Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c.1900 - c.1975: Part III – The Reception of Tonnies Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft [Community and Society]


Ferdinand Tonnies
Louis Wirth asserted that “when we use the term ‘community’ we seek to isolate and to emphasize the physical, spatial, and symbolic aspects of human group life, whereas by the term ‘society’ we wish to bring into focus and to stress the psychic, deliberative, rational, normative, and congenial phases of group existence” (Wirth 1951:295). Wirth did not understand that the period when community and society could be theoretically separated had already come to an end. This oversight is easily understood if we remember that Wirth’s statement was the general view of sociologists of the time. The work of Giddings (1910, 1922, 1924), Cooley (1897, 1918), MacIver (1932), and many others laid the groundwork for the investigation of the relationship between community and society, but not all did so in response to Tonnies’ dichotomy. Odum argued that Tonnies division was not widely held and the attention that it was currently receiving was contributing to “the neglect of the scientific study of community” (1951:292). He lamented that “as late as 1947 the distinction between society and community could still be debated at a symposium called ‘The World Community.’’’ Despite this, Tonnies’ dichotomy of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft has figured in almost every postwar sociological discussion on the nature of society. Tonnies reception by American sociology began in earnest with the postwar publication of the English translation in 1957 framed by the commentaries of Sorokin, Loomis, and Loomis and McKinney. The distinction that the commentators make between the “two modes of mentality and behavior, and two different types of society” (Sorokin 1957:vii) becomes a fundamental discursive regularity in sociological theory. For Tonnies, the dichotomy of community and society was complex and rested on five others “dealing with one’s relation to one’s fellow beings’: 1) acquaintanceship and strangeness; 2) sympathy and apathy; 3) confidence and mistrust; 4) interdependence, “the condition of being bound to others.... a feeling or a realization of moral obligation, moral imperative, or prohibition, and a righteous aversion to the consequences of incorrect, illegal and unlawful, as well as of immoral and indecent conduct and action”; and 5) the “bond” of economic relations of exchange (1957:237).
Louis Wirth

In his Table of Concepts, Loomis used these binary types to reveal Tonnies’ grand classificatory structure even as he acknowledged that Tonnies work lacks a “perfectly logically ordered construction.... The original book, to use Stoltenberg’s apt characterization, resembles the beauty of an old castle” (Loomis 1957:263). This description discloses the relation of Loomis’ Table of Concepts to Tonnies’ text, as well as the assumptions that underlie both the table and the text. Though Loomis does not acknowledge it, his Table of Concepts, while only intended to provide a schematic representation of Tonnies concepts, merges with the original text.

The Table of Concepts is on page 269.

The Table of Concepts presents Tonnies work as a structure of intricately arranged binary concepts, with some pairs hierarchically related to others, but all are equally idealized abstractions. There emerges from the Table three taxonomic concepts --- “vegetative,” “animal,” and “mental”---that modify each other in a movement from the most primitive to a modernity wherein the development of each community is recapitulated in the development of the others. This movement through successive developmental stages is constitutive of a theory of social evolution. “In the same way as the individual natural will evolves into pure thinking and rational will, which tends to dissolve and subjugate its predecessors, the original collective forms of Gemeinschaft have developed into Gesellschaft and the rational will of the Gesellschaft. In the course of history, folk culture has given rise to the civilization of the state” (Tonnies 1957:III).

In further commentary, Loomis and McKinney view the structure of the dichotomies underlying Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft as providing a paradigm for a science of community that can distinguish “fundamentally different types of social organization” and provide a “standard by which the processes of change or intermediate structural forms can be comprehended from the perspective of the continuum” (Loomis and McKinney 1957:12). It is along this continuum that sociologists established the link between the classification of social groups and their evolution. “It was Tonnies' belief that it remained for the scientific man to devise the means of freeing the majority from the role of mere machines or puppets; but that the scientist must have different eyes than those of the social engineer who constructs or copies Utopian plans and attempts to fit people into them; he must learn that society is a living, organic thing, unfolding naturally from within like a growing embryo or plant bud” (Loomis 1957). This is the preformist concept of evolution that was radically transformed by Darwin’s descent with modification but survived in both neo-Hegelianism and sociological organicism.

