In Blog

Reading :: Community and Society

Posted by: on Jan 25, 2017 | No Comments
Community and Society
By Ferdinand Tonnies


Tonnies has been referenced often in the books I've read over the last decade, but perhaps most prominently in Adler and Heckscher's work, where they make full use of his distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). When a collaborator brought this distinction up again, I decided I should invest the time to read the source material.

Tonnies published his first version of the book in 1887 (he was 32 at the time). Like Marx, Tonnies interpreted history in terms of economics, arguing that the development of trade, the modern state, and science, Gemeinschaft characteristics gave away to Gesellschaft characteristics.

So what are Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft? The distinction is similar to the one between mechanical and organic solidarity in Durkheim. Gemeinschaft relations are "real and organic," while Gesellschaft relations are "imaginary and mechanical" (p.33). (Confusingly, Gemeinschaft roughly corresponds to Durkheim's "mechanical solidarity" and Gesellschaft to Durkheim's "organic solidarity.")

"All intimate, private, and exclusive living together" is "life in Gemeinschaft," while "Gesellschaft ... is public life" (p.33).

Tonnies argues that Gemeinschaft emerged first, from "the assumption of perfect unity of human wills as an original or natural condition which is preserved in spite of actual separation," "because of dependence on the nature of the relationship between individuals who are differently conditioned" (p.37). It is characterized by mother-child relationships, husband-wife relationships, and sibling relationships (p.37). But beyond blood, it can also involve neighborhood (e.g., physical locality) and friendship (e.g., common mind/goals) (p.42). In Gemeinschaft, understanding is tacit by nature (p.49). Gemeinschaft is focused inward, toward the community (p.79).

In contrast, Tonnies argues that Gesellschaft is an "artificial construction of an aggregate of human beings which superficially resembles the Gemeinschaft in so far as the individuals live and dwell together peacefully," but "they remain united in spite of all separating factors"—in contrast with Gemeinschaft, in which they "are essentially separated in spite of all uniting factors" (pp.64-65). In Gesellschaft, "goods are conceived to be separate, as also are their owners" (p.65), so individuals engage in exchanges rather than gifts (p.66). Also in Gesellschaft, "Contracts must be executed" (p.75). Tonnies quotes Adam Smith as arguing that every man becomes a merchant (p.76). Gesellschaft is focused on the outward world and on trade (p.79). Indeed, it exists for merchants and capitalists, and in this frame, those who are not merchants or capitalists are slaves (p.83). Paradoxically, he claims, this line of thinking leads to the abolishment of slavery, since all people are free agents—and one cannot have a Gesellschaft relationship with nonpersons (p.84). (I am reporting this argument, but I am not sure that I adequately follow it.)

The structure of Gesellschaft is described by three acts: "(1) the purchase of labor, (2) the employment of labor, (3) the sale of labor in the form of value elements of the products" (pp.100-101).

In Part II, Tonnies writes taxonomically, contrasting natural and rational will. Natural will, he says, is just thinking, while rational will involves metacognition (p.103). He breaks will down further into "vegetative will" (material stimuli); "animal will" (perceptions, sensory stimulation); and "human will" (thoughts and verbal sensations; mental stimulation) (pp.106-108). Later, he sums up: Gemeinschaft involves natural will, including liking, habit, and memory. Gesellschaft involved rational will, including deliberation, decision, and conception (p.134).

The rest of Part II similarly breaks things down into binaries, always binaries. Organs vs. tools (p.135), freedom vs. choice (p.136), women's feelings vs. men's intellect (p.151). On the latter, Tonnies claims that by entering the workforce, women are developing their rational will (p.166).

In Part III, Tonnies discusses "the sociological basis of natural law" (p.171). He argues that under Gemeinschaft, every relationship is "either potentially or intrinsically, a higher and more general self"; under Gesellschaft, every relationship is "the beginning and the potentiality of a superimposed artificial person" (p.177). So Gemeinschaft is a "personality of united natural wills" and Gesellschaft a personality of "united rational wills" (p.177). He sums up with this contrast:

Gemeinschaft:

  • Natural Will 
  • Self
  • Possession
  • Land
  • Family Law
Gesellschaft:
  • Rational Will
  • Person
  • Wealth
  • Money
  • Law of Contracts (p.181)
One other contrast implied by the above: you can leave Gesellschaft, but you can't leave Gemeinschaft (p.204). In fact, when women gain Gesellschaft-like independence, "marriage and marital community of wealth degenerate [sic] into civil contract" (p.204). 

Broadening the focus, Tonnies turns to the State, which he says has a "dual character": on the one hand, it is Gesellschaft, a free association governed by law; on the other, Gemeinschaft, a unity in which all participate in the will of the state through being dependent on it (pp.216-217). 

Finally, in the conclusion, Tonnies argues that he is contrasting two social orders: one resting on harmony of wills, one on convention and agreement (p.223). He further argues that these social orders emerged in different periods of history (p.231; cf. Durkheim; Engels). Ultimately, Tonnies believes that this progression leads to "a socialism of state and international type ... inherent in the concept of Gesellschaft" (p.234). 

And that's the book. Frankly, I liked Tonnies less than I did Adler and Heckscher's gloss of his work. Like roughly contemporaneous work (e.g., Durkheim), it seemed overly binary in its argument, sorting a variety of characteristics into opposing camps. I understand how the argument is based on economics, but that argument devolves into the familiar teleological argument that was in the air in the late 1800s-early 1900s. 

Nevertheless, it's an important distinction that has exerted great influence on later works. As a historical document, it's well worth reading. If you're interested in community, society, sociology, or the influence of economics on any of those three, take a look.