Ferdinand Tönnies

Ferdinand Tönnies' bust in Husum

Ferdinand Tönnies (German: [ˈtœniːs]; 26 July 1855, near Oldenswort, Eiderstedt, North Frisia, Schleswig – 9 April 1936, Kiel, Germany) was a German sociologist and philosopher. He was a major contributor to sociological theory and field studies, best known for his distinction between two types of social groups, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. He co-founded the German Society for Sociology, of which he was president from 1909 to 1933, after which he was ousted for having criticized the Nazis. Tönnies was considered the first German sociologist proper,[1] published over 900 works and contributed to many areas of sociology and philosophy.


Ferdinand Tönnies was born into a wealthy farmer's family in North Frisia, Schleswig, then under Danish rule. He studied at the universities of Jena, Bonn, Leipzig, Berlin, and Tübingen. He received a doctorate in Tübingen in 1877 (with a Latin thesis on the ancient Siwa Oasis).[2] Four years later he became a private lecturer at the University of Kiel. He held this post at the University of Kiel for only three years. Because he sympathized with the Hamburg dockers' strike of 1896,[3] the conservative Prussian government considered him to be a social democrat, and Tönnies would not be called to a professorial chair until 1913. He returned to Kiel as a professor emeritus in 1921 and taught until 1933 when he was ousted by the Nazis, due to earlier publications in which he had criticized them.[4] Remaining in Kiel, he died three years later.[5]

Many of his writings on sociological theories including Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) furthered pure sociology. He coined the metaphysical term Voluntarism. Tönnies also contributed to the study of social change, particularly on public opinion,[6] customs and technology, crime, and suicide.[7] He also had a vivid interest in methodology, especially statistics, and sociological research, inventing his own technique of statistical association.[8]

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Tönnies distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft often translated as community (or left untranslated) refers to groupings based on feelings of togetherness and on mutual bonds, which are felt as a goal to be kept up, their members being means for this goal. Gesellschaft often translated as society on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by it being instrumental for their members' individual aims and goals.

Gemeinschaft may be exemplified historically by a family or a neighborhood in a pre-modern (rural) society; Gesellschaft by a joint-stock company or a state in a modern society, i.e. the society when Tönnies lived. Gesellschaft relationships arose in an urban and capitalist setting, characterized by individualism and impersonal monetary connections between people. Social ties were often instrumental and superficial, with self-interest and exploitation increasingly the norm. Examples are corporations, states, or voluntary associations.

His distinction between social groupings is based on the assumption that there are only two basic forms of an actor's will, to approve of other men. (For Tönnies, such an approval is by no means self-evident, he is quite influenced by Thomas Hobbes[9]). Following his "essential will" ("Wesenwille"), an actor will see himself as a means to serve the goals of social grouping; very often it is an underlying, subconscious force. Groupings formed around an essential will are called a Gemeinschaft. The other will is the "arbitrary will" ("Kürwille"): An actor sees a social grouping as a means to further his individual goals; so it is purposive and future-oriented. Groupings around the latter are called Gesellschaft. Whereas the membership in a Gemeinschaft is self-fulfilling, a Gesellschaft is instrumental for its members. In pure sociology theoretically , these two normal types of will are to be strictly separated; in applied sociology empirically they are always mixed.

Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, like others between tradition and modernity, has been criticized for over-generalizing differences between societies, and implying that all societies were following a similar evolutionary path, an argument which he never proclaimed.[10]

The equilibrium in Gemeinschaft is achieved through morals, conformism, and exclusion - social control - while Gesellschaft keeps its equilibrium through police, laws, tribunals and prisons. Amish, Hassidic communities are examples of Gemeinschaft, while states are types of Gesellschaft. Rules in Gemeinschaft are implicit, while Gesellschaft has explicit rules (written laws).

Published works

See also


  1. See Louis Wirth, The Sociology of Ferdinand Tonnies, in American Journal of Sociology Vol. 32, No. 3 (Nov., 1926), pp. 412-422.
  2. De Jove Ammone questionum specimen, Phil. Diss., Tübingen 1877
  3. Ferdinand Tönnies: Hafenarbeiter und Seeleute in Hamburg vor dem Strike 1896/97, in: Archiv für soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik, 1897, vol. 10/2, p. 173-238
  4. See Uwe Carsten, Ferdinand Tönnies: Friese und Weltbürger, Norderstedt 2005, p. 287–299.
  5. New World Encyclopedia contributors, "Ferdinand Tönnies," New World Encyclopedia, 1 September 2008, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Ferdinand_T%C3%B6nnies&oldid=796849 (accessed 28 November 2015),
  6. Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung, [1922], in: Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, tom. 14, ed. Alexander Deichsel/Rolf Fechner/Rainer Waßner, de Gruyter, Berlin/New York 2002
  7. Cf. Der Selbstmord von Maennern in Preussen, [Mens en Maatschappij, 1933], in: Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, tom. 22, ed. Lars Clausen, de Gruyter, Berlin/New York 1998, p. 357-380.
  8. Lars Clausen: Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), in: Christiana Albertina, No. 63, Kiel 2006, p. 663-69
  9. See Louis Wirth, The Sociology of Ferdinand Tonnies, in American Journal of Sociology Vol. 32, No. 3 (Nov., 1926), pp. 412-422.
  10. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Leipzig 1887, §§ 1-40


External links

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