Gemeinschaft: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is 'Gemeinschaft'?
  • 0:32 Examples of 'Gemeinschaft'
  • 1:48 Gesellschaft
  • 3:27 Ideal Types
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson explores Gemeinschaft, which is a German word for community. Learn more about this concept developed by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies to explain different kinds of social groups.

What Is 'Gemeinschaft'?

What is a community? How do people form social groups? What kinds of social groups exist? These questions were considered by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies and he had an answer: the German word Gemeinschaft. For those of us who don't speak German, a common English translation for Gemeinschaft is community, and it's a concept Tonnies developed to understand different kinds of communities, or social groups, and the social relations that characterize them.

Examples of Gemeinschaft

Tonnies noticed that different types of social groups exhibited different characteristics. So what kind of social group would be characterized by Gemeinschaft relations? Think back to earlier days, when societies were less complicated. There were fewer occupations, most people lived in rural areas as opposed to cities, and people generally worked together. Communities were more homogenous, or similar in terms of race, education, and wealth level. Members of these communities knew each other well and felt a sense of obligation to look after and care for the other members of the group. Basically, because these social groups were less complicated, it was easier to form social bonds. These social groups exhibit high levels of Gemeinschaft, according to Tonnies.

More specific examples of Gemeinschaft include preindustrial societies, which were common before the Industrial Revolution and the resulting technological advances that changed the way people worked and lived together. Two types of preindustrial societies are hunter-gatherer societies, in which people forage for plants and hunt wild animals, and agrarian societies, in which the economy is based on producing crops and cultivating land. But what about more complicated societies, where people aren't out foraging for their own food?


Here's one last German vocabulary lesson: The opposite of Gemeinschaft is Gesellschaft, which translates to society. It's important to know this word because Tonnies developed the idea of Gemeinschaft in comparison to Gesellschaft. Relationships or social ties characterized by Gesellschaft are more impersonal than those characterized by Gemeinschaft. Gesellschaft relations are found in complex, modern societies. Gesellschaft is common in large, urban places where relationships are often impersonal and members are more individualistic.

Here, Tonnies believed that authority shifted from elder or other village member, as in Gemeinschaft, to the modern government. Tonnies used the concept of Gesellschaft to explain the emergence of the modern state and the shift away from living in villages. In other words, in relationships defined by Gesellschaft, large numbers of people live close to one another but do not necessarily work toward a common good, and they do not share a common will. New York City is a great example of Gesellschaft: millions of people living within a few square miles but all going about their own private lives, with little sense of a common or shared focus.

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