Ferdinand Toennies


Read each of the following items.

(Perdue 1986:77-81)

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigm, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.


Ferdinand Toennies (1855-1936)

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft


Ferdinand Toennies was born in Germany in Scheswig-Holstein. His early years were spent first on a well-to-do farm and later in a small-town. His mother's devoutly Lutheran family included a number of clergy. Although Toennies would come to be considered an agnostic by most believers, he grew before his death to believe in a universal religious faith that would reconcile the divisions that plagued humankind.

Some would no doubt characterize Toennies's early experiences as provincial. He developed a pastoral Weltanschauung, complete with the patriotism that often follows when the loyalties to tradition and the small community are projected to the broader concerns of the nation. He was the product of a distinctive form of social life that left an abiding sense of integration: in nature, in the interaction of people, in the ways of culture, and ultimately in all social life. Despite extensive travel, Toennies lived his entire life in the region of his birth. But his sojourns to various universities and the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe juxtaposed urban and rural life and the contrasting forms of solidarity represented by each.


History and Biography


In the wider sphere of social life, a number of forces were at play. The population of Germany grew rapidly from some 40 million in1871 to over 65 million on the eve of the First World War. During this era, the German colonial empire was expanding as was its navy, while the army was among the most powerful of the world. It was within this context of the Bismarckian attempt to unify through the sword, of industrialization and population growth, and of a growing external empire that Ferdinand Toennies wrote of the social origins of solidarity and the Hobbesian problem of order.



The political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes left an indelible mark on the work of Toennies. Yet that mark is both subtle and complex. On the one hand, Toennies held that the integration of modern industrial societies depends in large measure on the power of Hobbes's political commonwealth. On the other, he argued that an earlier form of society was united by means of a naturally occurring organicism that subjected individual wills to that of the group. As we shall see, the conception of will is crucial to the thought of Ferdinand Toennies. And although he approached this subject from the vantage point of the ideal type, will was for this theorist a real force, not an abstraction. Toennies has emerged as something of a romantic, drawn to an earlier, more pastoral conception of social life based on a more congenial type of human nature. However, it was the evolution toward the "reasonable" and "individualistic" side of will, with its expression in the impersonal bonds of industrial society, that shaped his theoretical sociology. 

Toennies's assumptions about the discipline followed the positive conception of science that prevailed in his day. He divided sociology into three distinctive areas: (1) a pure form consisting of central conceptions that form an integral system, (2) an "applied" form in which pure theory is used deductively to explain societal development, and (3) an empirically based approached to social research. Throughout Community and Society, he moved back and forth from theoretical conceptualization to the findings of social research. 

Theoretical Content

The more significant writings of Ferdinand Toennies emerged during his youth and in many respects detailed the decline of an old order and the rise of a new one. The analysis that follows is based on the classic he wrote in response to such conditions, Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). As we shall see, he preferred the more binding social relationships of traditional society. His work has endured, however, because it moves beyond romantic nostalgia. It reflects in a striking fashion the great division between folk and urban society; between the intimate relationships of family, kin, and community and the impersonal alliances born of modern polity, economic exchange, and state power. This portrayal of two worlds of human existence still strikes a responsive chord. 

In this system of social thought, social reality consists of various social entities existing at different levels of abstraction. These include the interpersonal relationship, the corporate groups that act through representatives (such as officers), and the broad collectivities that transcend and subsume lower level groups and relationships (such as nations and classes). All such entities, and the forms they assume, are the product of differing manifestations of human will

The conception of will in the thought of Toennies is both central and difficult. In a general sense, it refers to voluntary dimensions analyzed by Toennies through the prism of a Weberian ideal type. The Wesenville, or natural will, drives those actions that are engaged in for their intrinsic worth or their own sake. It is the basis for unconditional emotional bonding and a reverence for tradition. The Kurville refers to the human propensity toward a reasoned selection among alternatives. Thus, the action of rational choice is willed because it is instrumental in achieving ends. 

These types of will are expressed in two contrasting forms of social life. The foundation of the Gemeinschaft or "community" is the Wesenville. Conceptualized at the societal level, the Gemeinschaft consists of social relationships of an intimate or primary sort, such as those of family, club, or religious order. Predictably, the type of law that prevails in such an order will be that based on the informal codes of family and kin, and social control will be left to consensus, custom, and religious precept. Wealth is centered in the land, the individual is subordinate to the collectivity, and the central institutions are those of the family, small village, and town. Remember that the relationships, sentiments, and rules of the Gemeinschaft are willed for their own sake. 

However, given the momentous changes of his era, Toennies acknowledged the ascension of the Gesellschaft. The creation of the rational will, "society," represents the more impersonal means-to-an-end forms of social relationships. These are marked by the purposes of exchange and reasoned calculation. At the group level, Gesellschaft relationships are exemplified in business or professional associations. At the societal level, the state and the economy of industrial capitalism supplant the centrality of the family, kin, and village. Law is a matter of formal contracts, both civil and criminal, secured by legislation and specifying the rights and responsibilities of individuals to individuals and members to the commonwealth. Public opinion and the conventional wisdom replaces heritage, articles of faith, and "natural" consensus as informal means of social control. 

Within the Gemeinschaft form of social order, a homogeneity of view, the ties of kinship, a common language, and a sense of place are the basis for an organic unity. Alliances are based on closeness and mutual aid, while authority is personal and often paternalistic. Authority is commonly fixed in the elder, the master, the patriarch. For the Gesellschaft, the identity born of community surrenders to the anonymity of mass society. The emerging industrial order within its burgeoning cities and centralized power is held in one piece by artificial bonds. Such bonds tend to be more malleable; they come and go, disintegrate and reform as the needs of the state, bureaucracy, business, or workplace change. Here, social relationships are based on special needs, class interests, and personal ambition. The connectedness of society is a matter of interlocking positions of status. This formal structure supplants the more natural coming-together of like-minded persons who gain emotional sustenance from sharing a common moral universe. 

