Sociology of Ambivalence

Georg Simmel (1950) developed the concept of the stranger to account for those groups of people or individuals who are semi-detached from society, who are perceived as once or potentially movers and yet in this place, both near and far at the same time. It is this that makes them remote people when approached as close by, and yet part of us when considered distant.
At the heart of this is ambivalence, and either a means of adding functionality to society or a restraint to successful functioning. Or the restraint requires a solution. This is (ultimately) a functionalist perspective.
Historically, as Simmel argues, Jews have played this role. Amongst an identified host poulation, they were seen as wanderers, so although around they were remote to approach. They maintained their own self-identity and even sub-cultures. As for people who were distant, they were part of society. So, once exploited and removed, when back under Oliver Cromwell they played an important social role that was other, particularly lending money to Gentiles at a time when Christians were concerned about usary, and developing self-reliance. Today gypsies have this both close and distant quality and are found to be on the fringes of the economy. Travellers have set this up for themselves, who began an alternative lifestyle on the move and became a fringe group, even threatening for being other.
Simmel identified the Jews with the social standing of the trader. Moving beyond self-sufficiency towards the efficiency of doing trade means having people who cross boundaries, the trader producing the vital person amongst us who is other. The trader is not an "owner of soil" but is restricted in economic task, and yet this restriction takes place within a freedom of movement in and out of the social setting.
The stranger can cast a critical eye over events in local society. Being at once a little removed, they can see what the locals cannot. They can make a judgment that perhaps locals, tied in more densely in reciprocal social ties cannot.
Whereas society raises and pressurises its members to conform to social mores, developing normative expectations and taboos, the stranger is particularly pressured. The problem is the structural ambivalence that results, that the stranger becomes attractive and yet is repulsed at the same time. Furthermore, the mores that are stereotypical of the group become the means to see the stranger, not as an individual but as part of the group and representative of the group. This becomes the individual's status and treatment, whether it is by tax or by even more coercive means of reinforcing distance.
The relationship between mobility to stranger also works in reverse, according to Simmel (1950, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976). Restriction given in economic terms producing a stranger gives that person or group the characteristic of mobility. Often the persecuted do literally become mobile again, seeking a new liberation, yet, even if they do not move, they still gain the characteristic of mobility.
Gerhard Riemann (2003) considered Simmel and the stranger in the context of the autobiographical study of Hülya carried out by students Christa Noack and Heike Kahlerthülya, under Professor Hoffmann-Riem. Hülya was a migrant worker, never going to become fully German, but, used the language of her new home for the interviewing. She was on a movement of liberation, but she would be a stranger.
This is where sociology and social science influenced geography overlap (e.g. Gregory, 1978), in that society organises itself spatially. This spatial concept is at one a social and psychological construct.
There are a number of additonal bases on which people carrying out social roles find themselves in role ambivalences, where in its most extended sense, sociological ambivalence is defined by Merton and Barber (1962) as:
incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour assigned to a status or set of statuses in a society. (Merton, Barber, 1962, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 543)
This can be reduced to the ambivalence in a single role in a single social status. The theoretical situations of these roles are as follows:

  1. Contradictory demands upon a person of a status in a particular social relation. They result is oscillating between expected behaviours. This is like a General Practioner showing both compassion towards a patient and detachment. The same person or set of people see the ambivalence.
  2. Conflict of statuses with a status-set of an individual. So home demands carrying out all the domestic roles and yet work takes away time for them. People put up a public face when the private face is different.This involves relating to one person or set of people with one status based and then facing another person or set with a different role, each seeing one.
  3. A status may contain within it multiple roles, such as a job title that sees an individual carry out tasks that involve some conflict with each other.
  4. The culture of society may require contradictory responses of all its citizens, for example a welfare state collective compassion combined with a me first capitalistic individualism. Lacking either creates difficulties in terms of functioning in society. Society may assign such responses to roles, but if they are they arrive at contradictory demands on a person of a particular status.
  5. Culture and society can each come into ambivalence against one another. People internalise important values that their roles in the social structure does not allow them to discharge.
  6. Some people have lived in two societies. Like the mobile person, they come from and they go to and fid different values. The marginal person of Robert Park and Everett V. Stonequist (547, from 1937) (the Chicago School) is like this. Plus there are people who hold values of groups they are not in, especially those who desire to be upwardly mobile: the problem being that wanting to be a member of the group creates ambivalences between those values and the values of the group the person is within. (All six in Merton and Barber, 1962, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 544-546).
  7. In addition to the above another could be added. Another setting of ambivalence comes where there is a perceived ideal culture and one that exists to be overthrown. This is prophetic (religious or ideological). A priestly role usually depends more on having come into a community from outside and the likelihood of leaving (even to retire elsewhere). There is an ambuguity in the role too of involvement and detachment.
In looking at sociological ambivalence, Merton and Barber see the need to move from pure description past sociography (the listing of essentials of descriptions)  to analytical work, that shows how roles function and become ambiguous. Following Sorokin (549, from 1947) they list:

  • Direction
    • Mutual and two sided or predominantly one sided
  • Extent
    • Narrow sector of life to all
  • Intensity
    • (Presumaby) Amount and impact
  • Duration
    • (Presumably) Lasting power
  • Influence
    • Direct, Mediated, Indirect

(Merton, Barber, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 549)
They also consider Parsons' view of social roles:

  • Affectivity or Neutrality
    • Norms that lead to feeling to No effect expressed
  • Diffuseness to specific obligations
    • Wide ranging to specific limited obligations
  • Universalism to particularism
    • Obligations regardless of social status to those assigned to a status
  • Concern with attributes or performance of a role partner
    • Inner qualities or acheved output
  • Self-orientated or collectivity orientated
    • Which end is subordinated to the other

(Merton, Barber, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 550, Parsons from 1951)
Such attributes and their qualities can be applied to actual social functions (peoples jobs, actions in social roles) to produce an analysis.
For Merton and Barber, sociological ambivalence is about norms and counter-norms governing role behaviour where ambivalence is produced. This is a simplification and refocus from both Sorokin and Parsons, towards the dynamic and away from attributes. This is necessary because discussion of attributes refers to dominant attributes, and inevitably reduces the clash between competing attributes, and therefore calls for a more dynamic approach if still recognising source attributes. From this simplification of focus comes the complexity of dynamic demands, that there is not a balance of dominance and subordination, but an ongoing clash. Arguably there is no balance in a General Practioner being both compassionate and detached, these two role performances run at the same time making their demands.
Merton and Barber then focus these conflicts and ambivalences on professions as a class of occupation (556-561). Professional work with needy clients carries ambivalence itself. Professions are held in high regard, as a result they generate positive and negative responses from what they do in the ways they do it. Clients react to the professions doing their social roles that have these clashes. The clashes come from attributes of expectations common to professions.
  • There should be Continuity
    • Where a client continues long after dissatisfaction has set in
  • Given professional Authority
    • Authority highlights the anxieties that led to seeking professional help
  • Respect, love and admiration are accompanied by fear, hatred and contempt
    • Authoritative demands for change on the client lead to frustration
    • Privileged private disclosure of what is shameful to a professional can lead to hostility towards a sympathetic listener
  • Living off the profession
  • The professional cannot advance his or her interests beyond those of the client
    • Clients therefore question motivations of professionals as self-interested as a client's troubles continuing also continue the professional's income
  • Discrepancy in appraisals of performance
    • People in different social positions appraise the performance of professionals differently, so clients and processionals disagree about successes and failures
      • (In extreme: "the operation was a success but the patient died")
  • Those that experience these frustations and hostilities directly then inform the wider world, thus adding to public ambivalence
    • Dramatic experiences receive most attention
    • In the telling of their experiences, clients tend to polarise
(Merton, Barber, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 556-561)
In criticism of Merton and Barber, these attempts at analysis do not remove the need to return to sociography (at the least) to find essential attributes in order to do comprehensive analysis. The issue here is finding universal analysis, and if there is no universal analysis then description and bracketing as in sociography is necessary. For example, do the above professional tensions apply to school or college teaching as a profession? Here there are teachers and there are students. Are students clients in the same sense? The only way to know is to go back to description and categorising, and then applying analysis.
Analysis also should include the positive role of having ambivalence.

Ambivalence is useful if there is space to take an outsider's view looking in. Certainly this is the case for the mobile person but also in the ethos of the profession. The state of ambivalence can provide "objectivity", that is a viewpoint not subservient to the generality of material interests that can be applied back into society. It is a vital function.

