Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

From New World Encyclopedia

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are sociological categories introduced by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies for two types of human association. Gemeinschaft is found in small social structures such as the family, tribe, or village where human relationships are prized and the welfare of the whole has precedence over the individual. Industrial societies, on the other hand, are characterized by Gesellschaft, where human associations are governed by rationality and self-interest.

Individuals and movements throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have sought in various ways to reclaim Gemeinschaft amidst the cold rationality of Gesellschaft that characterizes industrial society. In many democracies, a vital locus for Gemeinschaft lies in "mediating institutions" such as churches, social clubs, and service organizations. These small voluntary associations provide a necessary bridge between the instinctive relations of the family and the rational behavior expected in large-scale political and economic institutions.

According to Tönnies' conceptualization, all societies contain both types of association; however, the emphasis may be more on one than the other. Striving to achieve a society exhibiting the characteristics of only one type is a misunderstanding of his work. More important for the development of a successful society is the effort to harmonize the two aspects, and thus to ensure that both individual goals and the needs of the society as a whole are satisfied, while maintaining the elements of care and concern for each person as members of one human family.

Tönnies’ concept

Tönnies remains famous for his conception of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, referring to two types of social groupings: Gemeinschaft—often translated as community—refers to groupings based on a feeling of togetherness. Gesellschaft—often translated as society—on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by an instrumental goal. Gemeinschaft may by exemplified by a family or a neighborhood community; Gesellschaft by a business or a nation.

This distinction between social groupings is based on Tönnies' assumption that there are only two basic forms of will: "Essential will" and "arbitrary will." The "essential will" (Wesenwille) or "natural will," leads the actor to see himself as a means to serve the goals of a social grouping. Very often this will is an underlying, subconscious, almost instinctive force, that motivates people to volunteer their time and to serve others. Groupings formed around an essential will are called Gemeinschaft, in what Tönnies understood to be an organic type of structure.

The other type of will is the "arbitrary will" (Kürwille) or "rational will." An actor here sees the social group as a means to further his individual goals, and so it is purposive and future-oriented, based on conscious decision-making. Groupings around the latter are called Gesellschaft, and their structure can be understood as based on social contracts.


Gemeinschaft (often translated as "community") is an association in which individuals are oriented to the large association as much as, if not more than, to their own self interest. Furthermore, individuals in Gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores (or norms), or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the association to each other and to the association at large. These associations are marked by "unity of will" (Tönnies 2001, 22).

Gemeinschaften are broadly characterized by a moderate division of labor, strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce social control externally, due to the collective sense of loyalty the individuals feel for their society. Order exists based on natural law, resulting from the commonly held beliefs of the members of the Gemeinschaft. Historically, Gemeinschaft societies were racially and ethnically homogeneous.

Tönnies saw the family as the most perfect expression of Gemeinschaft. He expected, however, that Gemeinschaft could be based on shared place and shared belief as well as kinship, and he included globally dispersed religious communities as possible examples of Gemeinschaft.


Gesellschaft (often translated as "society" or "civil society"), in contrast to Gemeinschaft, describes associations in which, for the individual, the larger association never takes on more importance than individual self interest. Gesellschaft is maintained through individuals acting in their own self interest. A modern business is a good example of Gesellschaft. The workers, managers, and owners may have very little in terms of shared orientations or beliefs, they may not care deeply for the product they are making, but it is in everyone's self interest to come to work to make money, and thus, the business continues. In business usage, Gesellschaft is the German term for "company."

Unlike Gemeinschaften, Gesellschaften emphasize secondary relationships rather than familial or community ties, and there is generally less individual loyalty to the society. Social cohesion in Gesellschaften typically derives from a more elaborate division of labor. Such societies are considered more susceptible to class conflict as well as racial and ethnic conflicts.

Order in Gesellschaften is maintained by commonly held fear of reprisal from the laws accepted in the community.

Progression from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft

Tönnies used the concept of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to explain the evolution of society from ancient to modern. He saw ancient society as predominantly rooted in the essential will, where families, tribes, and villages functioned around common heritage. People essentially worked and related to each other for the benefit of the whole group.

As human beings develop personal goals and strive to better their social status, the common mores begin to change and groups grow to oppose one another. Laws change in order to reflect this competition and members of societies become entrenched in a social contract to which they are all beholden in the name of efficiency for advanced economic interests. The focus of the mental energies of the members of this society shifts from the invisible (gods, spirits, and so on) to the visible (material goods, money, among others).

Thus, in more developed societies, the relationships between people are based on arbitrary will, with the social structures formed around common interests. People in such societies predominantly base their relationships on the external result of an impersonal transaction, rather than on care and concern for the well-being of the other, and the group as a whole.

Tönnies, however, did not believe that the progression from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft would ever be complete, since he expected there to be elements of both forms in every society.

Durkheim's use of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

French sociologist Emile Durkheim adopted the concepts of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft in his work The Division of Labor. Durkheim used the terms "mechanical" and "organic" societies, in somewhat of a reversal of the way Tönnies conceptualized the evolution of societies. Mechanical societies were characterized by a common consciousness of its members, while organic societies are marked by specialization and individual consciousness.

Mechanical society

Durkheim wrote that people in primitive societies were bound together by common held beliefs, namely religion. Individuals held tightly to tradition and felt great loyalty to their community. He argued that traditional societies were "mechanical," held together by the fact that everyone was more or less the same, and hence had things in common. Like the atoms in inorganic crystals, arranged in regularly ordered lattices, members of such societies did not move around of their own accord. In traditional societies, argued Durkheim, the "collective consciousness" entirely subsumes individual consciousness—norms are strong and behavior is well-regulated. Each action taken by individuals is for the good of the community, and individuals feel morally obligated to take such actions. People do not act because of the orders of some authority, but out of solidarity, feelings of belonging, and desire to support and advance the well-being of their community.

Organic society

As populations and cities grow, organic societies develop. Performing all the tasks of everyday life becomes impossible and thus the division of labor is born. In modern societies, Durkheim argued, the highly complex division of labor resulted in "organic" solidarity. Different specializations in employment and social roles created dependencies that tied people to one another, since people no longer could count on filling all of their needs by themselves. This specialization reduces the collective consciousness of the members of society. Members of organic societies are more dependent on each other than in mechanical societies, as not everyone is proficient in all activities required of life. Organic societies give their members freedom to choose their own ideology and career as there is no definitive belief system to adhere to. As a consequence, however, members of these societies pursue personal goals and interests, and may make them the priority over shared goals or common needs of the society as a whole.

Application to society

Since, for Tönnies, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are "normal types," or examples of pure sociology, concepts that he did not expect to be found in a pure form in actual society. Tönnies' expectation was accurate.

Even in societies famous for guaranteeing the freedoms of its citizens, such as the United States with its Bill of Rights, or France during the French Revolution, there still exists some level of public consciousness. This consciousness can be seen in public reaction to various actions, such as the outrage against major companies whose leadership was financially irresponsible, leading to the loss not only of jobs, but also the retirement savings of many employees.

At the same time, no perfect Gemeinschaft exists. Even in the simplest village societies in the third world there exists some division of labor as well as political discord.

Although Tönnies' conceptualization of Gemeinschaft received much public interest during the period of after World War I in which increasing industrialization caused societal discontent. Gemeinschaft was unrealistically viewed as a purer, more "perfect" type of society to which a number of intellectuals advocated a return. However, this was based on a misunderstanding of Tönnies' work, improperly applying his concepts to the actual situation.

Thus, it is a mistake to regard these classifications as examples of real societies, and to strive to make any society purely Gemeinschaft or purely Gesellschaft. A society that can harmoniously combine the two forms of association may prove to be the most satisfying and efficient.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1997. The Division of Labor in Society. The Free Press. ISBN 0684836386.
  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. 2001. Community and Civil Society. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521561191.
  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe. Berlin/New York. Retrieved June 29, 2007.
  • Truzzi, Marcello. 1971. Sociology: The Classic Statements. New York: Oxford University Press.


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