Mi / 14:40

Letters of Ferdinand Tönnies. A digital edition

Online-Conference: The future of the history of Sociology and Social Sciences

Alexander Wierzock, Tatjana Trautmann


This paper presentation is part of the 2nd International Conference of the Sociological History Section of the German Sociological Association (DGS), „The future of the history of Sociology and Social Sciences“, which takes place 17 – 19 May 2023 online via Webex. 

Archive-based foundational research is yet to be included in the history of sociology. While sources stored in archives are attracting increasing attention, many archive holdings have only been partially researched. This also applies to the over 12,000 written objects left behind by Ferdinand Tönnies, which represents one of the largest archive holdings of early German sociology. A digital edition is currently being created at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen, in cooperation with the Trier Center for Digital Humanities and the Schleswig-Holstein State Library in Kiel, which will make the sociologist’s scientific correspondence accessible to a wide audience for the first time.

Tönnies left behind a comprehensive corpus of letters. In his estate alone, almost 1,000 letters written by himself have survived. Another 800 of his letters remain in the holdings of others. Only a fraction of these documents have already been edited, which distinguishes Tönnies‘s correspondence from those of other sociological founding figures such as Max Weber and Georg Simmel.

The edition’s current work wants to overcome this persistent disregard of Tönnies‘s letters by making his correspondence digitally available in an open-access format for the first time. This effort furthermore seeks to not only reproduce images of the existing epistles online, but also to decipher the notoriously hard-to-read handwriting of this early sociologist. Specifically, transcriptions and annotations will render the letters in themselves more accessible.

For pragmatic reasons, the edition is reconstructing an ego network only consisting of Tönnies’s scientific correspondence, which amounts to a corpus of over 1.750 letters. Tönnies’s letters offer a unique insight into the genesis of sociology. They document, for example, the first contact between explicitly sociological literature and it‘s representatives and the gradual insitutionalisation of the academic field from the German Empire to the 1930s. The letters also reveal the global networking of this scientist, which extended far beyond the German-speaking area, while also beeing proof of the continuities and discontinuities in these transnational assemblages. The practical work on the edition builds on proven methods and tools (e.g. FuD, Kalliope) of the Digital Humanities as well as prevalent norms (e.g. Integrated Authority File) which will be introduced in this paper. It will provide an overview of the project’s goals, the current status of work and technical, editorial.