The mobile person is one who can do the tasks denied by taboos in society. There are also protected professional roles such as the funeral director. So the mobile person is always to some extent polluted, but the dirty jobs have to be done to keep the rest of society clean. The polluted profession, a ring-fenced function, is a useful ambivalence.

People occupy roles, or develop opinions, attitudes and behaviours, which the rest of society values and yet must distance. The Jester at the King's court says and does what many cannot say and do. It is a valuable role, and dangerous, but also laughed at, and this has ambivalence.
Here are descriptive to sociographic examples:

The teacher and student stand in mutual ambivalence because the student is the measure of success to what the teacher does. The teacher's function is to develop with the whole professional knowledge of learning theories and practices, making choices to develop the "whole person" of the student. Yet the student demand and the demand of the statistically driven system is to pass exams. It is a quantifiable measure. Thus everything enters a quantifiable loop of objectives and assessment outcomes. Much in teaching gets subordinated to the exam process, leaving ambivalence in the purpose of having a profession. The National Curriculum in schools removes much from the professional's knowledge and abilities to design curricula. The syllabus is designed so that everything can be concentrated into one of those £10 revision guides at the end of one or two years. In terms of the school or college year, the student is the dominant partner, able to complain if standards are not apparently being met, yet disciplined by the people who can be complained about for low performance. There is a built in ambivalence between a teacher who teaches, and may do it well, and a class of students that learns, where the learning (on a narrow measure) not the teaching is the test of teaching success or failure. The student is the person who has abilities or otherwise, and motivations or otherwise, to learn, yet it is the teacher who is accountable for failure. On top of all this is the suspicion that as the testing regime becomes ever more focussed and narrowed, students pass the tests and yet enter university ever more incapable of semi-independent learning. The examination boards must on the one hand uphold standards, and on the other hand have their own claim to success in order to get business. The students in every institution are mobile, as they do not stay after final examinations, and thus their criticism carries more independent force, especially as their success or failure is marked upon them, whereas the teacher in comparison stays and does what has always been done, with a demand to adapt and change that cannot always be met. Then there is the target driven institution, where individual student who may not pass can be removed before examinations in order that the success rate of the institution looks better. It is better to have not tried than try and fail, says this contradictory approach to the ethic of learning, and the teacher arranges the exclusion. The teacher is also supposed (at senior level up) to be a subject specialist, but the most successful of teachers may be the ones with principal concern and focus for students and stay one textbook page ahead from the students themselves.

Some of these follow the pattern of ambivalence of other professions, but whether the differences are just additions of detail or fundamentals for ambivalence analysis in a narrowly market-like defined measure of success and failure is open to argument.

The General Practioner is both a person who must show concern for the patient and remain detached. Some show more in the way of concern, some more in the way of detachment. All must balance the two in a single status role that produces ambivalence. No concern and there is no personal motive of care and it is empty; no detachment and there is no professional motive of coping and processing and the individual GP is likely to be overwhelmed as well as become inefficient. Systems of payment confuse time, efficiency and care, and there is a conflict between not seeing people and carrying out prevention, and having to see people to cure. Cure is also difficult at GP level, where often people either will get better anyway (so there is the "chat" and some common prescription with a high placibo effect) or have to go and see someone with speciality.

The Funeral Director doing a taboo role is not supposed to act as an exploiter at a vulnerable time, and yet charges high fees. The world of consumer power towards the competition between providers seems to be lost in a time of more basic human need, and yet a seeming local monopoly is a time of exploitation. Compassion can be perceived of as a method rather than genuine as each client with a dead body comes through the system.

The religious prophet role is also structurally ambivalent. He or she stands outside the groups of normal society and yet pronounces back upon it. The values expressed are of an ideal culture and not the one that exists, and the prophet is a peculiar marginal social role. People will dismiss and yet (given cultural access) listen to the prophet. The Buddha sat alone and after many trials along the lines of what others did sat under a tree and discovered the way. Jesus of Nazareth was neither completely an Essene, a Rabbi, a Zealot (though influenced) nor certainly of a Sadduccee. He seems (given the constraints of the accounts) not to have been an overthrower of Rome (except that it would crumble by divine action of the incoming Kingdom of God). The teacher, preacher and healer stood outside and became a martyr.

