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Community–society Continua

Community–society Continua

Status and contract

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Mechanical and organic solidarity

The folk-urban continuum

Parsons’ “pattern variables”


Since the emergence of the cities of antiquity, social philosophers have attempted to characterize and account for the contrast between tribal or rural life and the ways of city men. During the past century, the age-old contrast has been conceived in terms of pairs of societal types, such as rural-urban or primitive-civilized. The poles of such a pair are characterized by the opposite extremes of type-defining variables, such as the degree of importance of kinship or the extent of division of labor in a society. The range of variation of such characteristics creates a conceptual “continuum” between the opposed polar types. Because the types can refer to either communities or societies, the term “community-society continua” is employed to cover these constructs.

Polar types are one kind of “ideal type.” This term runs the risk of being misconstrued, for in this context “ideal” has no connotation of excellence. Here it means that the type is an “idea”—a mental construct. It is a concept derived from observable reality but not conforming to it in detail. Some aspects of that reality are selected and accentuated in defining the type, because of their apparent interdependence and theoretical importance. However, ideal types are not classifications. No actual society will conform completely to such a type. When used as a basis of comparison with life situations, however, the type suggests possible hypotheses and lines of investigation. Thus, ideal types are tools to be used in the analysis of empirical reality [seeTypologies].

Status and contract

Modern use of polar types in social science stems from the evolutionary concerns initiated by Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and Henry Maine’s Ancient Law (1861). Maine’s objective in this study was to discover how the institutions of his day had evolved from those of antiquity. In contrast to Johann Bachofen, John F. McLennan, and Lewis Morgan, who were his contemporaries, Maine avoided the pitfalls of flimsy historical reconstructions. He stated that much of the study could not have been undertaken had it not been for the long record of Roman law, linking evidence of remote antiquity to the rules and institutions of modern society. For lack of other evidence, he was forced to use Roman law as a “typical system.” The propositions drawn from that law and other available evidence were held to be typical of the social changes experienced in the emergency of western European societies. The validity of most of Maine’s interpretations rests not only upon the quality of his evidence but also upon the logic of the relationships which he discovered among the changes. The “typical” features of ancient and modern society, as he described them, have the elements of an ideal typology, although Maine did not represent them in any such terms.

On the basis of early writings of the Hindus, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, Maine concluded that primeval society was based on the patriarchal family, at least in those societies. There, the eldest ascendant male held absolute supremacy over the whole family, and the larger society consisted of an aggregation of such families. Maine then noted that the units of modern society were not families, but individuals. His study pursued the consequences of this difference through human history. Primitive law dealt with family groups as corporate entities defined by kinship. Crime, for instance, was a corporate act; land was jointly held; newcomers to such a system had to be incorporated into it through the creation of fictitious kinship.

As societies expanded, a new sort of definition of social membership emerged, informed by the principle of contiguity. Locality, rather than kinship, thus became the basis of state organization. As the powers and privileges once resident in the family shifted to the growing state, Maine argued, the nature of men’s interrelations shifted from that of kin-based status to that of individually agreed-upon engagement or contract. Maine found vivid evidence of these changes in the decline of patria potestas (paternal authority), as dependents gradually achieved separate rights under the Roman state. Thus, Maine depicts an ideal-typical sort of change from society based on kinship, status, aggregations of families, and joint property rights to a kind of society based on territory, contract, and individual rights, including those to real property. These ideas had a wide influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent scholars.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Ferdinand Tönnies was the first to make explicit the nature and use of ideal types, or “normal types,” as he called them. Stimulated by Maine as well as by Marx and Hobbes, he developed two such types which gave their names to his book Gemeinschaftund Gesellschaf t (1887). Tönnies’ theory and typology rest on his view of the nature of human volition, of which he distinguished two types— Wesenwille (”natural will” or “essential will”) and Kürwille (”rational will”). The former refers to volition that springs from an individual’s temperament, character, and habits. With rational will, however, the distinction between means and ends becomes important, and volition is dominated by thinking.

Gemeinschaft cannot be accurately translated. It refers to the “community of feeling” (a kind of associative unity of ideas and emotions) that results from likeness and from shared life-experience. Natural will predominates in Gemeinschaft relationships, which are best illustrated by the links between mother and child, husband and wife, and brothers and sisters. Differences in power and authority do not in themselves destroy Gemeinschaft, which may characterize the relationship of a beneficent father to a dutiful child. Nor is Gemeinschaft limited to formal kinship, for neighborhood and collective proprietorship produce a similar unity, and friendship expresses a kind of Gemeinschaft that is tied to neither blood nor locality.

