Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft Research Paper

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In Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (community and society) by Ferdinand Toennies (1855–1936), the former refers to “all intimate, private, and exclusive living together,” whereas the latter is “public life—it is the world itself” (1955, pp. 37–38). The book contains an elaborate architecture of classifications covering the whole of social reality, from kinship to the modern metropolis. One of the most striking features of this is the way Toennies based his social forms on types of the human will: Wesenwille and Kürwille, the will that directs thought (natural will) and the will that is subject to it (rational will). The relevance is evident, of calculation of means and ends to articulated purposes, to exchange relations of the Gesellschaft type. So, too, is the “natural” basis of the Wesenwille in drives, instincts, and emotions. Wesenwille is seen predominantly in Gemeinschaft forms.

The outward forms of the Gemeinschaft are the house, the village, and the country town, its general form the people (Volk ). Gesellschaft is to be found in the larger cities. Its general form is the nation-state. Toennies stressed that his concepts were “types,” not classifications of the concrete. Reality always showed a mixture of elements. Nonetheless, Toennies also implied at one stage an evolutionary scheme in which Gesellschaft is seen as a temporary phase, Gemeinschaft returning on a higher level in an international socialist order of the future. Each type showed gradations of natural will and rational will—for example, in Gemeinschaft, kin, neighbor, and friend relations—so that natural will does not equate to emotion, drives, and instinct. Toennies’s point was that whereas the first is real and natural, the second is “ideal and artificial,” just as Gemeinschaft is real and organic life, the essence of community, and Gesellschaft is ideal and mechanical structure, the concept of society. Gemeinschaft is an original unity of will, Gesellschaft its individualized forms. Disintegration is built into Gesellschaft. It is checked by convention, agreement, politics, and public debate.

Robert Redfield (1857–1958) in his folk-urban typology (or continuum) spelled out Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft in a more direct and usable way than Toennies, enriching and supporting it with current ethnographic evidence (1930). Howard Becker (b. 1928) in his sacred and secular societal types broke down Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft into a set of subtypes, again with a view to making them more empirically flexible, and again enriching the basic pairing from evidence not available to Toennies. Robert E. Park (1864–1940) and the Chicago school took the role of place or locality as being central to Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. It was so for Toennies. This was because Gemeinschaft-type relations require enduring physical proximity as their condition. They used the theory of ecology, suggesting that all living organisms are shaped in their relations by the physical environment, to study the city as a series of concentric areas or zones, each having their characteristic associational and cultural forms, and succession being visible as groups moved out of a zone and others moved in to replace them. Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft can, finally, be treated as types of social relationship. Toennies was used this way by Max Weber (1865–1920), and Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) also read him for clues about the possible orientations of social action. Hermann Schmalenbach (1885–1950) added the important category “communion.”

Toennies has fallen into the background since the 1930s. For example, the importance of community as place rather than as social relations was challenged by Herbert Gans in his studies of community ties in suburbia, particulary in The Levittowners (1967). Nevertheless, Toennies’s place in the canon is secure: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are basic categories. They may be approached on the level of our own experience.

In a Gesellschaft everything is clearly spelled out, so that everyone has clearly defined rights. If anyone asks us to go beyond our duties then they must give a reason, demonstrating why this extra demand is part of our “job description.” Only when this is demonstrated are we obligated to take on something further. In a Gemeinschaft the opposite is the case. We feel we cannot say “no” to virtually any demand. Indeed, it would not occur to us to assess the demand as a demand. This kind of calculation does not enter the picture. Here the burden of proof is on us to say why we should not respond positively, and if we feel we cannot, there will be a great deal of inner struggle. In a “full” Gemeinschaft this inner struggle does not occur at all, and we unreflectingly meet our obligation. Here, then, people make demands that are “total.” As today with a close family member, we are bound to them “come what may,” “for better or worse,” because the love involved is unconditional. No matter what the other person has done, irrespective of whether we feel drawn to them on a personal level—one might not feel “close,” or that the parties like and understand one another—the obligation is there. The other person does not have to have earned our trust and affection for the aid and assistance to be forthcoming. Here we have no escape from our duty, for example as a parent or as a child.

In a Gesellschaft it is the performance of a contractual obligation that matters. Whether it is done willingly or grudgingly, with affection or calculatingly, makes no difference. All that matters is that the contract is fulfilled to the letter, for example that the goods are delivered. In a Gemeinschaft how things are done is of interest. It matters, for example, that food is served in the family setting with love (though the food may be burned); it is the care that goes into the act that is at least as important as the act itself. It matters that the gift is carefully wrapped, showing that the giver has taken trouble.

These considerations show that Toennies’s original distinction has lost none of its relevance over the years. The problem of what makes us human, under what conditions people and their culture can thrive, and what in our culture threatens, as anomie, the mass society or latterly, “disembedding” and globalization, the nurturing, solidarity-generating, direct, sustained and deep contact between human beings, is a continuing one. It is both a public issue and a sociological question.


  1. Becker, Howard. 1950. Through Values to Social Interpretation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  2. Bell, Colin, and Howard Newby. 1971. Community Studies. London: George Allen and Unwin.
  3. Cahnman, Werner J., and Rudolf Heberle, eds. 1971. Ferdinand Toennies. On Sociology: Pure, Applied, and Empirical. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Gans, Herbert. 1967. The Levittowners. New York: Pantheon.
  5. Redfield, Robert. 1930. Tepotzlan, A Mexican Village. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  6. Toennies, Ferdinand. [1887] 1955. Community and Association (Gemeinschaft und gesellschaft). Trans. Charles P. Loomis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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