Introduction to the Transaction Edition (Custom by Ferdinand Tönnies)

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID

This is a copy of the Introduction to Ferdinand Tönnies, Custom: An Essay on Social Codes. Transaction Publishers, 2014 edition. Also available as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2014. "Introduction to the Transaction Edition." Pp. ix-xvii iCustom: An Essay on Social Codes, by Ferdinand Tönnies. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. 

It can only be considered a testament to the enduring relevance of the sociology of Ferdinand Tönnies that his 1909 work Custom (Die Sitte) has been selected for republication in the prestigious Law and Society series published by Transaction Publishers under the admirable guidance of Javier Treviño. The fact that this particular work of Tönnies is less widely recognized as a classic contribution in the grand canon of law and society scholarship makes this new edition all the more important and useful. For scholars interested in the study of law from a sociological and, more broadly, social-science viewpoint will find much food for thought in the work of Tönnies, in general, and in this book, in particular. Unlike Tönnies’s general studies on sociology and society, moreover, his book on custom has the advantage of presenting a concise and accessible introduction into several key elements from the broader sociological thought of Tönnies, which can benefit both the theoretical understanding of law as an object of social-science reflection as well as advance empirical insights into the multiple dimensions and roles of law in society. In this Introduction, I will situate the core elements of Tönnies’s book on custom within the wider contours of his oeuvre and offer some food for thought on the continued value of this study on custom as an object of sociological reflection.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Ferdinand Tönnies was born in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, in 1855. He received his doctorate in 1877 and was thereafter primarily associated with the University of Kiel, albeit it mostly on a non-permanent basis. Unhindered by all too many formal teaching duties and other academic obligations, Tönnies was a highly independent and extremely prolific writer, with a total of over 900 publications devoted to a wide variety of topics in sociology, philosophy, and politics. Unlike some of his famous contemporaries such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, Tönnies also enjoyed a very lengthy life, though sadly reaching the advent of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, whereupon he was formally dismissed from his university position. Tönnies died in Kiel in 1936 at the age of 80.

            Tönnies’s first book is his renowned study Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Tönnies 1887). The fame of this book is somewhat tragic, however, as it is a work that is both cited frequently as well as generally understood poorly. The book is primarily a sociological study on the evolution of society, arguably the first of its kind to move intellectually from a normative social philosophy to a scientific sociology of societal change and modernity. Tönnies specifically outlines a model of change whereby societies evolve from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (society). Gemeinschaft-like social formations are primarily agricultural and centered around small villages, whereas Gemeinschaft types are industrial and large in scale with sizeable metropolitan areas.

            The suggested transformation would not be unique to the sociology of the classical era were it not for its underlying theory of the individual in society and its specific concept of evolution. Whereas Durkheim conceived of the transformation towards modern society in terms of a transition from mechanical to organic solidarity at the social, especially cultural level, and whereas Weber sketched a process of societal rationalization in terms of the changing form in which social organization takes place, Tönnies uniquely complements his sociological theory with an accompanying social psychology. Specifically, Tönnies develops a theory of the human will to suggest that Gemeinschaft societies are oriented around an essential-will (Wesenwille) which readily emanates from a person’s character and temper. Gesellschaft formations, in contrast, are centered on the capacities of persons with an arbitrary-will (Kürwille) to make decisions based on a differentiation of means and ends. The linking of this social-psychology of will to a sociology of society is a contribution to social theory that sets Tönnies apart from other classics, who more typically treat these two elements of human existence as separate and unconnected.

            Moreover, Tönnies’s conception of societal evolution is peculiar as he insists that the social types of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft must not be considered as opposing polar types, but rather are to be conceived in a continuum of development as variably evolved formations that are ideal-typically conceived as pure types precisely to allow for empirical variation to be revealed from case to case (Tönnies 1931, 1971). Tönnies thought of the transition from one to the other type as analogous to the maturation from childhood to adulthood. Theoretically, therefore, Tönnies also merged various strands of social thought and gave a place to both organic theories as well as rationalist models of society that were more typically held to be in opposition.

