Monday, 19 March 2012 08:27

Ferdinand Tonnies: Men of Ideas

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Ferdinand Tonnies (1855-1936) was a German sociologist who, along with Max Weber, founded the study of sociology in Germany.  Tonnies, sometimes spelled Toennies, wrote many articles and books but is primarily known for his differentiation between two types of sociological communities: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.

Gemeinschaft is what we might call natural groupings of human beings, such as families, clans’ men, tribes’ men, villagers and those who perceive themselves as in some way connected. Members of such groups tend to see each other as one of them and work for their mutual interests. The survival of the group is perceived as necessary for the survival of the individual, thus when the individual works for it, sacrifices for it, he tends to do so, as if he is working and or sacrificing for his self interest.

The other type of sociological grouping, Gesellschaft, tends to be artificial communities where people from different circumstances and who are not related works together for well defined goals that they believe serve their individual interests. For example, members of professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association, work together for their professional goal but do not necessary feel connected to each other. This type of association tends to be impersonal and goal oriented. For as long as the goal that serves all members interests is there they work together but when the goal is no longer present they go their separated ways and may not even acknowledge each others existence. 

The point that Tonnies seems to be making is that in villages and other natural communities there was a certain type of sociological grouping and that in our modern world that there is quite another type of sociological grouping.

The modern world is characterized by Gesellschaft, impersonal associations where folk use each other for their mutual goals and then move on, and no personal feelings are involved. Your employer needs you to do certain specified work that needs to be done for him to produce goods and or services that he sells and makes profits and out of which he pays you. You are employed for as long as you can do what the job specification calls for and the moment that you cannot do it, or a cheaper way of doing it comes along, such as shift the job overseas where labor cost is cheap, or acquire robots that can do it, you are disposed of and no hard feelings is involved.

The modern worker is not different from a thing. Therefore, he must understand the nature of his relationship with his employer and fellow employees (the later may avoid him if he is fired).  We are now in the age of impersonality. As Durkheim would say, modern society breeds anomie, loneliness and its attendant problems.

In natural societies folk help each other but in modern societies it takes self transcendence for the individual to volunteer to serve other people. Clearly, society has changed (Tonnies studied social change etc) and would probably continue to change even more drastically. Consider that in the city of the future folk from all over the world would live as neighbors, not just folk from the same country or race. Your next door neighbor could be an African, a Chinaman, a European, and Indian etc, folk that you have little or nothing in common with; all these have impacts on your individual psychology.

What can be done about it? Not much; deal with it and while doing so recognize the challenges involved.

In natural societies folk work for their easily identifiable common goals and feel together, but in the artificial societies of the future it would take arbitrary will, law (Kurwille) to get folk to work together, to get along and respect each others rights.

To reduce their anomie, folk seek pseudo natural communities to join, such as religious groups (assuming that they believe in God) and clubs dedicated to those with similar interests.

Tonnies characterizations of the two societies appear black and white; needless to say that in the real world the two combine in varying degrees. Nevertheless, his efforts seem helpful in letting people know what they are up to as they move from traditional societies to urban areas.


Ferdinand Tonnies. Gesamtausgabe (1998). Edited by Lars Clausen et al.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176