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, for Toennies, represented more than differences in social relationships or societies. They were also separate poles on a continuum of change. Yet this inevitable evolution with its industrialism, its commonwealth, and its population redistribution could not help but tear the fabric of human relations. Within his era, Toennies witnessed the cutting off of goods and services from the common production of community where members were bound by common purpose. Rather, economic exchange became a function of the impersonal market. And with the rise of a multiplicity of "publics" in the heterogeneous social order, the threat to equilibrium was self-evident. 


Toennies, Ferdinand. [1887] 1963. Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). Translated and edited by Charles P. Looomis. New York: Harper & Row. 

(Christodoulou 1965:61-65)

Christodoulou, Stavroula. 1965. 19th-Century Sociologists. New York: Monarch Press. 


Ferdinand Toennies (1855-1936)

Toennies' "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft" (Community and Society)

Actions are directed either toward the preservation or the destruction of life and will. Positive Actions are those which tend to preserve life or will. Negative Actions are those which tend to destroy life or will. 

1. Theory of "Gemeinshchaft"  The theory of Gemeinschaft assumes that all human wills are united and that this is their natural condition. These wills are related either by blood or by marriage, through three strong types of relationships: man-wife, mother-child, and between children of the same mother. 

a. The man-woman relationship is not always long and lasting, and it is based on the sexual instinct. Usually at the beginning of the relationship, it is one-sided because the man is the dominant party and the woman is passive. Later on, when they have children, the bond between man and woman becomes stronger. 

b. The mother-child relationship is the most important because it is a very deep one. Nature gives the mother a helpless baby who depends on her for food, clothing, and general care. Consequently, the mother loves the child very much and this is an instinctive feeling. The child, on the other hand, returns the mother's affection and is also grateful to her for all that she gave him. Both mother and child are bound together with memories of their common past. 

c. The father-child relationship resembles the relationship between brothers and sisters, only it is less intense. The father assumes authority over his children and delegates his powers to his first son in the case of primogeniture (this means that the first son inherits his father's possessions and his title). In cases where all the children inherit equally, they receive their rights directly through the father and not through the elder brother. 

d. The brother-sister relationship is not based on instinct. In the old times, marriage between brothers and sisters were allowed, but it is now prohibited. The children of the same mother have memories of experiences which they had shared in the past while they were growing up together. They also are  more alike, since they have a common biological heritage. Consequently we can say that the brother-sister relationship is the most "human" of man's characteristics. 

There are three types of Gemeinschaft: the kinship group, the neighborhood, and friendship.

a. The kinship group live in the same house in close proximity to each other; they eat together; they have common enemies; they must protect the family honor; and they share common ancestors. This type of life fosters affection and love among the members and results in a very closely-knit group. 

b. The neighborhood consists of several dwellings in close proximity to one another and the inhabitants share belief in the common deities of the village. They also share common rituals, beliefs, and customs. Therefore, there is give-and-take in the neighborhood. 

c. Friendship is a mutual feeling of affection between two individuals. It is created by choice; therefore no instinct is involved. Usually the parties in a friendship situation have common likes and dislikes, and often they have similar occupations. 

Gemeinschaft is maintained through two kinds of will: authority and common will. 

a. Authority is created when one person's will is increased while at the same time, somebody else's will is decreased or curbed. Authority involves both rights and duties. However, as far as the authority of the Gemeinschaft type is concerned, the difference in wills cannot be great, otherwise there will not be common will. 

b. Common will is the binding force which keeps a number of individuals together in the Gemeinschaft. It is based on the fact that these individuals share the same beliefs, values, and ways of behaving. The common will is expressed through language (words and gestures), because only through language we can let others know what we think, what we fear, and what we like. Only through language can we communicate and understand one another. The mother also uses language--to admonish or to praise her child, as well as to instill in him certain values and beliefs which he will have to use in order to share in the common will.

There are consequently three basic laws of Gemeinschaft. They are the following:

a. Blood relatives and married couples, neighbors and friends feel affection for each other and have common beliefs and customs.

b. This affection and similarity in beliefs and values creates "understanding."

c. By virtue of this love and understanding the members of the group tend to stay together and the result is the Gemeinschaft type of relationship.

2. Theory of the Gesellschaft.  In the Gesellschaft type of relationship, a large number of individuals live in close proximity without exhibiting any of the characteristics of Gemeinschaft. There is no common will. Everyone looks after his own personal interests and does not wish to contribute anything to the community. Any expression of interest in others is regarded with suspicion. Personal property is separate and distinct, and there is no common property. Everything in the Gesellschaft type of relationship is compared, weighed, and measured, so that when a person gives something away, he is sure to receive something else which he considers of equal value and/or worth.

a. Value is the quality which an object possess in being better than another object. Who determines value? In the Gesellschaft, a thing is of value if it is possessed by one individual and not by all; those who do not possess the object in question desire to possess it. Therefore, this gives the object value. An object does not have to be practically useful in order to be considered of value.

b. The worth of an object is estimated by the amount of labor which is required for its production.

The result is that every individual in the Gesellschaft works and produces certain objects or services which he offers to other individuals in exchange for their products. At first glance, they all seem to work for each other and for the welfare of the Gesellschaft in general. At closer scrutiny, this reveals itself to be an illusion. In reality everyone looks after himself only.

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