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Tönnies, Ferdinand

Tönnies, Ferdinand

System of sociology

Applied sociology

Contributions and influence



Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), German sociologist, spent his childhood on a prosperous farm in Schleswig-Holstein and, after his father’s retirement, in the town of Husum. In 1872 Tonnies enrolled with patriotic enthusiasm at the University of Strassburg, but making use of the German student’s freedom to move, he transferred successively to the universities of Jena, Bonn, Leipzig, and Tubingen, where he finally received his doctorate in classical philology in 1877. Even then his interests had shifted to political philosophy and social problems. His father’s means, which later made it possible for him to devote his time to private scholarship, later enabled him to pursue postdoctoral studies. Tonnies went to the University of Berlin and to London, beginning his Hobbesian studies and Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. In 1881 a draft of the latter served as his Habilitationsschrift when Tonnies became a Privatdozent for philosophy at the University of Kiel. He made but little use of the venia legendi (license to lecture). Relatively unencumbered by academic duties, Tönnies contributed extensively not only to professional journals but to political periodicals as well, commenting on the important problems of his time and often taking sides on political issues. Despite his detachment from the university, he was appointed to a chair for economics and statistics in 1913, from which post he retired in 1916. He had lived outside Kiel during most of his academic life, but in 1921 he moved into the city and resumed teaching as professor emeritus in the field of sociology.

Tönnies was president of the German Sociological Society from 1909 to 1933; it had been founded by him together with Georg Simmel, Werner Som-bart, and Max Weber. He also participated in the organization of the Hobbes and Spinoza societies and was active in the Society for Ethical Culture. Although he lived all his adult life in the region where he was born, Tönnies liked to travel and felt quite at home in England, where his studies and publications gained him many friends. He visited the United States in 1904, at which time he read a paper at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. He was a corresponding member of the American Sociological Society.

Conservative by temperament, Tönnies nevertheless took an active interest in the socialist and trade union movements, in consumer cooperatives, and in a variety of other progressive movements. He supported the independence movements in Finland and Ireland. In spite of his opposition to the imperial regime, he endeavored to defend Germany’s cause in World War i and after the war investigated the “war guilt question.” In protest against the rising National Socialist movement, he joined the Social Democratic party. This and his public denunciation of Nazism and anti-Semitism in the winter of 1932/1933 led to his illegal discharge by the Hitler government from his position as professor emeritus. He died in 1936, nearly 81 years old.

Tönnies’ mother came from a family of Lutheran pastors, and although he himself was an agnostic, he never ceased to concern himself with problems of religion. In his old age he came to believe in the possibility of an adogmatic universal religion that would unite all mankind. All his life he had a great love of poetry, and many of his own writings reveal a poetic vein.

System of sociology

Although Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) established Tönnies’ reputation, his system of sociology is better studied in his later works, particularly those published after 1925. At this mature stage of his work Tönnies distinguished between a broad and a narrow concept of sociology. The former included social biology, demography, and social psychology, while the latter included only the study of social relationships, groups, norms, and values. Within the narrower field, Tönnies established three methodologically distinct divisions or levels of inquiry:

(1) Theoretical or pure sociology as an integrated system of basic concepts.

(2) Applied sociology, a deductive discipline that uses the concepts of theoretical sociology in order to understand and explain the origin and development of society, in particular modern society.

(3) Empirical sociology or sociography, the latter term coined by Rudolf Steinmetz (1935), which was never clearly defined by Tönnies but which corresponds roughly to what is called sociological research in the United States.

It was, of course, quite clear to Tönnies that these conceptual distinctions cannot be maintained in the study of concrete social phenomena. Empirical sociological research must be oriented toward a general theory of social interaction, and the physical existence and psychological interaction of men must be given recognition.

