No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Ferdinand Tönnies

Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936) was a political philosopher, originally specializing in the work of Thomas Hobbes. Tönnies endured opposition during his working life as a social democrat; first by the Prussian government, later by the Nazis, against whom he rebelled:

"This NSDAP is a party that doesn't want to be a party and yet has to be, a party that has a foreigner as its leader who doesn't know our situation at all, a man whose unclear, enthusiastic thinking is based on ignorance of reality who, with his feeble spirit, imagines that he can solve problems on which the best minds of the nation have been working, some for centuries, some for at least a hundred years; it is a party whose ultimate goal would be the hopeless destruction of all conditions that had gradually improved until a world crisis set in, from which the wealthy United States of America was suffering just as badly as our impoverished German Reich."

Tönnies had a special interest in social change, including macro issues such as changes in technology, public norms and customs. He also studied crime and suicide statistics. Tönnies remains known mainly for this dialectic: two distinct types of social groupings:

  • Gemeinschaft (community): "preserving, affirmative relations, connections, understood as real and organic life. (...) All intimate, secret, exclusive living together (so we think) is understood as living in community." 
  • Gesellschaft (society): "The theory of society constructs a group of people who live and dwell peacefully next to one another, as if in community, but are not essentially connected but essentially separate, and while there remaining connected in spite of all divisions, here they remain separate in spite of all connections . (...) Here everyone is on their own, and in a state of tension against everyone else. The spheres of their activity and their power are sharply demarcated from one another, so that each forbids contact and entry to the other, which are regarded as equal hostilities. (...) No one will do or achieve anything for the other, no one will begrudge or give anything to the other, unless for the sake of something in return or a gift in return, which he at least respects as equal to what he has given. It is even necessary that she should be more welcome to him than what he could have kept, for only the acquisition of something better-seeming will move him to part with something good." (...) "The organic view (community) is at the same time the original and the comprehensive, so insofar as the right one." By this he means that the community is not only historically prior to society, but systematically superordinate."

    The German sociologist René König showed that this is philosophy rather than sociology. On top of this, community and society need each other. There is no opposition between them. König: "Tönnies opposed society to community simply as the negation of all essential characteristics of community, completely missing a positive determination within society itself. (...) In German, the words community and society are neither opposite nor equal, but simply of unclear and indecisive association."

    König: "While the pair of opposites community and society are viewed as the specifically German contribution to world sociology, it is largely of English origin"; above all it comes from the English legal historian Sir Henry Summer Maine (Ancient Law, 1880).

    Application to the management of safety

    Tönnies' work can be used to work towards a "proactive safety culture" (but read until the end):

    - by fostering Gemeinschaft-like relationships within an organization by building trust and fostering a sense of mutual support, in which employees feel a strong sense of community and connection with their colleagues and are more likely to look out for each other's well-being and be proactive in identifying and addressing potential safety hazards;
    - by providing opportunities for team building and developing strong communication channels;
    - by encouraging employees to report safety concerns and promoting a culture of transparency and openness.

    König's critique of Tönnies' pair of concepts shows that Gemeinschaft is not simply good and that society is not simply bad. Rather, in modern society, different perspectives and goals exist that resist complete integration or control (See Nassehi's Unbehagen). This goes for safety as well. The lack of safety can be seen as a latent dysfunction. And the control of it is often a fleeting illusion.

    Below you can see a short video from 'Der Sonntagssoziologe' about Tönnies' Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft.