Ferdinand Tönnies  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ferdinand Tönnies (July 26, 1855, near Oldenswort (Eiderstedt) - April 9, 1936, Kiel, Germany) was a German sociologist noted for his work on social alienation.

He was a major contributor to sociological theory and field studies, as well as bringing Thomas Hobbes back on the agenda, by publishing his manuscripts. He is best known for his distinction between two types of social groupsGemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. He was, however, a prolific writer and also co-founder of the German Society for Sociology (being its president 1909-1933, when he was ousted by the Nazis).



Ferdinand Tönnies was born into a wealthy farmer's family in Nordfriesland in Schleswig-Holstein, then under Danish rule. He studied at the universities of Jena, Bonn, Leipzig, Berlin, and Tübingen. He received a doctorate in Tübingen in 1877 (with a Latin thesis on the ancient Siwa Oasis). Four years later he became a private lecturer at the University of Kiel. Because he had sympathized with the Hamburg dockers' strike of 1896, the conservative Prussian government considered him to be a social democrat, and Tönnies was not called to a full professorship until 1913. He held this post at the university of Kiel for only three years. He returned to the university as a professor emeritus in 1921 and taught until 1933 when he was ousted by the Nazis, due to his earlier publications that criticized them.

Tönnies, the first German sociologist proper, published over 900 works and contributed to many areas of sociology and philosophy. Many of his writings on sociological theories — including Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) — furthered pure sociology. He coined the term Voluntarism. Tönnies also contributed to the study of social change, particularly on public opinion, customs and technology, crime, and suicide. He also had a vivid interest in methodology, especially statistics, and sociological research, inventing his own technique of statistical association.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Tönnies distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft — often translated as community (or left untranslated)— refers to groupings based on feelings of togetherness and on mutual bonds, which are felt as a goal to be kept up, their members being means for this goal.. Gesellschaft — often translated as society — on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by it being instrumental for their members' individual aims and goals.

Gemeinschaft may by exemplified historically by a family or a neighborhood in a pre-modern (rural) society; Gesellschaft by a joint-stock company or a state in a modern society, i.e. the society when Tönnies lived. Gesellschaft relationships arose in an urban and capitalist setting, characterized by individualism and impersonal monetary connections between people. Social ties were often instrumental and superficial, with selfinterest and exploitation increasingly the norm.

His distinction between social groupings is based on the assumption that there are only two basic forms of an actor's will, to approve of other men. (For Tönnies, such an approval is by no means self-evident, he is quite influenced by Thomas Hobbes) Following his "essential will" ("Wesenwille"), an actor will see himself as a means to serve the goals of social grouping; very often it is an underlying, subconscious force. Groupings formed around an essential will are called a Gemeinschaft. The other will is the "arbitrary will" ("Kürwille"): An actor sees a social grouping as a means to further his individual goals; so it is purposive and future-oriented. Groupings around the latter are called Gesellschaft. Whereas the membership in a Gemeinschaft is self-fulfilling, a Gesellschaft is instrumental for its members. In pure sociology — theoretically —, these two normal types of will are to be strictly separated; in applied sociology — empirically — they are always mixed.

Tönnies’ distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, like others between tradition and modernity, has been criticized for over-generalizing differences between societies, and implying that all societies were following a similar evolutionary path, which he has never proclaimed.