The predominance of rational will characterizes Gesellschaft. In Gesellschaft relationships, Tönnies says, “everybody is by himself and isolated, and there exists a condition of tension against all others … intrusions are regarded as hostile acts … nobody wants to grant and produce anything for another individual … all goods are conceived to be separate, as are their owners” (1887, p. 65 in 1963 paperback edition). In such a society, rational will operates in terms of the logic of the market place. Relationships are contractual; values are monetary. Profit is the sole end of trade, and one man’s gain is another’s loss. As the merchant tries to free himself from all relationships that might conflict with commerce, he becomes, as Adam Smith pointed out, an individual who is not bound to any particular country; indeed, every man becomes, in some measure, a merchant.

Since real social groups vary in the degree to which they resemble Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, the types provide a comparative basis for discovering order in that variation. Tonnies described one such application of the typology: “In the history of the great systems of culture,” he wrote, “a period of Gesellschaft follows a period of Gemeinschaft” (Tönnies 1887, p. 231 in 1963 paperback edition). The latter period begins with social relations based on family life and on domestic economy; later, with the development of agriculture and rural village life, there is a shift to cooperative patterns based on locality. Then follows the growth of town life and the mental community of religious faith and artistry. The Gesellschaft period of history opens with the growth of city life based on trade and contractual relationships. Industrialization and the rational manipulation of capital and labor are accompanied by the growth of the state and of national life. Cosmopolitan life, toward which Tonnies thought society was moving, would be based on the ultimate expressions of rational will—science, informed public opinion, and control by “the republic of scholars.”

Tönnies has been criticized for assigning the names of his ideal types to actual periods of history, for this makes it seem as though he is using them for simple classification. Actually, his discussion of this sequence stresses the progressive shift from a predominantly Gemeinschaft sort of society to one dominated by Gesellschaft. In later and little-known works, he used the typology to analyze other sorts of phenomena, such as morals and public opinion, but the types did not figure in his really empirical investigations.

The most specific attempt to operationalize the typology has been made by Charles Loomis and J. Allan Beegle (1950). They argue that Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft have only limited scientific utility because they are “sponge” concepts, absorbing many vague meanings. To overcome this limitation, they break down the types into a dozen or so variables, largely derived from Talcott Parsons, Pitirim A. Sorokin, and Howard Becker and more or less directly related to Tönnies’ typology. The methodology they have devised to illustrate the typology expresses each of these variables in terms of an 11-point linear scale extending between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft poles. Actual social systems, such as the Amish family, are then allocated to positions on these scales by averaging the scale assignments made by a panel of judges. When a number of such scales are juxtaposed, a “profile” of each social system can be created by drawing a line connecting its ratings on the various scales. Such profiles permit visual comparison of ratings of different aspects of the same system or of the same variable in different systems.

No claim was made that these ratings were based on anything more rigorous than the opinions of judges who had some personal experience with the social systems being judged. Nor was any theory tested by the procedure, although Loomis and McKinney (1956) have since used it to explore the nature of the difference between two Costa Rican communities selected to represent distinctive types of rural social organization in Latin America. In this investigation, only six scaled components of the ideal types were employed, including all of Parsons’ “pattern variables.”

Mechanical and organic solidarity

In his book The Division of Labor in Society (1893), Emile Durkheim examined the relationship between two facts that had already been noted by Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer—that the division of labor in society was a source of social solidarity and that primitive society was relatively homogeneous in character. Noting the impossibility of observing social solidarity directly, Durkheim took variation in types of law as a symbol, or reflection, of types of solidarity. Maine afforded him the basis for further analysis in the observation that law in ancient societies was characteristically penal or criminal law, while civil law predominates in modern society. Durkheim called the first type of law “repressive” and identified it with mechanical solidarity, or social unity based on likeness. He held that the moral sentiments common to all members of a society constitute a “collective conscience”; criminal acts are those that violate the common conscience and call forth passionate reactions of vengeance. Violent punishment of the offender can expiate the act because the punishment protects the collective conscience of the society from further violation.

Durkheim pointed out that, from a logical point of view, the extreme case of an ideal-type society defined in terms of homogeneity would be an unorganized inchoate horde. In reality, however, although the mechanical solidarity of the most primitive known societies does indeed rest on homogeneity, these societies also show some differentiation into unspecialized aggregates such as clans. This simple repetition of segments caused Durkheim to suggest the term “segmental society” for this type. He recognized, however, that mechanical solidarity plays some role in all societies; as an index of its relative importance in a society, he took the proportion of law that was penal in character.

