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Ferdinand Toennies
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Ferdinand Toennies

Ferdinand Tönnies (July 26, 1855, near Oldenswort (Eiderstedt) - April 9, 1936, Kiel, Germany) was a German sociologist. 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. His distinction between two types of social groups — Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — is what Tönnies is best known for. He was, however, a prolific writer and also co-founder of the German Society for Sociology. In English his name is often spelt without umlauts: Ferdinand Toennies.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
3 Bibliography
4 see also


Ferdinand Tönnies was born into a wealthy farmers' family 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. Four years later he became a private lecturer at the University of Kiel. Because the Prussian government considered him to be a social democrat, Tönnies was not called to a 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 critizising them.

Tönnies published over 900 works and contributed to many areas of sociology and philosophy. Many of his writings on sociological theories — including Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (1887) — furthered pure sociology. 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 — 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 neighbourhood; Gesellschaft by a joint-stock company or a state.

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

see also