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History of Sociology

Sociology is rooted in the works of philosophers, including Plato (427–347 B.C.), Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), and Confucius (551–479 B.C.). Some other early scholars also took perspectives that were sociological. Chinese historian Ma Tuan-Lin developed, in the thirteenth century, a sociological history by looking at the social factors influencing history in his general-knowledge encyclopedia Wen Hsien T’ung K’ao (General Study of the Literary Remains). Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), profiled below, conducted studies of Arab society (Restivo 1991, 18–19).

Sociology is a relatively new academic discipline. It emerged in the early 19th century in response to the challenges of modernity. Increasing mobility and technological advances resulted in the increasing exposure of people to cultures and societies different from their own. The impact of this exposure was varied, but for some people included the breakdown of traditional norms and customs and warranted a revised understanding of how the world works. Sociologists responded to these changes by trying to understand what holds social groups together and also explore possible solutions to the breakdown of social solidarity.

Enlightenment thinkers also helped set the stage for the sociologists that would follow. The Enlightenment “was the first time in history that thinkers tried to provide general explanations of the social world. They were able to detach themselves, at least in principle, from expounding some existing ideology and to attempt to lay down general principles that explained social life” (Collins 1994, 17). Writers of this period included a range of well-known philosophers, such as John Locke; David Hume; Voltaire (the pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet); Immanuel Kant; Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu; Thomas Hobbes; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

As Macionis (1995, 12) explains to introductory students, scholars have been interested in the nature of society throughout history. They typically focused on what the ideal society would be like. During the 1800s, however, scholars began studying how society actually is and how social arrangements actually operate (how society “works”). Armed with this knowledge, they felt they could better attack social problems and bring about social change (Collins 1994, 42). These scholars became the first sociologists.




Auguste Comte, Father of Sociology

Auguste Comte

Figure 1: Auguste Comte, Father of Sociology

The term sociology was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), in 1838 from the Latin termsocius (companion, associate) and the Greek term logia (study of, speech). Comte is known as the “Father of Sociology. He first publicly used the term in his work Positive Philosophy (1896, orig. 1838; Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 2000, 67). Originally an engineering student, Comte became secretary and pupil to French social philosopher Claude Henri de Rouvroy Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825). Saint-Simon was an advocate for scientific and social reform. He advocated applying scientific principles to learn how society is organized. Armed with this knowledge, he believed he could ascertain how best to change, and govern, society to address social problems such as poverty.

Comte saw history as divided into three intellectual stages.

  • The first, or theological, stage included the medieval period in which society was seen as reflecting the will of a deity.

  • The second, or metaphysical, stage arose during the Enlightenment and focused on forces of “nature,” rather than God, to explain social events.

  • Comte considered his own time period the third stage, which he termed the positivistic, or scientific, stage.

During Comte’s lifetime, scientists were learning more about the laws that govern the physical world. For example, in the area of physics, Sir Isaac Newton (1641–1727) had developed the law of gravity. Advances were also being made in other natural sciences, such as biology. Comte felt that science could also be used to study the social world. Just as there are testable facts regarding gravity and other natural laws, Comte thought that scientific analyses could also discover the laws governing our social lives. It was in this context that Comte introduced the concept of positivism (Article 1.1) to sociology—a way to understand the social world based on scientific facts. He believed that, with this new understanding, people could build a better future. He envisioned a process of social change in which sociologists played crucial roles in guiding society.

Other events of that time period also influenced the development of sociology. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were times of many social upheavals and changes in the social order that interested the early sociologists. As George Ritzer (1988, 6–12) notes, the political revolutions sweeping Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to a focus on social changeand the establishment of social order that still concerns sociologists today. Many early sociologists were also concerned with the Industrial Revolution and rise of capitalism and socialism. Additionally, the growth of cities and religious transformations were causing many changes in people’s lives.

Other classical theorists of sociology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include Karl Marx, Ferdinand Toennies, Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Weber. As pioneers in Sociology, most of the early sociological thinkers were trained in other academic disciplines, including history, philosophy, and economics. The diversity of their trainings is reflected in the topics they researched, including religion, education, economics, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and theology. Perhaps with the exception of Marx, their most enduring influence has been on sociology, and it is in this field that their theories are still considered most applicable.