In contrast to repressive law, which deals with criminal acts against society, civil law deals with relationships between special parties in society. The sanctions of civil law involve restitution rather than punishment, and such “restitutive” law presupposes cooperation derived from the division of labor. The associated type of social solidarity is based on the interdependence of specialized parts; using the biological analogy, Durkheim called it organic solidarity. To the type of society it characterized he gave no specific name, although he referred to it as “occupationally organized.”

Finally, Durkheim used the legal indices of solidarity to demonstrate that as one basis of solidarity develops the other regresses. It is always organic solidarity that wins out over the mechanical, he contended. The evolution of society can therefore be seen in terms of the passage from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, with “mechanical” or “organic” referring to the dominant type of solidary relationship at each evolutionary stage. Durkheim saw a connection between this evolutionary process and such factors as increasing population size and density, the growth of cities, and improvements in communication. In the increasing competition resulting from rising population density and increasing social interaction, he found the cause of the increase in division of labor.

Durkheim has been criticized by Robert K. Merton (1934) for his overemphasis on division of labor as the source of solidarity in modern society and his use of legal forms as indices of solidarity. In addition, anthropological research has shown that primitive law has important civil aspects that neither Maine nor Durkheim recognized. Despite such objections, Merton found the societal ideal types to be useful constructs.

The folk-urban continuum

Recognizing some commonalty among peoples possessing folklore, folk songs, and folkways, Robert Redfield sought other distinguishing features of the primitive and peasant peoples who constitute such “folk.” On the basis of his study (1930) of the Mexican peasants of Tepoztlan, he concluded that they were like primitives in their self-sufficiency, nonliteracy, and the local, traditional, and sacred orientation of their lives. However, he also found that they were part of the modern urban world and were gradually being assimilated into it.

To pursue this process further, Redfield and two assistants studied a series of four communities in Yucatan: the modern capital city, a town, a village, and a tribal settlement of Indians. By comparing these communities in what had once been an entirely Mayan area, Redfield hoped to discover what was happening in the folk culture as it was being influenced by the modern city. In a more general sense, however, he was interested in the shift from the type of society represented by the more isolated village toward the type illustrated by the capital city.

In The Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941), Redfield stated that in drawing up his list of folk characteristics he had been influenced by Maine, Durkheim, and Tönnies. The list of characteristics continued to grow, but only five of them were explicitly studied in Yucatan. Evidence was sought to test the hypothesis that progressive loss of isolation, when associated with an increase in heterogeneity, produces social disorganization, secularization, and individualization. Intercommunity variation along these dimensions could be adequately assessed because of the original cultural homogeneity of the area. The total evidence, as well as the histories of individual communities, tended to confirm the hypothesis, but Redfield pointed out that it might not hold under all circumstances.

An opportunity to refine Redfield’s hypothesis was presented when Sol Tax (1939) reported that in Guatemala, although Indian society was both small and homogeneous, it was also secularized and individualistic, with weak familial organization. This apparent conflict with the Yucatan findings now seems to have been due to the difficulty of defining the units of analysis. Actually, Tax had shown that although each Indian community was homogeneous, Guatemalan society as a whole was large and heterogeneous, with an indigenous commercialized economy based on agricultural and craft specialization among the Indian villages. Thus, the villages were removed from isolation by trade; and this loss of isolation, according to Redfield’s hypothesis, would lead to the very characteristics observed by Tax. Where Tax and Redfield differed was on how marked such nonfolk characteristics were in Guatemala—which illustrates the difficulty of making such judgments without a clear basis of comparison. Nevertheless, the Guatemalan research highlights the fact that life can become less folklike and more urban as a result of participation in a highly commercial economy, even if that economy is not dependent upon modern cities.

Redfield never defined the urban type of society beyond indicating that it was characterized by the antitheses of the folk traits. The latter were set forth most explicitly in “The Folk Society” and summarized as follows.

Such a society is small, isolated, nonliterate, and homogeneous, with a strong sense of group solidarity. The ways of living are conventionalized into that coherent system which we call “a culture.” Behavior is traditional, spontaneous, uncritical, and personal; there is no legislation or habit of experiment and reflection for intellectual ends. Kinship, its relationships and institutions, are the type categories of experience and the familial group is the unit of action. The sacred prevails over the secular; the economy is one of status rather than of the market. (Redfield 1947, p. 293)

The folk type has been criticized for its obvious lack of specificity and focus. This lack is really both a strength and a weakness. The advantage of the multiplicity of definitive traits lies in the variety of causal relationships that are suggested. The disadvantage lies in the lack of suggestion as to which traits should be considered as causes, which as effects, and under what circumstances. If we had the answer to all of these questions, however, there would be no need for the ideal types.