Franklin Giddings
The Loomis and McKinney commentary places Tonnies in a tradition of their own construction that begins with Confucius and Plato, and ends with Durkheim. In this scheme, Tonnies accomplishment was in making the differences between community and society into a sociological problem around which the discipline could orientated itself. The Table of Concepts served as both an outline of Tonnies work and an attempt to establish the outer limits of the sociological discourse of community. After the translation of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, the concepts of definition, morphological analysis, and classification of types came to dominate the sociological study of community. Tonnies became a key referent, but previous to the 1950s the work in American sociology presents a different genealogy. Giddings discussion of classification in relation to social evolution or “social telesis” a reminder to us that not everyone took the view that Gemeinschaft replaces Gesellschaft. Many American sociologists followed Giddings in understanding community as not previous to, but rather as constitutive of society, the boundaries of civilization, and the goal of social progress.

There were other theoretical perspectives on community that deserve at least a short digression. In particular, Marx and Simmel offered different approaches despite being misread on occasion so as to appear to endorse Tonnies' ideal dichotomies. For example, Marx used the words gemeinwesen and gemeinschaft almost interchangeably and usually both are translated as “community.” Marx’s gemeinwesen is literally “common character” and is used in the context of his discussion of the social relations of capital and its “the community of money” which expresses the social and historical aspects of this “common character.” In contrast, Tonnies gemeinschaft (“common stock”) implies both share-holding in an institution as well as a line of descent of a stock or “volk.”

The analysis of community in the Grundrisse described the changes in the social relations between humans. In the Grundrisse, the earth itself is the first medium of community, for it is the essence of humanness to cooperate in the social labor necessary to extract the necessities of social life. With the separation of city and country, the earth ceased to be the medium of community, at least in the cities where money rather than the authority of the chief became the representation of Gemeinwesen: “Money thereby directly and simultaneously becomes the real community [Gemeinwesen], since it is the general substance of survival for all, and at the same time, in money the community [Gemeinwesen] is at the same time a mere abstraction, a mere external, accidental thing for the individual, and at the same time merely a means for his satisfaction as an isolated individual” (Marx 1993:226).

Marx did not romanticize past social formations or suggest the restoration of a previous real or imagined community. As for the present --- our present --- there is only “the community of money” where at At the level of the everyday we do not know that we are producing and reproducing the multiple determinations of this “community of money.” In this light, the much discussed loss of community in America was not the passing of some idyllic community, but only a different formation of the gemeinwesen of money. And yet the “loss of community” was and still is denounced as the loss of something supposedly quite ancient. For Marx, community was not something lost, but something produced. And perhaps most importantly, Marx disassociated community from consanguinity and place.1 “The metropolitan type arises from the dominance of money as the form of modernity.... For Simmel modern social life is synonymous with the moment when exchange relations become the dominant social fact of metropolitan life” (Aronowitz c.1992).

Edmund Des. Brunner noted that even in the most idyllic of societies the idea of community offers no “break on self-interest.” Instead, every utopia contains a system of social relations wherein “each social rank has its customs, determined functions, rights and duties may in effect be the skillful manipulations of those in the top social ranks to maintain their existing status and privileges.” Moreover, Brunner recognized that “the earliest rural sociologists” often used terms “descriptive of community which if employed today would be said to show [Tonnies’] influence” when in fact they wrote “without benefit of Tonnies.” American sociologists had developed the “heritage of our own science... in terms of our national locale.” Tonnies would no doubt recognize similarities, but they result from convergence rather than influence (Brunner, 1942:76). Rudolf Heberle, whose essay on Tonnies was the target of Brunner’s critique, responded that while there might have been similarities between the American rural sociologists and Tonnies, the Americans never systematized their study of community and so remained empirical without becoming scientific. On the other hand, Heberle argued that Tonnies gave the discipline a system of types that could be used to classify communities. The meaning of community would be found “in studying communities and “typing” them within some larger theoretical frame of reference” (Hollingshead, 1948:144).

Next: Hollingshead and Hillery

Part I: Introduction
Part II: Understanding Community