The Concept of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Understanding the Difference Between Community and Society

The Village Fete by Jean Charles Meissonier symbolizes Gemeinschaft, or the German word for community that refers to social relationships rooted in tradition in small, rural communities.
The Village Fete by Jean Charles Meissonier. Photo by Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis via Getty Images

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are German words that mean community and society respectively. Introduced in classical social theory, they are used to discuss the different kinds of social ties that exist in small, rural, traditional societies versus large-scale, modern, industrial ones.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft in Sociology

Early German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies introduced the concepts of Gemeinschaft (Gay-mine-shaft) and Gesellschaft (Gay-zel-shaft) his 1887 book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Tönnies presented these as analytic concepts which he found useful for studying the differences between the kinds of rural, peasant societies that were being replaced across Europe by modern, industrial ones. Following this, Max Weber further developed these concepts as ideal types in his book Economy and Society  (1921) and in his essay "Class, Status, and Party." For Weber, they were useful as ideal types for tracking and studying the changes in societies, social structure, and social order over time.

The Personal and Moral Nature of Social Ties within a Gemeinschaft 

According to Tönnies, Gemeinschaft, or community, is comprised of personal social ties and in-person interactions that are defined by traditional social rules and result in an overall cooperative social organization. The values and beliefs common to a ​Gemeinschaft are organized around appreciation for personal ties, and because of this, social interactions are personal in nature. Tönnies believed that these kinds of interactions and social ties were driven by emotions and sentiments (Wesenwille), by a sense of moral obligation to others, and were common to rural, peasant, small-scale, homogenous societies. When Weber wrote about these terms in Economy and Society, he suggested that a Gemeinschaft is produced by the "subjective feeling" that is tied to affect and tradition.

The Rational and Efficient Nature of Social Ties within a Gesellschaft

On the other hand, Gesellschaft, or society, is comprised of impersonal and indirect social ties and interactions that are not necessarily carried out face-to-face (they can be carried out via telegram, telephone, in written form, through a chain of command, etc.). The ties and interactions that characterize a Gesellschaft are guided by formal values and beliefs that are directed by rationality and efficiency, as well as by economic, political, and self-interests. While social interaction is guided by Wesenwille, or seemingly naturally occurring emotions in a Gemeinschaft, in a GesellschaftKürwille, or rational will, guides it.

This kind of social organization is common to large-scale, modern, industrial, and cosmopolitan societies that are structured around large organizations of government and private enterprise, both of which often take the form of bureaucracies. Organizations and the social order as a whole are organized by a complex division of labor, roles, and tasks.

As Weber explained, such a form of social order is the result of "rational agreement by mutual consent," meaning members of society agree to participate and abide the given rules, norms, and practices because rationality tells them that they benefit by doing so. Tönnies observed that the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and religion that provide the basis for social ties, values, and interactions in a Gemeinschaft are displaced by scientific rationality and self-interest in a Gesellschaft. While social relations are cooperative in a Gemeinschaft it is more common to find competition in a Gesellschaft.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft Today

While it is true that one can observe distinctly different types of social organization prior to and after the industrial age, and when comparing rural versus urban environments, it's important to recognize that Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are ideal types. This means that though they are useful conceptual tools for seeing and understanding how society works, they are rarely if ever observed exactly as they are defined, nor are they mutually exclusive. Instead, when you look at the social world around you, you are likely to see both forms of social order present. You may find that you are part of communities in which social ties and social interaction are guided by a sense of traditional and moral responsibility while simultaneously living within a complex, post-industrial society.