Amerika

Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) (Ian Hughes)

Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society)

Ian Hughes

 

A major contribution to the discussion of community was made in the 1920’s by Ferdinand Tonnies, who used the German words Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) with special meanings which have entered the language of social science.

Gemeinschaft, normally translated as ‘community’, refers to the closeness of holistic social relationships said to be found in pre-industrial communities, and imputed to the community as moral worth. For Tonnies, Gemeinschaft exists by the subjective will of the members: “the very existence of Gemeinschaft rests in the consciousness of belonging together and the affirmation of the condition of mutual dependence” (Tonnies 1925: 69).

Gesellschaft refers to the more instrumental, purposeful types of relationship typical of industrial society. This objective society or association (Gesellschaft), where “reference is only to the objective fact of a unity based on common traits and activities and other external phenomena” (Tonnies 1925: 67) stands in contrast to community defined by shared feeling. Tonnies considers entities based on objective common interest such as “ethnic community, community of speech, community of work” (Tonnies 1925: 67) to be Gesellschaft (society), not Gemeinschaft (community), because they lack the element of shared feeling which is essential to Gemeinschaft. Gemeinschaft type relationships may be found in modern industrial society, but they do not typify the dominant type of relationship of that society.

For Tonnies, Gemeinschaft exists by the subjective will of the members: “the very existence of Gemeinschaft rests in the consciousness of belonging together and the affirmation of the condition of mutual dependence” (Tonnies 1925: 69). Contrasted to this community defined by shared feeling, is Tonnies’s concept of the objective society or association (Gesellschaft), where “reference is only to the objective fact of a unity based on common traits and activities and other external phenomena” (Tonnies 1925: 67). Tonnies considers entities such as “ethnic community, community of speech, community of work” (Tonnies 1925: 67) to be Gesellschaft (society), not Gemeinschaft (community), because they lack the element of shared feeling which is essential to Gemeinschaft.

This distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) is important for any student trying to come to grips with the complex confusion of ideas around community studies. Although it is not always referred to directly, this distinction underlies almost all sociological debate in this field.

Tonnies himself drew on previous ideas of evolutionary development constructed in the Nineteenth century. Theories of evolution led to several varieties of “social Darwinism”, in which social systems were seen as analogous to biological systems. Early theories led to a concept of a broad social evolution, progressing from small close-knit rural communities to large urban societies characterised by specialisation, role differentiation and alienation.

 

References

Tonnies F (1925) “The Concept of Gemeinschaft”, in Cahnman W J & Heberle R (Eds) Ferdinand Tonnies on Sociology: Pure, applied and empirical. Selected writings, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp62-72.

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