you say mechanical and I say organic…you say organic and I say mechanical…let’s call the whole thing off!


While recently reading Pitirim Sorokin’s (unfortunately out of print) Contemporary Sociological Theories (the best theory “textbook” I’ve ever seen). I discovered an obscure classical theory factoid that struck me as pretty funny. In Gemmeinschaft und Gesellschaft, as everyone knows, classical German theorist Ferdinand Tonnies distinguished between two types of society: one a close-knit group united by bonds of blood, soil and tradition which was “natural” and therefore “organic,” (Gemmeinschaft) the other one an “artificial” society which was characterized by opportunistic contact and self-seeking behavior in which individuals only connected with one another for purely instrumental purposes (Gesellschaft), because this type of social arrangement is not natural but a product of man-made conventions, Tonnies referred to it as “mechanical.”

Now, as every undergrad sociology major fresh off their theory course knows, Durkheim also distinguished between these two types of social forms, only that he gave them opposite names! Tonnies organic society becomes “mechanical solidarity” and his artificial mechanism becomes “organic solidarity.” Sorokin (1928: 491) wryly notes “[o]ne cannot help thinking that Durkheim intentionally gave to his social types names which were opposite to those given by Tonnies” (italics added).

What probably is not as well known, is of course that Tonnies and Durkheim were of fairly opposite political stripes. Tonnies was a classic German “romantic conservative” who viewed democracy, capitalism, and everything which smelled of modernity as foul and despicable (a recent book by Dick Pels has a great section on this particular political tradition). Durkheim was on the other hand, a progressive, pro-big-government “liberal-democratic socialist” (in a moderate welfare state sense, not in a Marxist sense), who while acknowledging that modernity had its issues (anomie, etc.) viewed the contemporary world as a definite improvement over the past. No surprise therefore (not to get too Derridian) that they gave the “marked” (disliked) term of the binary the “mechanical” epithet and they gave their privileged term the nice “organic” compliment!

Written by Omar

December 21, 2006 at 2:55 pm

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Omar, this is the kind of thing that throws me for a tizzy when I teach social theory. The mechanical/organic distinction is horrible terminology and I curse Durkheim AND Tonnies for using it. I also curse Durkheim for writing Rules of Sociological Method. How can the author of the sublime Evolution of Educational Thought have written such a wretched tome?

    While I am at it, I’ll throw hexes at other social theorists who invented horrible terminology: Luhmann’s autopoieses, Derrida’s difference and Pareto’s theory of residues (thankfully unused and obscure). I also hex anyone, including myself, who has used “post modern” in any essay or paper, except those who point out it’s vagueness and trendiness.


    Fabio Rojas

    December 21, 2006 at 6:48 pm

  2. I hex Marx for his labor theory of value and anyone who tries to resuscitate it with fancy mathematics.



    December 21, 2006 at 8:31 pm

  3. Brayden, are you familiar with analytical Marxism? You would definitely not like them. Very hexable.


    Fabio Rojas

    December 21, 2006 at 8:50 pm

  4. I remember being happy to find this out a while ago, because I had always thougt that the Durkheimian organic and mechanical labels were backwards.



    December 22, 2006 at 3:48 pm

  5. Merry christmas to you all :-) Omar, Durkheim’s distinction is a definitely a different one than that of Ferdinand Tönnies. Right, Tönnies distinguishes between “Gemeinschaft” and Gesellschaft, the first being the authentical type like what community should be, whereas “Gesellschaft” is the more formalized and artificial type of people being confronted with one another. Tönnies has introduced “Gemeinschaft” and “Gesellschaft” as static idealtypic categories, contrary to Webers terms “Vergemeinschaftung” and “Vergesellschaftung”. The difference is basically that Vergesllschaftung always includes an element of Vergemeinschaftung (e.g. the feeling of community among the traders in McKenzie’s financial markets) and Vergemeinschaftung always includes an element of Vergesellschaftung (e.g. a blogging community having to introduce some procedural rules so that everything works right). And Weber leaves out the better-worse-classification in the sense that “Gemeinschaft” is the real thing and “Gesellschaft” is something that lacks authenticity.

    Durkheim’s distinction between “mechanical” and “organical” solidarity has a different content, because its object is the feeling of communality or belongingness, the structural conditions within a given collectivity to create this feeling, the relationship between the collectivity and the individual and the individual’s rights. Durkheim, too, defines the relationship of “organic” and “mechanic” solidarity, but, other than Weber, this is a one-way, not mutual relationship. Organical solidarity needs some remains of mechanical solidarity to exist, but organical develops out develops out of mechanical solidarity and therefore mechanical solidarity cannot need organical solidarity.

    Of course, these terms are analytical categories and need to be put in context. E.g. we might speak of European solidarity as organic solidarity contrary to mechanic solidarity we associate with the European nation states (self orientation, specifity, affective neutrality, universalims, performativity orientation, as presented by good-old Parsons ;-). If we went 100 years back, the nation state would be the modern thing and the traditional village confining the actors scope of action would be associated with mechanical solidarity.



    December 26, 2006 at 2:18 am

  6. Yesterday, I forgot a detail about Weber which is important: “Vergemeinschaftung” in Weber’s Words is being together based on a commonly shared feeling of communality, belongingness or what you might call it. “Vergesellschaftung” in Weber’s is being together on the grounds of mutual interests and/or contract, e.g. for market exchange. So, the basis of Vergemeinschaftung and Vergesellschaftung is different but both are complementary; because they’re ideal types you might find Vergemeinschaftung and Vergesellschaftung in one particular empirical case.



    December 26, 2006 at 9:34 pm

  7. I have to say I am rather confused about Durkheimian theory re: community/society.

    I was wondering if there was any concensus as to which sociologists had labelled the change ‘correctly’.



    February 4, 2010 at 1:56 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: