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Reverting to earlier comfort

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Our counteraction to gesellschaft

Since the agricultural revolution, societies have been getting more complex, with increasing division of labour, increased hierarchy of power, prestige and wealth, increased proportion of interaction being between roles, or partial people, instead of between whole people.

Tönnies called this a shift between gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society).

Today we see varying degrees of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft in organisations, communities and societies.

The overall trend is still towards less gemeinschaft and more gesellschaft; towards more urbanism.

Biologically, we humans have not changed much in over 50,000 years, yet the agricultural revolution, and its resulting increase in social complexity, ie in urbanization, has been going on for about 12,000 years.

It appears we evolved into a species that was designed socially to live in small groups where everybody knows each other, and where we know each other as whole people rather than as roles.

We feel more comfortable in gemeinschaft than in gesellschaft.

This is consistent with another generality. We tend to be more comfortable with things we know or with which we are familiar, people, things, places, than with the unfamiliar. “Better the devil we know, . . . “ goes the old cliché.

So while our society is getting more formal, more regulated, more cold, more gesellschaft, we are inventing new ways to make our lives to more resemble gemeinschaft.

In an informal way, we see this in the cities, where we know the deli clerk as a single role, sales person, we learn her or his name, and use it when we go into the deli to get our morning snack or lunch.

Some people learn and use the names of their bus drivers, postal clerks, and others in service industries that they see on a regular basis.

Along with that we find the creation and development of constructed communities.

Often these are voluntary associations where members share a common interest or goals.

Clubs, associations, congregations, sports clubs, service clubs like Rotary or Lions, chess clubs, gay pride, model railroad clubs, campaigns like the United Way, unions, political parties, discussion groups, all of these can be, and often are, constructed communities.

At the extreme end of such associations are the temporary celebrations of national football games, the Grey Cup, or hockey games, the Stanley Cup, or Commonwealth and Olympic Games events.

In the streets people often wear clothing they do not usually wear.  They greet each other, although strangers, and shout their pleasure at "their" team winning, or their disappointment at "their" team losing.

With the advent of the Internet, and rapid communication, electronically, around the world, new associations are being formed where there are no geographic boundaries.

While all of our communities and societies are becoming more complex, with increased gesellschaft, at the local and individual level, we are responding with a counteraction. We can safely call this “neo gemeinschaft.”

See: What is Community?
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© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2012.07.11

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