Tönnies, Ferdinand 1855-1936

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TÖNNIES, Ferdinand 1855-1936

PERSONAL: Born July 6, 1855, in Eiderstedt, Germany; died April 9, 1936. Education: Studied at various German universities; earned Ph.D., 1877.

CAREER: University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany, instructor, beginning 1882.

MEMBER: German Sociological Association (president, 1909-33).


Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, 1887, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellscaft (Darmstadt, Germany), 1969, translated as Community and Society.

Schiller als Zeitbürger und Politiker, Buchverlag der "Hilfe" (Berlin, Germany), 1905.

Das Wesen der Soziologie, Zahn & Jaensch (Dresden, Germany), 1907.

Warlike England as Seen by Herself, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1915.

Weltkrieg und Völkerrecht, S. Fischer (Berlin, Germany), 1917.

Die Entwicklung der Socialen Frage Bis zum Weltkriege, W. de Gruyter & Co. (Berlin, Germany), 1919.

Der Zarismus und Seine Bundesgenossen 1914: Neue Beiträge zur Keirgsschuldfrage, Deutsche verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte (Berlin, Germany), 1922.

Soziologische Studien und Kritiken, G. Fischer (Jena, Germany), 1925.

Das Eigentum, W. Braumüller (Wien, Germany), 1926.

Desarrollo de la Cuestión Social, Editorial Labor (Barcelona, Spain), 1933.

Notas Para Un Ensayo De Sociología Política, Editorial Polis (Mexico), 1939.

Principios de Sociología, Fondo de Cultura Económica (Mexico), 1942.

Die Sitte, Keip (Frankfurt, Germany), 1970.

Also author of Thomas Hobbes, der Mann und der Denker, F. Frommann (Stuttgart, Germany).

SIDELIGHTS: German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies was a pioneer in his field. One of the first sociologists to study the history of ideas, epistemology, political science, economics, and social anthropology, he is perhaps best known for his treatise Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft—translated as Community and Society—a work that garnered little recognition during its time but which is now respected as the cornerstone upon which the modern concept of community is built.

In 1876 Tönnies began a study of the much-neglected philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. His travels to Europe led him to discover several original manuscripts of Hobbes'. Tönnies first wrote about his subject in 1879, arguing the significance of Hobbes in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. He then published a personal and professional biography of Hobbes in 1896, which has gone into several editions.

Tönnies began lecturing at the University of Kiel in 1882. Initially he gave presentations having to do with philosophy and government, but soon his academics extended to empirical social research and statistical methods. He devoted the next six years to developing his own social theory, and in 1887 published his ideas in the now-famous Community and Society. In this work Tönnies argues that there are two forms of human will: the essential will, which is the instinctive driving force, and the arbitrary will, which is the purposeful, goal-oriented force. Groups formed around essential will—that is, are self-fulfilling—are called Gemeinschaft, or community. Groups in which membership is sustained by some core goal are called Gesellschaft, or society. Examples of community are family or neighborhood; cities and states epitomize society. Tönnies contrasts the nature of social relationships in traditional societies and small organizations with those of industrial societies and larger organizations, and his conclusion is that industrialization and urbanization are a threat to moral order and society's sense of community. In his article for Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, Kieran Bonner compared the theories of Marx, Tönnies, and Weber: "Gesellschaft moves toward decadence and thus is itself ultimately doomed to collapse. Unlike Marx, Tönnies saw the potential for self-destruction, rather than self-transformation, inherent in the modern movement."

Community and Society was not warmly received upon publication. Germany under Kaiser William II preferred to deal with rapidly changing social paradigms with brute force and legislation rather than by reason and scientific social theory. It was not until after World War I, with the creation of the interwar Weimar Republic, that Community and Society went through several new editions and gained respect as an intelligent scientific text.

The bulk of the rest of Tönnies' work relates in one way or another a distinction he first proposed in 1908 between pure, applied, and empirical sociology. For Tönnies, pure sociology relates to abstract constructions pertaining to human relationships. From these constructions come more specific theories that are deducible in applied sociology. These, in turn, serve as guidelines in inductive empirical research. Practical sociology was, in his mind, completely separate, comprised of social policies and social work.

Tönnies died in 1936, having been labeled "politically unreliable" by the Nazi dictatorship.



Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

World of Sociology, Joseph M. Palmisano, editor, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.


Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, May, 1998, Keiran Bonner, "Reflexivity, Sociology, and the Rural-Urban Distintion in Marx, Tönnies, and Weber," pp. 165-189.

History of the Human Sciences, August, 1999, Matheiu Deflem, "Ferdinand Tönnies on Crime and Society: An Unexplored Contribution to Criminological Sociology," pp. 87-88.

International Journal of Social Economics, fall-winter, 1985, Tomas Riha, "The Revival of Social Idealism," pp. 167-191.

Journal of the History of Philosophy, July, 1992, S. A. Lloyd, "Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth or the Long Parliament," pp. 454-455.


Probert Encyclopaedia, http://www.probert encyclopaedia.com/ (July 17, 2002), brief synopsis of Community and Society.*