Social entities. T önnies perceived all social interactions and groups as creations of human thought and will. These creations he called social entities (soziale Wesenheiten), and he classified them roughly as social collectives (Samtschaften), social corporations (soziale Korperschaften), and social relationships (soziale Verhaltnisse). The concept of Samtschaft occurs only in Tönnies’ later writings and refers to those unorganized groups that are large enough to be independent of the participation of specific individuals, for example, social classes or the nation. The concept of social corporation is derived from the legal concept of persona iuris and refers to groups that are able to act through representative organs (officers). Social relationships may have their basis in biological or psychological relationships, or in both (as in the case of the relationship between parent and child), but as social relationships in the strict sense of the concept they exist because, and insofar as, they are recognized, acknowledged, and willed by the participants and, normally, also by outsiders (see Tönnies’ preface to the 6th and 7th editions of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). Social relationships in this sense involve the awareness of certain obligations and claims that are regulated by social norms or rules of conduct. They occur, of course, within social corporations and social collectives. The biological, psychological, and social levels of these relationships are independent: it is possible, for example, for a parent to disown his child or for a marriage to be maintained even though the psychological relationship between the spouses has become essentially hostile.

The identification of social entities with willed relationships distinguishes Tönnies’ concept of the social from that of behaviorism, which attributes to any kind of human interaction the quality of being social. According to Tönnies, a social entity is a creation of the will of its members, which has for them a quasi-objective reality, imposes upon them certain obligations, and grants them certain rights. These characteristics are most evident in social corporations, but they exist also in simple social relationships. The will to maintain a particular social relationship as a social entity is manifest when the participants conform to the specific rules of conduct valid for that relationship.

“Wesenwille” and “Kürwille.” The will that establishes a social entity may be differentiated according to its relation to ends and means. The meaning of “will” is much broader here than in popular usage. An action may be willed for its own sake, or because of a hardly conscious drive or inclination, or out of habit, or it may be consciously motivated on account of its intrinsic moral, aesthetic, or other value; or a course of action may be willed in order to achieve a certain end or purpose, regardless of its intrinsic value. Tönnies called the first type of will Wesenwille (natural will), because it is a manifestation of the actor’s nature; the second type of will he called Kürwille, a term derived from an ancient Germanic word for choosing, because the actor chooses among various possible means to an end. The translation of Kürwille as “rational will” should not be interpreted to imply that only Kürwille is rational while Wesenwille is not. Tönnies conceived of Wesenwille as having degrees of rationality, which correspond, as he acknowledged, to Max Weber’s affectual, traditional, and value-rational orientations of social action; Kürwille, in turn, corresponds to Weber’s purposive-rational orientation of social action.

“Gemeinschaft” and “Gesellschaft.” In applying the concept of two types of will to social entities, Tönnies arrived at the fundamental distinction between entities that are the objects of Wesenwille and those that are the objects of Kürwille. Certain entities, for example, social clubs or religious sects, result from mutual sympathy, habit, or common beliefs and are willed for their intrinsic value; other entities, for example, most business associations, are intended by their constituents to be means to specific ends. Gemeinschaft is the type of social entity that results from Wesenwille, while Gesellschaft results from Kürwille. The German words have their English near-equivalents in the words “community” and “society” these English terms have become accepted as interchangeable with the German ones.

Tönnies developed the concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft by elaborate analyses of their empirical prototypes: kinship, neighborhood, town, and spiritual community are prototypes of the former; contractual relationships, collectives based on common interests, and special purpose associations are prototypes of the latter. The concepts themselves are intended as ideal types and not as categories of classification. Empirically, pure Gemeinschaft is impossible, because all Gemeinschaft has rational aspects: likewise, pure Gesellschaft is impossible, because man’s social conduct can never be entirely determined by intellect and reason. Any concrete social entity, therefore, is only more or less Gemeinschaft-like or more or less Gesellschaft- like. It would defeat the very purpose of Tönnies’ theory were one to define, for example, the family as a Gemeinschaft, instead of inquiring to what extent a given family or, on a higher level of abstraction, a given type of family approximates the ideal type of Gemeinschaft and to what extent it contains traits of Gesellschaft. Tönnies himself compared the two concepts to chemical elements that may be found combined in different proportions.

What distinguishes Tönnies’ theory from similar conceptual dichotomies, then, is his voluntaristic conception of all social relationships. Accordingly, Gemeinschaft-like social entities may be formed by conscious acts of association, as in the case of betrothals or religious orders, and a Gesellschaft- like small group, one that meets for professional discussion or to play chess, may have less formal organization than a Gemeinschaft-like corporate group, such as a village community.

