Ferdinand Tonnies Essay

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Ferdinand Tonnies was born near Oldenswort, Germany, in the northern province of Schleswig-Holstein. He came from a well-to-do farming family and grew up at a time when Germany was expanding as a colonial empire and undergoing profound changes such as population growth, urbanization, and industrialization. Tonnies’s oldest brother was involved in mercantile endeavors and thus he experienced the world of the peasant farmer as well as the town merchant. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Tubingen in 1877, then returned to his native province, and later taught for over a half century as a private lecturer and professor at the University of Kiel.

Tonnies was interested in social philosophy and social science. His best-known work was his first, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, published in 1887. Translated into English as Community and Society (1957), this book on social change and modernization had a pioneering influence in the new discipline of sociology. Its later editions served to enhance Tonnies’s reputation as an important social theorist. Gemeinschaft referred not so much to a geographic place as to a ”community feeling,” intimate and holistic relationships, and a common meeting of minds characteristic of people living in a village or small town. By contrast, Tonnies used Gesellschaft to describe the impersonal, limited, and contractual relationships people have in an urban-industrial world, an ”associational society.” The two terms were meant to call attention to the dramatic shift occurring in the late nineteenth century in social groupings and interpersonal relations.

Tonnies believed all social relationships were governed by human will, the need to belong to groups or associate with others. He spoke of ”natural will,” the motivation for action derived from the temperament, character, or intellect of the individual. This will is typified by Gemeinschaft and is found in kinship groups, neighborhoods, and friendship circles. People are bound together by blood, locality, or common interest and naturally work together or help each other as an end in and for itself. Tonnies believed ”rational will” is characteristic of Gesellschaft. People associate with one another as a means to an end, for economic or political gain in capitalist society, to rationally choose their associations for practical results rather than personal motives. Tonnies developed his concepts to be ideal-types of historical relationships found in medieval or rural, as opposed to modern or urban, societies.


  • Tonnies, F. (1957) Community and Society, trans. C. P. Loomis. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI.

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