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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. 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.


Ferdinand Tönnies was born on
26 July 1855. He was born into a wealthy family in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Tönnies studied at the universities of Jena, Bonn, Leipzig, Berlin and Tübingen.He received a doctorate in Tübingen in 1877. Four year later he became a private lecturer at the University of Kiel. Because he was thought to be a social-democrat Tönnies was not made a professor 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 stayed until 1933 when he was dismissed by the Nazi.

Tönnies published over 900 works and contributed to many areas of sociology. Many of his writings on sociological theories — including Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — furthered pure sociology. Tönnies also contributed to the study of social change, particularly on public opinion, customs and technology. He also had a vivid interest into methodology and sociological research where he invented his own technique of statistical association.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Tönnies distinguished between two types of social groups. Gemeinschaft — often translated as community — refers to groups that are sustained by an instrumental goal. Gesellschaft — often translated as society — on the other hand, refers to groups based on a feeling of togetherness. The exemplar of a Gemeinschaft is a family or a neighbourhood; Gesellschaft is exemplified by a city or a state.

The distinction between social groups bases on the assumption that there are two basic forms of human will. There is the essential will which is an underlying, instinctive force. Groups formed around an essential will are called Gemeinschaft. The other will is the arbitrary will which is purposive and future-oriented. Groups around the latter are called Gesellschaft. Whereas the membership in a Gemeinschaft is self-fulfilling, a Gesellschaft is sustained by an instrumental goal.