Usually taken in tandem, these German terms generally refer to Ferdinand Tönnies's ‘community’ and ‘society’ couplet, although the latter is sometimes also translated as ‘association’ (see Tönnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, 1887). According to Tönnies's thesis on European modernization, the passage from the former to the latter proceeds through a rationalizing process, involving a move from relationships based upon family and guild to those based on rationality and calculation. Gemeinschaft was the world of close, emotional, face-to-face ties, attachment to place, ascribed social status, and a homogeneous and regulated community. Gesellschaft has come to be linked with urbanism, industrial life, mobility, heterogeneity, and impersonality. Much of the debate about the concept of community has been structured in these terms (see C. Bell and H. Newby, Community Studies, 1971).
In essence, the concepts constitute ideal types, as do similar notions of tradition and modernity. In practice, elements of both are to be found in differing proportions in most social relations and societies. The intellectual heritage of the concepts of traditional and modern societies is usually traced to Émile Durkheim's distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity (and the attendant forms of collective conscience), but is also (and perhaps most clearly) to be found in the writings of Max Weber, where status, connubium, commensality, and style of life contrast with interests, economic groups, and classes. Parsonsian value-orientations—for example the distinctions between particularism and universalism, ascription and achievement—also grew out of this basic pair of polar concepts, all geared to understanding the essence of institutional and agency change attendant on modernization. See also Parsons.