The priest too is structurally ambivalent, standing ritually on the route between the ordinary people and the expression of the divine. There are incompatible expectations incorporated in a single role of a single social status between him or her and the congregation. There is also the role in the wider community. Like the prophet, he or she is regarded as in the world but not quite of it. The priest is part of the local community and yet is also a little removed. He or she is the property, so to speak, of the Church, and can move on at any time just as once did arrive. Whilst the person can be friendly, he or she can never be a friend amongst clients (except perhaps outside the parish, or among non-churchgoers inside) and is always the professional amongst the rest. The priest is symbolically semi-detached, who handles the symbols and rituals of life's significant moments and recognises them, as well as has an overview of the community that receives the daily prayers. The priest is also structurally ambivalent in terms of the congregation and community which has largely not entered into the near secretive technical language of theology and (if a personal or practical priestly rejection of that theology has not taken place) enters into a language use that is capable of multiple readings, from orthodoxy to liberalism. The tradition groans with its ethical conflicts whilst at the same time promotes an ethical message (for example in the Church of England the anti-semitic holy passion text of John's gospel followed by a liturgical text of good relations with Jews), which the priest cannot unravel. The priest's partner also should support, but the partner is not the one ordained and wants an independent life too, having two role perfomances with "pieces of people" (Slater, in Coser, Rosenberg, 579). The partners may seek regular mutual escape, sometimes to other priests and partners, using plenty of insider comments, jokes and sometimes alcohol.

The intellectual is also structurally ambivalent. This is the person who is the critic, and sees through how institutions really work. The intellectual may teach (an intellectual teacher finds an ambiguity between subject speciality and having to simplify and bowlderise for teaching purposes, frustrated by the compromises on content) but principally the intellectual thinks and suggests. The intellectual is a disturber and thus becomes a form of outsider. Yet the thinker is needed, for the refreshment of institutions, for looking ahead, and renewal. Of course many intelligent people conform into a standard social role and perform it. Their brain power goes into expressing the organisation they are in and promoting its wellbeing, whereas the intellectual in the end stands outside such economic interest (the original point of having tenure). In some theoretical stances the intellectual will form an alliance with the radical social groups, and in others stays a dsitance from all.

Having a family and career is another sociological ambivalence given role expectations towards rearing and socialising children and carrying out a career. The one person has several roles to perform that clash with each other. Nevertheless this is not a case of incompatible expectations incorporated in a single role of a single social status. This has long been a feminist issue and of concern to women, the chidcarers who also want a career. Success measures in each clash, and the nursery is a symbol of the struggle between going to work and staying at home. In terms of the family itself, a parental structure with some sharing of roles and lack of permissiveness regarding behaviour, a domineering mother (weakening the father as an alternative focus for the child) of both rearing the child's attitudes and outward behaviour compensates for her over-affection by her rejection and causes ambivalence in the child because she is resentful if the child responds through keeping some distance (Coser, nd, in Coser, Rosenberg, 575-576).
Although many of the above have common analytical features, some are specific, and, as in any qualitative work, the specific cannot be generalised in every case. Sociology then has its own ambivalence, that it cannot achieve academic purity of analysis. It needs sociography.



Coser, L. A., Rosenberg, B. (1976), Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings, London: Collier Macmillan.

Coser, R. (ed.) (nd), The Family: Its Structure and Function, St. Martin's Press, extract in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 566-576.

Gregory, D. (1978), Ideology, Science and Human Geography, London: Hutchinson.

Riemann, G. (2003),  'A Joint Project Against the Backdrop of a Research Tradition: An Introduction to Doing Biographical Research, Volume 4, No. 3, Art. 18 - September 2003; Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, [Online Journal], Available World Wide Web, URL:, in Doing Biographical Research (2003), Riemann, G. (ed.), Thematic Issue of FQS, Forum Qualitative Social Research, 4:3, September; [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed: Sunday April 09 2006, 15:46]

Simmel, G., Wolff, K. (trans.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York: Free Press, 1950, 402-408, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed: Thursday April 13 2006, 18:30], and in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 535-540.

Slater, P. (1973), 'Social Bases of Personality', from Smelser, H. J. (eds.) (1973), Sociology: An Introduction, John Wiley and Sons, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 577-591.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful

Last updated on April 15, 2006