Value Essay

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Karl Marx’s labor theory of value and Georg Simmel’s cultural theory represent the extremes of sociological positions on value. Under capitalist production, Marx argued, concrete human labor congeals materials into a qualitatively distinct form which determines a commodity’s use. Simultaneously, that concrete labor creates an abstract substance of socially necessary, simple, abstract labor. The quantity of this abstract substance constitutes the commodity’s value. Fundamental change under capitalism must address the actual, social, and material process through which value is produced and distributed.

Simmel’s conception of value stemmed from his interest in various heuristic concepts sociologists could use to understand social relationships. Individuals, Simmel argued, assess and attach value or values to objects to overcome the separation between them and the objects of their interest.

In exchange, people assess their relationship to an object and others’ expectations to form a particular, subjective value of the object – expressed as money. As a measure of money, value becomes a ”cultural objectivation” created by a subjective understanding and assessment that stems from and further develops a specific worldview.

Marx’s and Simmel’s analyses of value met in a concern over alienated existence in commodity-based societies and served as the departure point for more comprehensive analyses. Nevertheless, a material, production based theory of value versus a cultural objectivation theory fundamentally separates sociologists over how fundamental social change occurs.


  1. Marx, K. (1976) [1890] Capital, 4th edn., vol. 1, trans. B. Fowkes. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  2. Simmel, G. (1978) [1907] The Philosophy of Money, trans. T. Bottomore & D. Frisby. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

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