Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Seattle at the intersection between Gesselschaft and Gemeinschaft

 I'm using the words slightly different than the sociologist Tönnies did. Gesselschaft refers to societies, Gemeinschaft to community. Tönnies, but also Durkheim, talked about the transition from an agricultural society to an urban one as the transformation from Gemeinschaft to Gesselschaft, or their French counterparts, although Durkheim was not as pessimistic about this as Tönnies was.

But let me back up here a second. The idea is that agricultural communities and small towns are towns where everyone belongs to the same society, where everything is integrated into one overarching whole that's often divided up according to family.  In cities and large towns, on the contrary, what you find is a society made up of many smaller societies, of groups of people who organize themselves according to affinities, likes, dislikes, preferences. A person can belong to many at the same time.

This is different from a more Gemeinschaft society, where the people who you know, hang out with, etc...are given based on what neighborhood you grew up in, who your family was, things like that. In this scenario you really don't have a choice about what exactly your social world will be structured like.

Durkheim pointed to the positive aspects of the Gesselschaft society, in that it provided many more opportunities for personal freedom and expression than did Gemeinschaft, with the ability to forge new identities and interests that would not have been possible if one had been bound to where one had grown up, in that social setting. Tönnies and others, including some who in latter days have taken up the terminology, tended to romanticize Gemeinschaft and look at the break up of the static, ultimately agricultural, world, as being a tragedy, and as the Gesselschaft society leading purely to fragmentation and alienation as opposed to new possibilities to social integration.

So how does Seattle fit into all of this? It seems to me that despite being a big city, it finds itself on the edge of the two forms: there's a very localist, set, community, that prides itself on long term occupancy and roots, then there's the more cosmopolitan Seattle. But the cosmopolitan culture in Seattle is different from that of New York, for instance, in that it feels like a person can't solely choose to define themselves by their interest groups, but has to establish some more basic community bonds to really feel at home. In New York, by contrast, while there's derision against people who are "fresh off the boat", so to speak, no one really cares if a person has been there for a while, what they've been up to. Instead, you just plug into the culture and pursue what you want. It's the same, as far as I can tell, in most other large cities.

But in Seattle that's not quite enough. To be a Washingtonian and a Seattleite, and feel comfortable, you still have to assimilate enough of what could be called "community knowledge" or "community values" to really be able to navigate society successfully. This is an aspect that is much more in line with the Gemeinschaft society than the Gesselschaft one. It makes, on the one hand, potentially for a stronger community, but on the other seems to be a hassle when what you really want to do is to just get on with your Gesselschaftisch interests. I'm lucky in that I've been here for the shear number of years required to have assimilated that social knowledge, and things are going better, but I can't help but wonder if this requirement for massive amounts of time and cultural assimilation limits the creativity and richness that is present in the community, richness that would be there if folks were more willing to just do their own thing without really caring about the social, local, State and region, history.

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