Still, there’s no going back. On the contrary, it seems inevitable that societies move from what the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies called Gemeinschaft, or a society more like Italy, to Gesellschaft, or a place more like America. Gemeinschaft refers to something like village (if not clan) life; what mattered was who you were and whether you belonged. In Gemeinschaft local rather than universal standards prevail, cooperation is emphasized over competition, and the goal is simply to keep this system of mutual regard and support going. The family is perhaps the ultimate example.
But the future belongs to Gesellschaft, and the decline of the family in Western nations reflects this individualistic trend. What matters in Gesellschaft is not who you are but what can you do. Gesellschaft is open, meritocratic, diverse, mobile, competitive, anxious and most of all modern. It’s the way we live now. It’s a great place, free and bursting with possibility, though fraught as well, since people are always having to prove themselves, and one’s offspring can’t assume their parents’ status.
1. I wonder how much this reflects all of Italy or an older image of the country. Birth rates are down for the whole country but particularly so in the north where life may be more closely tied to northern Europe.
2. It may be easy to paint the United States with this broad brush but there has always been a tension between individual and community life. While Americans have rightly often been portrayed as individuals, an image burnished by Hollywood and other cultural works, commentators from de Toqueville onward have noted the propensity of Americans to join civic groups (Bowling Alone notwthstanding).
3. This is a linear view of history: we have inevitably moved from Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and aren’t going back. This may be the trend since the Industrial Revolution and what piqued the attention of many of the early sociologists but it is not necessarily a process that will continue ad infinitum.