history of sociology

The common origin of European sociology was the Enlightenment.

Figure 1. The common origin of European sociology was the Enlightenment. Different national traditions reacted to the Enlightenment in different ways. The only British innovation was Spencer's adaptation of Darwin's model of biological evolution to provide explanations of social change. In France, however, the conservative reaction to the French Revolution rejected atomistic models of society (centered on the individual) and questioned the validity of empirical inquiry (based on experience). But with Auguste Comte, Enlightenment empiricism was brought back into French sociology. In Germany, Kant and Hegel added new insights to these ideas. Man was no longer to be seen as an object moved around by impersonal laws and social forces: his own consciousness created the social relationships in which he participated.

Major 19th-century sociologists

Figure 2. Major 19th-century sociologists included: Max Weber (A), who attempted to combine empiricism and neo-Kantianism in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Auguste Comte's (B) doctrine of positivism (to organise all knowledge into a consistent philosophy) is contained in Systeme de Politique Positive (1851-1854). Herbert Spencer (C) amalgamated atomistic sociology and Darwinian evolution in The Principles of Ethics (1879–1893).

Karl Marx argued that human society developed in response to man's desire to satisfy his material needs.

Figure 3. Karl Marx argued that human society developed in response to man's desire to satisfy his material needs. But needs themselves continued to develop. Eventually the prevailing form of social structure would no longer be able to accommodate these growing needs and so would break down, giving way to a new structure that permitted the continuation of need satisfaction. The final stage would be reached when bourgeois capitalism succeeded in concentrating wealth in a few hands and in impoverishing the masses. The starving proletariat, whose basic needs were not being met, would rise up and take over the means of production and create a society in which the forces of production and social structure were no longer in conflict.

Figure 4. The interpretation of the European revolutions of 1848 and 1870 brought out the different perspectives of French, English and German sociology. For the French the revolutions (particularly the Commune of 1870 (A)) represented evidence of a deep-seated malfunction in society. For the British, they represented the just struggle of European society for individual, bourgeois freedoms against the tyranny of anachronistic, feudal governments. For the German Marxists the revolutions were a sign of the imminent destruction of the whole capitalist order: the cartoon (B) shows the French President Thiers (1797–1877) with a Prussian soldier looking down on the cauldron of Paris.

These men on strike in 1889 at the East and West India Docks in London symbolize the class and culture conflict produced by industrialization, which sociologists of the period tried to understand. It aggravated the division of culture along class lines and led to strife in every nation.

Figure 5. These men on strike in 1889 at the East and West India Docks in London symbolize the class and culture conflict produced by industrialization, which sociologists of the period tried to understand. It aggravated the division of culture along class lines and led to strife in every nation.

The development of sociology in 19th-century Europe was stimulated by the need to understand the birth of industrial society (Figure 1). The traditional agrarian social order, apparently based on the squire and the Church, was in the process of dissolution. In its place a new order was emerging whose symbols were the factory and the vast, anonymous urban proletariat. A previously integrated structure of culture and authority was giving way to a series of sharply differentiated economic cultures and to class warfare. In this atmosphere of uncertainty intellectuals began to search for explanations of what was happening to society.


Manchester slum interior
The Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the environment of European society. Millions of people were crowded into filthy, disease-ridden towns and were obliged to move to the new social and economic rhythms of factory labour. The obvious horror of mid-19th century urban life, illustrated by this Manchester slum interior, caught the attention of many early sociologists – Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) for example – and produced some of the first exercises in applied sociology. Sociologists surveyed specific situations in the hope of finding remedies for major problems.


The British tradition

In Britain the path of industrialization generally caused little concern. Until the end of the century most Englishmen felt that the factory represented an unequivocal force for good, which was taking their society towards perfection. This largely unquestioning acceptance of the notion of "progress" meant that Britain produced no original sociological theory. Indeed, the main British theoretical tradition was inherited uncritically from the optimistic Enlightenment of the previous century. Its tenets were that society consisted of autonomous individuals each of whom was naturally good; that an "invisible hand" lay behind human activity and pushed it towards conditions of freedom in which the individual could express his innate goodness; and that social science should proceed by reason to discover the objective laws by which the hand worked and so facilitate its operation.


The one man who added something new to these ideas was Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) (Figure 2C) who recognized that the orthodox interpretation of society assumed but did not explain change. Spencer, however, did not abandon the ideas of the Enlightenment but regarded them in relation to a model of social change owing much to Darwin's Origin of Species. He argued that societies were driven forward to more complex and higher forms by the struggle for survival between individuals, and that the struggle had produced in Britain a laissez-faire industrial society which was as yet the highest social form. Although Spencer's conclusions were controversial, his methodology was influential. For the next 50 years British sociologists sought to explain social institutions by their "history".


The French tradition

In France the aftermath of the Revolution produced a reaction against Enlightenment thinking. The Vicomte de Bonald (1754–1840) argued that society ought to be seen not as a collection of individuals but as an organic whole. Change in one part (as by one social group) was bound to upset the entire organism.


The organic tradition was continued by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) (2B), not only to order and control change but also Jo understand it. Comte held the Enlightenment view that there were objective, discoverable laws of social progress. But he insisted that these laws operated in the context of whole societies and not individuals. Men, through their conditioning in society, were made by laws they could not alter. They should recognize this fact and accept their assigned social position.


Comte's "positivism" was most highly refined by one of the most influential individuals in all sociology, Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). The distinctive characteristics of French sociology included "methodological collectivism", which studied only phenomena that would reveal how men were conditioned by their society. There were also functional explanations whereby social institutions were described in terms of their functions within the entire social system rather than by their history. Lastly there was an emphasis on the need for order where change was regarded as the result of a malfunction in society.


The German tradition

In Germany the inheritance of Enlightenment rationality was joined by two other intellectual elements. The Kantian philosophical revolution (after Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)) held that the laws of nature existed only in men's minds; and the Romantic movement of Johann Herder (1744–1803) stressed the creative importance of language and culture.


The first great German theorist was G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), who saw social change as the product of human reason driven forward by its need to know and over-come the world around it. Hegel's theme was further developed by Karl Marx (1818–1883) (Figure 3) who is perhaps best seen as a sociological Hegelian. Marx shared Hegel's view that the force behind social change was man's pursuit of rational understanding and control of his environment. But Marx's most important work resulted from his belief in the economic basis of social structure and in his suggestion of a sequence of social development.


The third major German theorist was Max Weber (1864–1920) (Figure 2A) who complemented Marx by adding an appreciation of the role of cultural values to Marx's work. The principal achievements of the German tradition were "methodological individualism": an approach to society from the viewpoint of self-conscious human subjects; a combination of explanations from history and explanations from function; and the development of a theory of knowledge of the social sciences.