Custom, Law, and Culture

Along with the conceptual distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Tönnies demarcated various social processes and institutions, including law and custom (Tönnies 1931, 1971). Specifically, Tönnies advances a sociological theory of law from common law to statutory law. Whereas common law is guided primarily by existing customary practices, statutory law is deliberately constructed in view of reaching certain ends that, most typically, are determined by the state. Thus, common law is typical for Gemeinschaft societies, whereas statutory law develops with the transition towards Gesellschaft. Along with this legal change, Tönnies also specifies a criminological perspective that differentiates between crimes that immediately reflect a person’s passions and are usually violent in nature (typical for Gemeinschaft) and those that are instrumentally oriented at gaining profit (typical for Gesellschaft) (Deflem 1999). Importantly, Tönnies does not suggest that one societal type and, along with it, one type of law and one type of crime would replace earlier forms. Instead, Tönnies argues, even the most advanced Gesellschaft formations retain Gemeinschaft qualities. Thus, the relative weight of state-determined law (on the basis of formal legislation) as compared to other aspects of law (that remain related to custom) is, according to Tönnies, always empirically variable.

            Accordingly, Tönnies introduces the notion —of central importance to the present study— that custom remains an important category of thought even, and especially, in the analysis of the most advanced Gesellschaft-type societies. In fact, Tönnies’s study on custom is specifically devoted to the study of customary practices in modern Gesellschaft, where custom co-exists with other, more rationalized forms of social organization. One can very well argue and defend the notion with Tönnies that the problem of the relationship between custom and society is most acutely posed in those societies which are not wholly dictated by customary practices. For whereas custom is exhaustive of all social relations in societies that are primarily organized as Gemeinschaft, only in Gesellschaft societies can there be a relation between custom and law (as well as other institutions) that is variable and potentially raises more and less problematic issues.

            As Tönnies argues in the opening pages of his book, custom (Sitte) is theoretically conceived as involving certain factual practices, normative aspirations, and will-related dispositions. As such, custom refers at once to the real, the ideal, and the desirable, and it connects objective with inter-subjective and subjective aspects of social life.

            The differentiation of the three aspects of custom is in Tönnies’s terminology an example of pure sociology, engaged in clarifying the foundational concepts of sociological thought (Tönnies 1931, 1971). The majority of Tönnies’s observations in the remainder of his study operate at the level of applied sociology, oriented at a deductively arrived understanding of the dynamics and interrelationships among various social events and institutions. On some occasions, also, Tönnies deepens his analysis with specific illustrations of certain concrete instances of the discussed dynamics as an effort in empirical sociology. Naturally, the three forms of pure, applied, and empirical sociology mutually inform each other, but Custom is primarily a work in applied sociology.

            At the level of applied sociology, Tönnies analyzes custom in relation to a number of social phenomena and institutions. Specifically, Tönnies discusses a variety of interesting issues involved with age and generations, religion, gender, family, and fashion. His observations are many, not extremely tightly organized, but presented with an excitement and a revealing quality that many contemporary scholars will and should envy. Of special note is that Tönnies’s strategy of applied sociology allows for both analytical distinctions to be made and empirical connections to be revealed. Thus, for instance, Tönnies posits the interconnections between the ancient, the sacred, and the natural in custom.

            Of most distinct relevance from the viewpoint of the study of law is that Tönnies in this work shows how the relationship between custom and law changes with the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. In social formations predominantly organized as Gemeinschaft, law is established by custom (as customary or common law) and consequently constituted as natural. By contrast, Gesellschaft social formations witness a separation of law from custom, so that both customary and statutory law are differentiated from custom itself by being commanding and ideal rather than, as in the case of custom, necessarily obeyed and real (see Tönnies’s exposition in this book, pp. 65-67).

            In the above sense, Tönnies’s work shows that in Gesellschaft there remains a special need for Gemeinschaft and that, indeed, custom contains both real (factual) and ideal (moral) components on both the inter-subjective and subjective level. In the German language, it is to be noted, these important connections are immediately revealed in the terminology of Sitte, Sittlichkeit, and Sittengesetz, translated in English as, respectively, custom, ethical life, and morality laws. As clarified in the original Preface to this translation by Borenstein (pp. 5-7), the German word Sitte as such readily brings out the moral aspects of custom (as mores) and the association with the (moral) obligations of ethical lifeforms and those legal regulations that apply to common decency (good morals). At the criminological level, etymological affinities are likewise revealed as the control of ethical offenses or moral crimes (Sittenverbrechen) is charged to vice squads or morals police (Sittenpolizei). Tönnies’s narrative masterfully brings out these intimate connections in his work, so that the translation of his ideas into the English language, even in non-similar terms, should provide no obstacle to their proper understanding.