Tönnies identified Gemeinschaft-like relationships of equality (Genossenschaft) and of super-ordination-subordination (Herrschaft), as well as mixed cases; for example, the authority of the father over his children, of the master over his servant, and the rule of elders in a community are prototypes of Gemeinschaft-like authority relationships, while the relationship of husband and wife represents a combination of equality and super-ordination. In Gesellschaft, the individual members are conceptually peers, although in fact they may delegate authority to some persons; for example, the members of an association delegate authority to an executive committee. In both types of entity the abuse of authority may transform an originally friendly relationship into a more or less hostile one, and in the extreme case may result in the complete dissolution of social bonds in the strict sense of the term.

Social norms. Tönnies conceived of every social entity as endowed with a collective will. Such a collective will is most readily evident in social corporations, but it exists in principle in all other collectives and relationships. The collective will aims at the realization and preservation of social values and becomes manifest in the rules of conduct or social norms which the associated individuals regard as binding. Tönnies distinguished three levels of norms and on each level, in turn, norms of Gemeinschaft-like and Gesellschaft-like character. The resulting scheme, which is very complex, can be reduced to a series of antitheses: custom and convention; customary law and statute law; religiously sanctioned ethics and rational ethics sanctioned by public opinion.

Tönnies dealt with custom in many of its ramifications in his important work Die Sitte (1909a). The word “custom” designates (1) actual patterns of behavior; (2) a complex of prescriptive or prohibitive rules of conduct; and (3) a will, this last being, according to Tönnies, the least noticed and yet the most interesting meaning, clearly implied when we say “custom requires that….” Tönnies considered it his particular achievement to have noted this third meaning. Custom in this sense signifies one kind of common will of a social entity.

In his second major work, Kritik der offent-lichen Meinung (1922b), the meanings of the term “public opinion” are differentiated in an analogous way. Opinions are not merely statements of thoughts, they contain an element of will. This is especially evident in the case of opinions on social and political issues: the expression of such opinions involves the claim that others should accept them as directives for social action. The normative character of opinions is even more obvious when they are held by certain publics, as distinct from individuals. Tönnies further distinguished from the opinions of limited publics the public opinion of a total society, that is, the opinion concerning public affairs that claims to be the only true and correct opinion. This latter he considered to be a kind of group will, because anyone who does not share this public opinion, or opposes it openly, is likely to be regarded as disloyal. There may be different degrees of firmness of any public opinion; on fundamental principles, public opinion tends to be much firmer and more persistent than on current issues.

Applied sociology

The theory of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft was originally intended as the conceptual framework for a historical analysis of the evolution of modern society. The first edition of the book carries the subtitle Abhandlung des Communismus und des Sozialismus als empirische Kulturformen, indicating that Tönnies intended to trace social evolution from primitive agrarian communism through the individualistic society of modern capitalism to an ultimate socialistic order, which he viewed as Gemeinschaft of a higher order. Only fragments of this historical treatise were published under the title Geist der Neuzeit (1935). Tönnies’ philosophy of history was, however, presented in numerous articles, some of which were collected in Fortschritt und soziale Entwicklung (1926). He saw the transition from a predominantly Gemeinschaft-like to a predominantly Gesellschaft-like social order primarily as a consequence of increasing commercialization together with the rise of the modern state and the progress of science. The transition is therefore the work of three types of kurwillig-oriented men: the economic, the political, and the scientific.

Empirical sociology or sociography. Tönnies’ empirical studies are concerned mainly with phenomena of social pathology (suicide, crime, illegitimacy), but he also studied population problems and the impact of business cycles and seasonal cycles on social conditions and social change (Oberschall 1965). Tönnies was motivated to make these studies both by humanitarian and ethical considerations and by a sociological interest in the effect of Gemeinschaft-like or Gesellschaft-like social environments on different types of deviant behavior. At an early stage in his career he began to see that it was necessary to give sociological theory an empirical foundation, not only through historical studies but more particularly through “mass observation” and statistical analysis. In his empirical studies he invented an entirely original method of correlation (see Tönnies 1909b; 1924; Striefler 1931). His recently published letters to his friend the philosopher Friedrich Paulsen (see Tönnies-Paulsen: Briefwechsel) contain evidence that his “almost passionate interest in statistics” and his plans for what he called studies in “physique sociale oder Soziologie [sic],” “on the basis of statistics,” even antedate the first steps in the conception of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. As early as 1895 he stated that certain types of crime were increasing with the decline of Gemeinschaft and with the increasing predominance of Gesellschaft-like conditions.

Contributions and influence

Tönnies’ concept of Wesenwille was derived from Arthur Schopenhauer and Wilhelm Wundt; his concept of Kürwille stemmed from Thomas Hobbes and the rationalist doctrine of natural law. Other important influences came from Adam Ferguson (the idea that sympathy is the basis of human society, and that alienation is a concomitant of “commercial” society), from John Millar (the basic types of authority), and from Lorenz von Stein, Marx, J. J. Bachofen, Émile de Laveleye, L. H. Morgan, Sir Henry Maine, Otto von Gierke, Rudolf von Jhering, and Adolf Wagner.

The originality of Tönnies’ doctrine of the different types of social entities lies in its synthesis of the social theories of rationalism with those of the romantic and historical schools. His theory overcomes the antagonism between the organicist and the contractual conceptions of society. According to Tönnies, these apparently irreconcilable views of human society correspond to real historical phenomena, and some of the greatest political theorists of the past have abstracted models from this reality: the model of the organic society is Aristotle’s polis, while the model of the contractual society is Hobbes’s “political commonwealth.” The voluntaristic basis on which Tönnies reconciled the two traditions in social theory enabled him to state the old problem of the relationship of the individual to society in a new way and to propose a solution for it: some social relationships may be assumed to exist prior to individuals (and are actually so imagined), while other relationships may be assumed to be the result of an agreement among previously independent individuals. The individual is always conceived of as a social being, and, correspondingly, social entities are conceived of as the creations of willing and acting individuals. Epistemologically, Tönnies anticipated Georg Simmel’s idea of pure sociology as a systematic theory of the “forms” of social relationships. He also foreshadowed the phenomenological method later developed by Alfred Vierkandt (see Salomon 1936).

Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft makes great demands on the reader’s erudition, especially on his familiarity with social and economic history, with political and social philosophy of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and with nineteenth-century anthropological literature. Tönnies’ style and his habit of shifting from conceptual thinking to empirical analysis constitute additional difficulties and sources of misinterpretation.

For nearly thirty years, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft was hardly known outside of a small public of scholars; a change came after World War i, when a new generation, disillusioned with the existing social order and longing for Gemeinschaft, turned to the book with enthusiasm. Tönnies did not share the pessimism of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, with its value-laden distinction between culture and civilization. He saw hopefully into the future, visualizing a socialist order that would have the attributes of Gemeinschaft and that would be based upon rational ethics and possibly on a world-wide political order.

Tönnies’ influence on the social sciences, although long delayed, is now so widespread and so much taken for granted that it is difficult to appraise (Freyer 1936). For example, the concept of “mass society” with its emphasis on alienation owes a great deal to Tönnies. Rural sociologists, who at first uncritically equated rural life with Gemeinschaft, have since refined their application of Tönnies’ theory in rural community studies (see Heberle 1941; Loomis & Beegle 1950; Wurzbacher 1955; Hofstee 1960).

Finally, Tönnies’ theory has had a strong and far-reaching influence because it is derived from certain universal experiences of social life. Fundamental contrasts in human relations that we sense more or less clearly are brought into focus by his concepts of sociopsychological types. These types are then employed to achieve a deeper understanding of contrasts in the structure of social systems. By providing a systematization of the basic phenomena of social life, Tönnies laid the foundation for a new kind of sociology that subsequently was further developed by such scholars as Durkheim, Simmel, Weber, and Maclver.

Rudolf Heberle

[For the historical context of Tönnies’ work, see Sociology, article onthe development of sociological thought; and the biographies of Bachofen; Ferguson; Gierke; Hobbes; Maine; Millar; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Stein; Wagner; Wundt; for discussion of the subsequent development of Tönnies’ ideas, seeagriculture, article onsocial organization; community-society continua; and the biographies ofdurkheim; maciver; redfield; simmel; weber, max.]


(1887) 1957 Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press. → Contains a selected bibliography. First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

(1889a) 1928 TÖnnies, Ferdinand (editor) Behemoth: Or, the Long Parliament, by Thomas Hobbes. Cambridge Univ. Press. → The first edition of Behemoth was published in 1679.