Auguste Compte (Biography) - Article 1.2

Karl Marx (Biography) - Article 1.3

Max Weber (Biography) - Article 1.4

Emile Durkheim (Biography) - Article 1.5

The Development of the Discipline

Max Weber

Figure 2: Max Weber

These “early founders of sociology all had a vision of using sociology” (Turner 1998, 250). Sharing Comte’s belief, many early sociologists came from other disciplines and made significant efforts to call attention to social concerns and bring about social change. In Europe, for example, economist and philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83) teamed with wealthy industrialist Friedrich Engels (1820–95) to address class inequality. Writing during the Industrial Revolution, when many factory owners were lavishly wealthy and many factory workers despairingly poor, they attacked the rampant inequalities of the day and focused on the role of capitalist economic structures in perpetuating these inequalities. In Germany, Max Weber (1864–1920) was active in politics. In France, Emile Durkheim advocated for educational reforms.

Karl Marx

Figure 3 : Karl Marx

In the United States, social worker and sociologist Jane Addams (1860–1935) became an activist on behalf of poor immigrants. Addams established Chicago’s Hull House, a settlement house that provided community services such as kindergarten and day care, an employment bureau, and libraries. It also provided cultural activities, including an art gallery, music and art classes, and America’s first Little Theater. Louis Wirth (1897– 1952) built child-guidance clinics. He applied sociology to understand how social influences impacted children’s behavioral problems and how children could be helped by using this knowledge. During World War II, sociologists worked to improve the lives of soldiers by studying soldiers’ morale and attitudes as well as the effectiveness of training materials (Kallen 1995).

Sociologists are also responsible for some of the now familiar aspects of our everyday lives. For example, sociologist William Foote Whyte (1914– 2000) improved restaurant service by developing the spindles that waitstaff in many diners use to submit food orders to the kitchen (Porter 1962). Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) developed the concept of what would become the focus group, now widely used in the business world. Sociological perspectives are also the basis of many concepts and terms we use on a daily basis. Lawyers plead “extenuating circumstances” on their clients’ behalf, an acknowledgment of the sociological position that social forces influence human behavior; to talk about “fighting the system” acknowledges that social structures exist and influence our lives (Babbie 1996).

Robert K. Merton (Biography) - Article 1.6

Sociologists have also been actively involved throughout the civil rights movement. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) who is profiled below, published and spoke out against lynching. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was involved for most of a century in studying race and social activism. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944) focused public attention on race. The voter-rights efforts of Charles G. Gomillion in the 1940s and 1950s were instrumental in the U.S. Supreme Court decision that defeated gerrymandering that had excluded almost all Macon County blacks from voting (Smith and Killian 1990, 113).

Although they have not traditionally received the recognition of their white male counterparts, women and sociologists of color have made significant contributions to the discipline since its founding. In recent years, efforts have been undertaken to reinvigorate the voices of these “lost” sociologists. What we know about their lives and works shows some truly outstanding accomplishments. For example, Comte’s Positive Philosophy (1896, orig. 1838) was translated into English by Harriet Martineau (1802–76). Comte was so pleased with the results of her translation that he had her abridgment retranslated back into French. Martineau was a prolific writer and bestselling author in her own right on a variety of social issues. Her work earned her recognition as the first female sociologist and “Mother of Sociology.”

These early women and scholars of color were working in a social context in which women and blacks were often denied education and faced other types of discrimination. Most were trained outside the field. The first Ph.D. in sociology was not awarded to a person of color until 1911, when Richard Robert Wright received his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. Many of these early sociologists were active in fighting for a number of social causes. For example, many supported the suffragist movement. Also, black sociologists often “sought not simply to investigate and interpret social life, but to redress the conditions affecting the lives of African Americans” (Young and Deskins 2001, 447).

Today, women and persons of color continue to make important contributions to the discipline and beyond. Just among those individuals profiled in this book are Dorothy Smith who has changed the way sociologists think about the world and the way they conduct research. Rosabeth Moss Kanter has become an internationally renowned name in studying and improving organizations. Coramae Richey Mann has challenged the criminal-justice system and its treatment of minorities, youth, and women. William Julius Wilson has challenged thinking on class, race, and poverty. Patricia Hill Collins has increased our understanding of how race, class, and gender together all have social consequences in our world. (Read more on History of Sociology- Sociology among the Social Sciences)

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PhD student at the University of Cincinnati

MS Human Genetics; employed as a genetic counselor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

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