Ferdinand Tonnies Theory: Overview & Explanation

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  • 0:00 Who Was Ferdinand Tonnies?
  • 1:14 What Was Gemeinschaft?
  • 2:37 What Was Gesellschaft?
  • 4:10 Gemeinschaft-Gesellsch…
  • 5:22 Homogeneity
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Ferdinand Tonnies contributed significantly to the field of sociology. In this lesson, you will learn about Tonnies' most influential theory and gain insight into how it has helped to provide a better understanding of social groupings.

Who Was Ferdinand Tonnies?

Whether or not you think much about it, we all live in collective environments, from households, to communities, to our entire nation. Our inclusion in these groups presents both benefits and challenges, but there is no doubt that it profoundly influences our perspectives and personalities. From an academic perspective, few have contributed to this area of study more than Ferdinand Tonnies.

Ferdinand Tonnies was a German sociologist who contributed important work to the field of sociology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tonnies' work focused largely on academic theory relating to social interaction and society, particularly as it related to social change and the traditions and beliefs that guide society.

Tonnies published a substantial body of work in the fields of sociology and philosophy, but his most influential theory was of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, which Tonnies intended as a kind of tool, or guide, to bring a more concrete definition to social categories.

What Was Gemeinschaft?

Though there is no direct English translation, the term gemeinschaft roughly translates as 'community.' According to Tonnies' theory, a community could be defined as a group of people that shared common bonds around traditions, beliefs, or objectives. Rather than thinking of the term 'community' as a town or group that is loosely associated, Tonnies used it to describe people that actively worked together to maintain their bond and further their goals.

A good example of gemeinschaft would be a church or other religious institution. In this case, those that attend the church on a regular basis have formed relationships with other attendees and have bonded around their shared beliefs, values, and traditions. Moreover, there tends to be a sense of support and collectivity in these types of environments that foster a feeling of togetherness and belonging.

An important element of gemeinschaft is that the relationships and bonds formed in these cases are based on direct personal interaction. If you consider the example of a church, you can imagine that the people in that environment know more than just the names of the other people in the group and probably engage in more than casual interaction.

What Was Gesellschaft?

The personal engagement piece of gemeinschaft is significant in part because it differentiates it from the gesellschaft, which loosely translates in English as 'society.' In the gesellschaft, relationships tend to be informal and impersonal.

Say, for example, that you live in New York City and you're surrounded by stores, restaurants, and bars. You probably interact with these people in a pleasant way and engage in certain transactions with many of them. More often than not you don't know these people's names, nor do you socialize with them in any meaningful way. They're just the people that live and work around you. Having said that, you are still connected to them in that you all share social space and you all, as residents of the United States, have informally agreed to the laws, traditions, and expectations agreed to by all citizens.

In both the gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, the individual member plays a critical role. In the former, the person has space to fulfill personal needs and goals, like attaining a sense of belonging to a community and contributing to the lives of others. As a member of the gesellschaft, the individual contributes to the overall functioning of the larger society by participating in the economy and general stability of the society.

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