Published Works

  • 1887: Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Leipzig: Fues's Verlag, 2nd ed. 1912, 8th edition, Leipzig: Buske, 1935 (reprint 2005, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft); his basic and never essentially changed study of social man; translated in 1957 as "Community and Society", ISBN 0887387500
  • 1896: Hobbes. Leben und Lehre, Stuttgart: Frommann, 1896, 3rd edn 1925; a philosophical study that reveals his indebtedness to Hobbes, many of whose writings he has edited
  • 1897: Der Nietzsche-Kultus, Leipzig: Reisland
  • 1906: Philosophische Terminologie in psychologischer Ansicht, Leipzig: Thomas
  • 1907: Die Entwicklung der sozialen Frage, Leipzig: Göschen
  • 1909: Die Sitte, Frankfurt on Main: Rütten & Loening
  • 1917: Der englische Staat und der deutsche Staat, Berlin: Curius; pioneering political sociology
  • 1921: Marx. Leben und Lehre, Jena: Lichtenstein
  • 1922: Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung, Berlin: Springer; 2nd ed. 2003, Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter (Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, vol. 14); translated as On Public Opinion. Applied sociology revealing Tönnies' thorough scholarship and his commitment as an analyst and critic of modern public opinion
  • 1924, 1926, 1929: Soziologische Studien und Kritiken, 3 vols, Jena: Fischer, a collection in three volumes of those papers he considered most relevant
  • 1926: Fortschritt und soziale Entwicklung, Karlsruhe: Braun
  • 1927: Der Selbstmord in Schleswig-Holstein, Breslau: Hirt
  • 1931: Einführung in die Soziologie, Stuttgart: Enke, his fully elaborated introduction into sociology as a social science
  • 1935: Geist der Neuzeit, Leipzig: Buske; 2nd ed. 1998 (in: Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, vol. 22); a study in applied sociology, analysing the transformation from European Middle Ages to modern times

Tönnies' Complete Works (Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe), 24 vols., since 1998, critically edited by Lars Clausen, Alexander Deichsel, Cornelius Bickel, Carsten Schlüter-Knauer, and Uwe Carstens; Publisher: Walter de Gruyter, Berlin/New York)


  • Adair-Toteff, C., Ferdinand Tönnies: Utopian Visionar, in: Sociological Theory 13: 58-65, 1996
  • Bickel, Cornelius: Ferdinand Tönnies: Soziologie als skeptische Aufklärung zwischen Historismus und Rationalismus, Opladen: Westdt. Verlag 1991 [German]
  • Bickel, Cornelius/Clausen, Lars: Tönnies in Toronto , in: C.A.U.S.A. (Christian-Albrechts-Universität, Soziologische Arbeitsberichte), No. 26, Kiel: Institut für Soziologie 1998 [English/German]
  • Cahnman, Werner J. (ed.), Ferdinand Tönnies: A New Evaluation. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill 1973
  • Cahnman, Werner J., Weber and Toennies: Comparative Sociology In Historical Perspective. New Brunswick: Transaction 1995
  • Cahnman, Werner J./Heberle, Rudolf: Ferdinand Toennies on Sociology: Pure, Applied and Empirical, 1971
  • Carstens, Uwe: Ferdinand Tönnies: Friese und Weltbürger, Norderstedt: Books on Demand 2005, ISBN 3-8334-2966-6 [Biography, German]
  • Clausen, Lars: The European Revival of Tönnies, in: Cornelius Bickel/Lars Clausen, Tönnies in Toronto, C.A.U.S.A. 26 (Christian-Albrechts-Universität • Soziologische Arbeitsberichte), Kiel 1998, p. 1-11
  • Clausen, Lars: Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), in: Christiana Albertina, 63, 2006, p. 663-69 [German]
  • Clausen, Lars/Schlüter, Carsten (eds.): Hundert Jahre "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft", Opladen: Leske + Budrich 1991 [German]
  • Deflem, Mathieu. "Ferdinand Tönnies on Crime and Society: An Unexplored Contribution to Criminological Sociology." History of the Human Sciences 12(3):87-116, 1999.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. "Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936)." In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, edited by Edward Craig. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Fechner, Rolf: Ferdinand Tönnies - Werkverzeichnis, Berlin/New York (Walter de Gryuter) 1992, ISBN 3-11-013519-1 [Bibliography, German]
  • Jacoby, Eduard Georg: Die moderne Gesellschaft im sozialwissenschaftlichen Denken von Ferdinand Tönnies, Stuttgart: Enke 1971 [German]
  • Merz-Benz, Peter-Ulrich: Tiefsinn und Scharfsinn: Ferdinand Tönnies' begriffliche Konstitution der Sozialwelt, Frankfurt on Main 1995 [German]

See also

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