(1889b) 1928 TÖnnies, Ferdinand (editor) The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, by Thomas Hobbes. Cambridge Univ. Press. → The first edition of The Elements of Law was published in 1650.

(1896) 1925 Thomas Hobbes Leben und Lehre. 3d enl. ed. Stuttgart: Frommann.

1899-1900 Philosophical Terminology. Mind New Series 8:289-332, 467-491; 9:46-61.

1905 The Present Problems of Social Structure. American Journal of Sociology 10:569-588.

(1909a) 1961 Custom: An Essay on Social Codes. New York: Free Press. → First published as Die Sitte.

1909b Eine neue Methode der Vergleichung statistischer Reihen. Jahrbuch fur Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reich 33:699-720. → Now called Schmollers Jahrbuch.

1922a Ferdinand Tönnies. Volume 3, pages 199-234 in Raymond Schmidt (editor), Die Philosophic der Gegen-wart in Selbstdarstellungen. Leipzig: Meiner.

1922b Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung. Berlin: Springer.

1923 Zweck und Mittel im sozialen Leben. Volume 1, pages 235-270 in Erinnerungsgabe fur Max Weber. 2 vols. in 1. Edited by Melchior Palyi. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

1924 Korrelation der Parteien in Statistik der Kieler Reichstagswahlen. Jahrbücher fiir Nationalükonomie und Statistik 122:663-672.

1925-1929 Soziologische Studien und Kritiken. 3 vols. Jena: Fischer.

1926 Fortschritt und soziale Entwicklung: Geschichtsphi-losophische Ansichten. Karlsruhe: Braun. → The second article in this collection was published as “The Concept and Law of Human Progress,” in Social Forces, 1940, Volume 19, pages 23-29.

(1931a) 1965 Einfiihrung in die Soziologie. Reprint with an introduction by Rudolf Heberle. Stuttgart: Enke.

(1931b) 1966 Estates and Classes. Pages 12-21 in Rein-hard Bendix and Seymour M. Lipset (editors), Class, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective. 2d ed. New York: Free Press. → First published as “Stande und Klassen” in the Hand-worterbuch der Soziologie.

1932 Mein Verhaltnis zur Soziologie. Pages 103-122 in Richard Thurnwald (editor), Soziologie von heute. Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

1935 Geist der Neuzeit. Leipzig: Buske.

Ferdinand Tönnies—Friedrich Paulsen: Briefwechsel, 1876-1908. Edited by Olaf Klose, E. G. Jacoby, and I. Fischer, with an introduction by E. G. Jacoby. Veroffentlichungen der Schleswig-Holsteinischen Universitatsgesellschaft, New Series, No. 27. Kiel: Hirt, 1961.


Brenke, Else 1936 Verzeichnis der Schriften von Ferdinand Tönnies aus den Jahren 1875 bis 1935. Pages 383-403 in Reine und angewandte Soziologie: Eine Festgabe für Ferdinand Tönnies zu seinem achtzigsten Geburtstage am 26. Juli 1935. Leipzig: Buske. → An almost complete chronological list of Tönnies’ works.

Festgabe zum siebzigsten Geburtstage von Ferdinand Tönnies. 1925 Kolner Vierteljahrshefte fur Soziologie 5, no. 1 & 2:1-496.

Freyer, Hans 1936 Ferdinand Tönnies und seine Stel-lung in der deutschen Soziologie. Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv 44:1-9.

Heberle, Rudolf (1937)1948 The Sociological System of Ferdinand Tönnies: “Community” and “Society.” Pages 227-248 in Harry E. Barnes (editor), An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press. → This is a revised and expanded reprint of an article that was first published in Volume 2 of the American Sociological Review.

Heberle, Rudolf 1941 The Application of Fundamental Concepts in Rural Community Studies. Rural Sociology 6:203-215.

Heberle, Rudolf 1955 Ferdinand Tönnies’ Contributions to the Sociology of Political Parties. American Journal of Sociology 61:213-220.

Heberle, Rudolf 1959 Ferdinand Tönnies. Volume 10, pages 394-397 in Handworterbuch der Sozialwissen-schaften. Stuttgart: Fischer. → Contains a bibliography of works by and works about Tönnies.

Hofstee, E. W. 1960 Rural Social Organization. Soctologia ruralis 1:105-117.

