Tonnies' Critique of Modernity

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  • 0:00 Tonnies & Modernity
  • 1:12 Gemeinschaft
  • 2:56 Gesellschaft
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson will discuss the warnings that German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies gave about a society's move to modernity. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Tonnies & Modernity

Believe it or not, there used to be a time when people would find out the day's news from… wait for it… physically talking to other people. Strange, isn't it?

Today, posting to social media, texting and email have replaced many face-to-face conversations. This new method of communicating has its pros and cons. People used to have more face-to-face conversations because towns tended to be smaller and neighbors were socially closer to one another. However, the nature of the conversations people had may have also only been constrained to local news, whereas people today can communicate with one another twenty-four-seven, from anywhere around the world.

Nevertheless, communicating through a screen has brought about a less personal feel to how we communicate. This is precisely how German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies felt about society's move to modernity.

In this lesson, we will cover more about Tonnies and his view of how a society's move to modernity, or society's social patterns of organization that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, has led to the loss of community.


One of the most widely cited models of modernization comes from sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies' classic book Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Tonnies viewed modernization as progressive loss of Gemeinschaft or human community. Sounds kind of depressing. But more specifically, Gemeinschaft is often referred to as a type of social organization in which people are closely tied by kinship and tradition.

However, this type of organization was largely a product of the times. People were more likely to be closely tied to one another because towns were much smaller and more rural. Thus if you wanted to get to know someone you had to have lived fairly close to them. So towns that would arise would pop up in small clumps rather than the sprawling cities we see today. Furthermore, it wasn't uncommon for families to live in their small towns for generations, which solidified their closely-knit, hard-working and slow-moving way of life.

Technology also played a huge role in sustaining this way of life. Telephones were rare, for some time, and it wasn't until 1915 that a person could place a coast-to-coast call. Add to that, wide-spread use of television didn't happen until the 1950s and families had to entertain themselves and would gather more frequently with friends to share stories and fun. The lack of rapid means of transportation also made it so that people rarely traveled far from their home towns.

However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution technology and innovation continually improved to shifting people out of small clumps of towns to larger, more urban areas. As urban areas grew in size and technology improved even more, Tonnies felt that people would lose that sense of community and kinship that was so noble in pre-modern societies.

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