Tragic but seemingly dissimilar events such as earthquakes and ethnic cleansing, epidemic diseases and flood-producing deluges, and airliner crashes and urban terrorism challenge sociologists’ ability to understand and explain them. Descriptive accounts of such events enhance understanding, but explanation requires generalization across events. Generalization in turn requires identification of the essential similarities and differences among these deadly and destructive calamities. Georg Simmel’s distinction between form and content comes to mind as a possible means for identifying the underlying similarities of events having very different names—genocide, tornado, holy war, cyclone, explosion, etc. In this paper I examine Simmel’s form-content distinction in order to evaluate its usefulness for sociological theory construction. Then I attempt to apply Simmel’s formal method to distinguish among three increasingly abstract forms: “earthquake,” “disaster,” and “crisis.” My overall conclusion is that, while Simmel’s method is helpful, form is as he admitted only a heuristic device whose construction is determined by the researcher but whose usefulness ultimately is constrained by culture, including subcultures of disciplines such as sociology.
*Prepared for presentation at the 5th European Congress of Sociology, Helsinki, August 2001.