Contemporary Relevance

Readers of this new Transaction edition of Tönnies’s Custom have the rare privilege to not only read and study Tönnies’s ideas but also of being able to situate and discuss this particular work, more broadly than ever possible, in terms of the history and systematics of sociology, specifically, sociological theory and the sociology of law. The many observations Tönnies makes in his book are beyond any doubt worthy of our attention today. In fact, Tönnies’s observations on the relevance of gender and fashion give his now century-old work an unexpected contemporary flavor, even when some of its precise statements will need to be adjusted in the light of empirical changes in society and theoretical developments in sociology. It would be foolish to argue otherwise, but it would be foolish as well to not continue to see the analytical value of Tönnies’s work. The readers will need to make their own independent judgments on the value of Tönnies’s work for our time, but at least three elements can be forwarded as worthy areas for further investigation.

            At the level of pure sociology, one is struck by the sophistication of the analytical distinction Tönnies introduces in his conceptualization of custom as having objective, inter-subjective, and subjective dimensions. In modern sociology, this idea has been most visibly influential through a related —and at least in part explicitly to Tönnies indebted— theoretical treatment in the work of Talcott Parsons (1971), who distinguishes culture from society and personality (and behavioral organism). Again partly extending from this groundbreaking formulation, Jürgen Habermas (1981) similarly differentiates in his concept of the lifeworld the three aspects of cultural reproduction, social integration, and socialization. As such, it can be seen that the analytical distinction between objective, inter-subjective, and subjective aspects of custom and other social formations, as Tönnies introduced it in this work, has remained to be of considerable analytical value throughout the development of sociology.

            More generally, the analytical value of the sociological concepts of Tönnies can only remain an object of continued attention in social-science scholarship. This intellectual strategy, to treat the classics as contemporaries, was set in motion in modern sociology most distinctly by Parsons (1937) in his The Theory of Social Action, in which Tönnies ironically had only a modest place. However, Parsons’ voluntaristic conception of action, his theory of the pattern variables, and the AGIL-model of the social system are deeply indebted to Tönnies’s concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, as most clearly revealed in Parsons’s central notion of societal community (in German: gesellschaftliche Gemeinschaft).

            Turning to the levels of applied and empirical sociology, at least two avenues of theory and research are possible in line with Tönnies’s work on custom. First, at the most general level, Tönnies illustrates the most foundational aspect of any sociology by situating custom within society. In the sociology of law, this notion is reflected in a conceptualization of law in society and the study of law in relation to other social institutions (Deflem 2008). More specifically, Tönnies takes on an important task, which is also practiced in much of contemporary sociology of law, by relating custom to various aspects of culture, such as religion, gender, and family. Focused on the transition to Gemeinschaft, Tönnies’s ideas remain useful today by suggesting an approach to study, and formulate questions that need to be asked about, the relation of custom as well as law with aspects of the hyper-diverse and occasionally fragmented cultural manifestations of today. Tönnies’s work thus provides an avenue to marry the insights of the sociology of law with those of the sociology of culture, two of today’s arguably most exciting specialty areas in the discipline.

            Second, on a more concrete and empirical level, it is remarkable to note how much sensitivity Tönnies already showed towards the societal relevance of cultural phenomena related to age, gender, family, and fashion. Such cultural dimensions have not always been duly embraced in sociology, at least not until much more recent times. In so many ways, Tönnies’s work is in this respect well ahead of its times. It remains up to contemporary sociologists, of course, to estimate how Tönnies’s study can and should be relevant today for research on such important cultural topics as the changing place and role of the sexes and trends and variations in fashion. From such work, the continued value of Tönnies’s sociology could ultimately be demonstrated in the sociological study of law, custom, gender, and, indeed, fame and celebrity.

  • Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. “Ferdinand Tönnies on Crime and Society: An Unexplored Contribution to Criminological Sociology.” History of the Human Sciences 12: 87–116. 
  • ———. 2008. Sociology of Law: Visions of a Scholarly Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Habermas, Jürgen. 1981. The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2, System and Lifeworld. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 
  • Parsons, Talcott. [1937] 1949. The Structure of Social Action. Second edition. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press. 
  • ———. 1971. The System of Modern Societies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 
  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. 1931. Einführung in die Soziologie. Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke. 
  • ———. [1887] 1935. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundbegriffen der reinen Soziologie, 8th edition. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft; English translation: Fundamental Concepts of Sociology (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). New York: American Book Company, 1940. 
  • ———. 1971. On Sociology: Pure, Applied and Empirical, edited by W.J. Cahnman and R. Heberle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

See also other writings on culture.