Jacoby, E. G. 1955 Ferdinand Tönnies, Sociologist: A Centennial Tribute. Kyklos 8:144-159.

Leemans, Victor 1933 F. Tönnies et la sociologie contemporaine en Allemagne. Paris: Alcan.

Leif, Joseph 1946 Les categories fondamentales de la sociologie de Tönnies. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Loomis, Charles P.; and Beegle, J. Allan (1950) 1955 Rural Social Systems: A Textbook in Rural Sociology and Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall; London: Bailey & Swinfen.

Oberschall, Anthony 1965 Empirical Social Research in Germany, 1848-1914. Paris and The Hague: Mouton; New York: Humanities. → See especially pages 51-63.

Reine und angewandte Soziologie: Eine Festgabe fiir Ferdinand Tönnies zu seinem achtzigsten Geburtstage am 26. Juli 1935. 1936 Leipzig: Buske.

Salomon, Albert 1936 In Memoriam Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936). Social Research 3:348-363.

Steinmetz, Sebald Rudolf (1925) 1935 Wat is sociographie? Volume 3, pages 143-145 in Sebald Rudolf Steinmetz, Gesammelte kleinere Schriften zur Ethno-logie und Soziologie. Groningen (Netherlands): Nord-hoff.

Striefler, Heinrich 1931 Zur Methode der Rangkorre-lation nach Tönnies. Deutsches statistisches Zentral-blatt 23:129-136; 161-168.

Wirth, Louis 1926 The Sociology of Ferdinand Tönnies. American Journal of Sociology 32:412-422.

Wurzbacher, Gerhard 1955 Beobachtungen zum Anwendungsbereich der Tönniesschen Kategorien Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Kolner Zeitschrift fiir Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie New Series 7:443-462.

Zum hundertsten Geburtstag von Ferdinand Tönnies. 1955 Kolner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie New Series 7:337-490.

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Ferdinand Tönnies

Ferdinand Tönnies

The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936) pioneered sociology as an academic discipline of rigorously scientific character on a broad base of original studies in the history of ideas, epistemology, political science, economics, and social anthropology.

Ferdinand Tönnies was born on July 26, 1855, on a farm homestead in the North Frisian peninsula of Eiderstedt, then still under Danish sovereignty. One of seven children, he received his high school education in Husum, where he became deeply attached to the novelist and poet Theodor Storm. After studying classics at different German universities and taking his doctoral degree in 1877, Tönnies turned to philosophy, history, biology, psychology, economics, and ethnology as his ideas on scientific sociology began to take shape.

In Berlin in 1876 Tönnies began at the suggestion of his lifelong friend Friedrich Paulsen a study of the much-neglected philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. On his first of many journeys to England and also to France, Tönnies discovered in 1878 several original manuscripts by Hobbes, essential to better appreciation of his system of ideas and natural-law theory. In his first account (1879-1881) Tönnies argued the significance of Hobbes in the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Continuing his documentation, he published the standard monograph on Hobbes's life and works in 1896 (3d ed. repr. 1971).

Beginning to lecture at the University of Kiel in 1882, at first on philosophy and government but soon extending his academic work to empirical social research and statistical methods, Tönnies devoted the next 6 years to working out his own social theory. His world-famous treatise Community and Society (1887) found little response in the intellectual climate of the Germany of Kaiser William II. The various schools of historicism disfavored the development of rigorously scientific social theory, and political practice in the Bismarck era refused to solve the pressing social problems of a rapidly growing industrial economy but fought the labor movement by legislation and police action even after 1890.

A clash with the Prussian university administration over Tönnies's connection with the German branch of the Ethical Culture movement and his outspoken reports on the Hamburg longshoremen's strike (1896-1897) made him suspect of radicalism if not socialist leanings; what promised to be the brilliant career of a gifted scholar was nipped in the bud. Yet, unremitting work on theoretical problems between 1894 and 1913, informed reviews of the growing world literature in the field, and prominent participation in the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Politics) and the Gesellschaft für Soziale Reform (Society for Social Reform) increased Tönnies's reputation inside and outside Germany, creating an unusually wide disparity between scholarly stature and status in academic life. The external conflict was resolved in 1909 by his appointment to a full professorship in political economy at Kiel, which for the father of five young children also meant relief from financial stress.