Further tests of the typology

Twenty years after Redfield studied Tepoztlán, Oscar Lewis conducted a restudy of the village. Some of his observations were sufficiently different from those of his predecessor to require explanation, and Lewis concluded his report (1951) with a detailed criticism of both the original study and the folk-urban continuum. The latter criticism was considered by Horace Miner (1952) in a general evaluation of the utility of the continuum. He concluded that Lewis’ critique reflected a legitimate concern for detailed structural, psychological, and historical analysis, which differed from, but did not conflict with, Redfield’s interest in developing general propositions based on formal concepts. Redfield himself concluded that the apparent substantive differences between the two reports were really differences in emphasis resulting from the subjective “hidden questions” with which he and Lewis had approached the community.

In the case of one of Miner’s studies, The Primitive City of Timbuctoo (1953), emphasis was explicitly placed on the discovery of evidence of disorganization, secularization, and impersonalization. This was done to ascertain whether Redfield’s “urban characteristics” would be found in a non-Western nonindustrial city. Timbuctoo was an African commercial center long before European contact, and it meets the requirements of Louis Wirth’s minimal definition of the city as “a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals” (1938, p. 8). Miner did find cheating, prostitution, usury, and theft in this city, but “urban” behavior was largely limited to commercial and other relations among the major ethnic elements of the population; within each of these groups, life was found to be remarkably folklike. Thus Timbuctoo, unlike Western cities, presented a mixture of folk and urban characteristics.

These observations were placed in a broader context by Gideon Sjoberg (1952; 1960), who recognized the similarly mixed character of all preindustrial cities. He also saw such cities and their associated peasant villages as the constituent parts of an ideal-typical “feudal society,” which contrasted with both of Redfield’s polar types. Sjoberg characterized feudal society as being static and having strongly sacred value orientations. Unlike the folk type, however, it is more heterogeneous and is commercially oriented. A primary element in this heterogeneity is the small, hereditary, urban elite, which controls the political, military, and religious institutions. These institutions, in turn, provide the principal links with the rural peasants. The elite incorporates a literate element of scholarpriests and is served by urban craftsmen, organized along guild lines. In commerce, standardization of weights, measures, and media of exchange are generally lacking, and caveat emptor is the rule. While cities and societies resembling these types have often been developmental stages in the cumulative process of urbanization, there is no implication that they are necessary stages in such development.

Social complexity. Of the many studies that have drawn stimulation from the folk–urban continuum, one other should be mentioned here because it employed an unusual analytic method. It also used cross-cultural data from the Human Relations Area Files. Linton Freeman and Robert Winch (1957) tested the single dimensionality of social complexity—a variable they found to be inherent in all of the continua discussed above. Various measures of complexity were applied to 48 societies and the resultant data subjected to Guttman scaling analysis; six of these variables scaled almost perfectly, indicating their unidimensionality.

Even more interesting were the hypotheses suggested by the scale relationships among the variables. For example, the appearance of a money economy seems to be the initial step toward the other forms of cultural complexity studied. On the other hand, written languages seem to appear at a much later stage, for they were found only in societies which also had complex systems of exchange, law, religion, education, and government.

Parsons’ “pattern variables”

Four pattern variables constitute the basic components of Talcott Parsons’ system of analysis of social action (1951, pp. 58–67; 1960). The variables are “ranges which, in their simplest form, can be defined as polar alternatives.” In Parsonian analysis, the pattern variables figure as dichotomies: each expresses a “dilemma” of choice between two distinct alternatives that are faced by the “actor” in every social situation. The nature of the variables is suggested by the way each relates to the definition of behavioral expectations. Affectivity versus affective neutrality refers to whether immediate self-gratification or its deferment is expected. Specificity versus diffuseness is concerned with whether the scope of the relationship is seen as narrow, like that between a clerk and customer, or broad and inclusive, as between spouses. Universalism versus particularism has to do with whether action is governed in terms of generalized standards or in terms of a reference scheme peculiar to the actors in the relationship. Finally, the quality versus performance dichotomy (also called ascription versus achievement) is concerned with whether the characterization of each actor by the other is based on who or what the person is or on what he can do—for example, on whether he has royal blood (ascription), or on whether he is a college graduate (achievement).

