as revealed in the city, and a concern to detect the patterns of city life. The most popular textbook of the day (Park and Burgess's An Introduction to Sociology) is largely organized according to ‘forms’.
Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss have attempted to develop formal sociology in their work on dying, moving from a rich substantive area of research (cancer wards and the dying process), to a more sustained theoretical analysis of common forms (such as status passages and awareness contexts). For example, moving from a detailed case-study of a dying patient, they were able to seek comparisons with other major status changes in order to develop a formal theory of status passage, which postulated many features in common with other status passages (see Status Passage, 1967). From a grounded substantive study came more comparative, abstract, and formal theory. More recently, Robert Prus (‘Generic Social Processes’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 1987) has outlined five key dimensions of group life that are needed for a processual generic sociology: acquiring perspectives, achieving identity, being involved, doing activity, and experiencing relationships.
There have been a number of other attempts to construct a formal theory of social life, including John Lofland 's Doing Social Life (1976) and Carl Couch 's Constructing Social Life (1975), as well as more specific case-studies, such as Lewis Coser 's The Functions of Social Conflict (1956). Erving Goffman 's Stigma (1961) is sometimes seen as owing a great deal to formal sociology.