The early masterpiece had clearly been a first decisive step toward the systematic development of the new social science. As Tönnies's plans for this elaboration were frustrated at the most productive time of life, only a few papers of theoretical importance stem from the period before World War I. At the same time, he became involved in a fierce battle against social Darwinism, adopted in imperial Germany as apologetics for a conservative outlook.

Of two new projects formed in 1907, a critique of public opinion and a study in social history, one was completed only in 1922, the other introduced by the volume The Spirit of the Modern Age in 1935. With Max Weber and others Tönnies had founded the German Sociological Association in 1909 and, as its subdivision, the Statistical Association (1911). He had failed, however, to complete his systematic sociology.

After World War I, with prospects more favorable to social science and its academic recognition in the Weimar Republic, Community and Society went through several new editions. Now in his 60s, Tönnies carried out his design of a systematic sociology. The theoretical parts on social units, values, norms, and action patterns in the Introduction to Sociology (1931) were supplemented by three volumes of collected studies and critiques and by a series of papers on his empirical research. He reestablished the Sociological Association, remaining its president until 1933.

The bulk of his published work bears out a distinction Tönnies had proposed in 1908 between pure, applied, and empirical sociology. In line with the scientific principles of both Galileo and Hobbes, pure sociology, including the fundamental concepts of community and society, relates to abstract constructions appertaining to human relationships; from these, more specific theories are deducible in applied sociology, with emphasis on interaction of economic, political, and cultural conditions in the modern age; they, in turn, serve as guidelines in inductive empirical research. Tönnies kept strictly separate from this threefold scientific endeavor what he called practical sociology; this, comprising social policies and social work, presents, in a complete system, technologies based on the scientific insights of the three sections of the system.

Tönnies acted on this solution also of the value problem. He relentlessly exposed the neoromanticism of the 1920s, just as his earlier critique of romanticism had been the cornerstone of the theory of Community and Society. But in 1933 he was deprived as "politically unreliable" of his status as professor emeritus. His death on April 9, 1936, spared him from being witness to the worst excesses of the Nazi dictatorship and from further indignities.

Further Reading

Tönnies's Community and Society was translated by Charles P. Loomis (1957). A selection of Tönnies's other writings is in On Sociology: Pure, Applied, and Empirical, edited and with an introduction by Werner J. Cahnman and Rudolf Heberle (1971). The chief Hobbes editions by Tönnies, Elements of Law Natural and Politic and Behemoth, were reprinted by M. M. Goldsmith (1969). A book-length biographical study in German by E. G. Jacoby appeared in 1971. Tönnies's sociological system is the subject of a chapter by Rudolf Heberle in An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948). Recent works include Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (1966), and, with emphasis on Tönnies's academic standing, Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins (1969). □

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Tönnies, Ferdinand

Tönnies, Ferdinand (1855–1936) A German sociologist and founding member of the German Sociological Association. He is most famous for his distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (association). The distinction refers to the different types of relationships supposedly characteristic of small-scale and large-scale societies respectively. In the former, where the population is largely immobile, status is ascribed and the family and church play important roles in sustaining a clearly defined set of beliefs, emotional and co-operative relationships flourish. The village and small community are therefore characterized by gemeinschaftlich relationships. However, these dissolve into contractual and impersonal relationships as the division of labour grows more complex, so that large-scale organizations and cities express gesellschaftlich social forms. Tönnies lamented the loss of community and what he saw as the increasing dominance of competition and individualism in modern urban society. In this respect he was a critic of utilitarianism, a pessimist, and conservative. The distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft parallels Émile Durkheim's contrast between mechanical and organic solidarity—and shares many of the same weaknesses. As a theory of social change it is simply dualistic to an implausible degree.

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"Tönnies, Ferdinand." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 24 Jun. 2017 <>.

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"Tönnies, Ferdinand." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from

Tönnies, Ferdinand

Ferdinand Tönnies (fĕr´dēnänt tön´yəs), 1855–1936, German sociologist and political scientist. He is noted for his analysis of the distinction between the older form of spontaneous community based on mutual aid and trust and the modern kind of society in which self-interest predominates.

See his Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1877; tr. Community and Society, 1957); selected writings, ed. by W. J. Cahnman and R. Heberle (1971).

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"Tönnies, Ferdinand." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 24 Jun. 2017 <>.

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