Classification of societies

Parsons used combinations of two of these dichotomies—universalism–particularism and ascription–achievement—to define four principal types of society. He pointed out that all societies organized around kinship fall under the particularistic-ascriptive pattern. The general emphasis of the fourfold typology thus reflects the focus of the whole theoretical scheme on “variability among ‘civilizations’ rather than among primitive cultures.” The scheme, therefore, has evolutionary implications, as it distinguishes three social structural “types which tend to emerge when major types of cultural development in the literate cultures have occurred” (Parsons 1951, p. 182). The emergent type characterized by the universalistic-achievement pattern is exemplified by the most industrialized societies. Division of labor in such societies emphasizes the specificity and affective neutrality of occupational roles, which contrast with the diffuse and affective character of kin roles in primitive societies.

If one disregards the two other possible types in favor of the universalistic-achievement pattern and the particularistic-ascriptive pattern, there is obviously a continuum between these ideal-typical poles. In empirical terms, one extreme characterizes all primitive societies and even feudal ones, while heavily industrialized societies resemble the other pole. There is a clear tendency for the four pattern variables to covary between these extremes, although all actual societies show mixtures of the two sets of characteristics. It is only the relative emphasis that differs. As Parsons says, these two clusters of pattern variables “very closely characterize what in much sociological literature have been thought of as polar types of institutional structure, the best known version of which perhaps has been the Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft dichotomy of Tonnies” (Parsons et al. 1953, pp. 207–208).

Continua of economic development

It was Marion Levy who first used the pattern variables to define a continuum of economic development (1952). He suggested that societies could be placed on a scale of industrialization in terms of the efficiency of their use of energy and the sorts of energy employed. Furthermore, he contended that the social systems at the two extremes of such a scale differed with regard to certain basic qualities of social relationships—the degree to which they were based on nonrational traditionalism, whether they emphasized universalistic or particularistic criteria, and the degree to which they were functionally specific or diffuse. The economic systems of highly industrialized societies are more rational, universalistic, and functionally specific, and the problems of economic development can be seen in terms of the implied changes in these dimensions of non-industrialized systems.

Bert Hoselitz (1953) followed this lead. Defining economic development in terms of per capita real income, he used Parsons’ newly stated pattern variables in differentiating “underdeveloped” economic systems from “advanced” systems. With the exception of affectivity-neutrality, the other pattern variables seemed to Hoselitz to be related to degree of economic development. George A. Theodorson (1953) has pointed out, however, that affectivity is evident in the absenteeism and labor turnover in underdeveloped areas, where the workers are reluctant to accept the unfamiliar discipline of the factory. Theodorson’s analysis also showed how the successful introduction of the factory system in nonindustrialized societies ultimately necessitated social changes which could be fruitfully conceptualized in terms of the pattern variables. He concluded that the pattern of universalism, achievement, specificity, and affective neutrality was inevitably linked to industrialization.

It will be recalled that Parsons delineated four societal types and that a continuum of economic development is achieved only by ignoring the universalism-ascription pattern that is evident in authoritarian collectivistic states, such as Nazi Germany, and the particularism-achievement pattern, such as that of imperial China. William Kolb (1954) brought these other alternatives into the discussion of industrialization and economic development. His focus was on the relation of cities to these processes, and his argument emphasized the danger of predicting the form of urban industrial development from the Western experience. He began by pointing out that population density and ethnic heterogeneity do not, in themselves, produce a universalism-achievement orientation. The need for government intervention in the industrialization effort of new nations lends itself to the universalistic-ascriptive orientation of authoritarianism. There is also the possibility that even with moderate development of emphasis on achievement and universalism in the industrial sector of life, other significant areas of life may remain under the older ascriptive-particularistic values. Reacting to these suggestions, McKimm Marriott (1954) expressed doubts concerning the feasibility of categorizing whole societies in terms of Parsons’ variables; however, he ventured the opinion that urban India seems to live in terms of a particularism-achievement type of system of marked vitality.

At the North American Conference on the Social Implications of Industrialization and Technological Change in 1960, Hoselitz pointed out that the typologies of Tönnies and Redfield had been little used in studies of economic change. He contended that the Parsonian variables permitted sharper focus on the strategic mechanisms of change associated with industrialization. The conclusions of the conference rapporteur général, Wilbert Moore, can well stand as a final observation on this whole approach. Polar ideal types have heuristic value in the development of theory, he says, but “such modes of analysis present problems of operational identification in research, and of mensuration when mixed situations of empirical reality are approached” (1963, p. 361).

Horace M. Miner

[Directly related are the entries onAgriculture, article onSOCIAL ORGANIZATION; Industrialization, article onSOCIAL ASPECTS. Other relevant material may be found inSystems analysis, article onSOCIAL SYSTEMS; Village; and in the biographies ofDarwin; Durkheim; Maine; Redfield; TÖnnies.]


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