The beginnings of sociology can
The beginnings of sociology can, arguably, be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries – a time when western Europe began to undergo serious political and social change, characterised by the French Revolution. As old dynasties, feudalistic practices, and the word of the Church were brought into question new philosophical minds sought after answers ranging from God’s place in the world to the way people associate within the societies they found themselves in. The birth of these new liberal ideas would come to be known as ‘the Enlightenment’ – with prominent minds such as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber developing their own concepts of how the individual and institutions of society interacted with one another (functionalism, Marxism, and social action theory respectively) and whether or not the individual shapes the society or rather the society shapes the individual. Later in the 20th century, American sociologist C Wright Mills would publish his work The Sociological Imagination – detailing his belief that an issue affecting few people must be down to those individuals as opposed to issues affecting a large part of society, which must mean there was an issue with society at large. The work of Mills led to the rapid development of sociology throughout the latter half of the 20th century bringing it to the discipline as we see it today.
The Enlightenment refers to the period of intellectual and philosophical development which saw rapid scientific and social progression throughout the 18th and 19th century. As many began to question the Church and their word for the first time, thinkers such as Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) spurred on the examination of the natural world and all its unanswered questions – developing Positivism (the school of thought that seeks physical explanations to physical phenomenon) and the beginnings of the scientific method (Bordeau, 2018). The new surge of scientific expertise led to what is now known as the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions – bringing new social challenges of their own. The invention of mechanised industry created new jobs within cities leading to a shift from the majority of Europe’s population living in an agricultural, rural society to rapid urbanisation.
One of the key figures in establishing sociology as a scientific discipline was Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), a Frenchman who is often cited as one of the fathers of social science (Allan, 2006). Durkheim lived in France during a time of rapid social and economic change, seeing the country go from an agricultural society to an urbanised industrial one – creating a new middle class of business owners and professionals alongside the upper and working classes. Durkheim’s work on Functionalism highlighted that each class played their part in maintaining the status quo of society – that like a living organism, all of the institutions within society (family, education, peers, religion) serve a specific role for it to continue working harmoniously and if parts of the organism were to be removed (i.e. religion) the system as a whole would fail (Haralambos ; Holborn, 2013).
Functionalism was not the only view on why society organised itself the way it did. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) was a German born philosopher who wrote primarily on class struggle, who’s work and theories on how a society should be organized came to be known as Marxism. Marx believed that with the industrial revolution and prominence of capitalism came two classes – the proletariat (the workers of the world) and the bourgeoise (the ruling class). In his key works, the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, Marx outlines his belief that the proletariat and their labour is exploited by the bourgeoise for gross profits and that this wealth should be redistributed to the workers (Johnson, 2000). Marx’s view on society and its structure is, in sociological terms, a conflict theory. His belief was that society was stratified, with the two classes having a conflict of interests with one keeping the other in place – in direct opposition to the Functionalist view of social order and harmony.
Both Durkheim’s and Marx’s theories are Macro theories of sociology. Within the discipline it is accepted that there are two perspectives from which society can be viewed: Micro and Macro. Macrosociology takes a look at large-scale events and processes in an environment between groups, institutions, or society at large (Sternheimer, 2011). Functionalists and Marxists examine society as a whole – they critique and examine communities and organisations. An example of this can be taken from Marxist thought – the only components of society thoroughly examined are class, employment, and the economy (Haralambos ; Holborn, 2013) – negating; the personal lives of both the bourgeoisie/proletariat, their upbringing, their socialisation, their interactions with their peers, and anything individualistic about them. Microsociology looks at the interactions between individuals, the meaning behind the norms and values of the environment of the individual, and the effect of institutions on the individual (West ; Turner, 2017).
Max Weber (1864 – 1920) was a German philosopher and sociologist who’s work primarily focused on the correlation between economics and religion in western society. He, along with the American philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) focused their work on the individual being and the relationship they had with society and its institutions – Micro perspectives of sociology. Weber’s work claimed that to understand society and the individuals within it, one must have an empathetic understanding – ‘Verstehen’ (Thompson, 2017) of those being observed or studied: one should be able to see things from the individual’s perspective, not merely their own. He saw the world as one of social actions between humans with each action having meaning associated with it (Gingrich, 1999). The individual learns these meanings through Socialisation (either Primary or Secondary) with the meanings and actions varying depending on the norms and values of the culture or society of the individual (Johnson, 2000).
As sociology continued to develop after the Enlightenment and into the 20th century many American philosophers and sociologists became prominent in the field. One of the most well-known and revered of these sociologists was C Wright Mills (1916 – 1962). Mills’ theory of the Sociological Imagination was set out in his 1959 publication of the same name – the basis of it being that in society there are issues that are perceived as either personal troubles or public issues (Haralambos ; Holborn, 2013). Mills’ highlighted this theory through the example of unemployment: “in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble…But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual” (Mills, 1959). Sociologists would give an example of the use of the Sociological Imagination is a person expanding their thinking to encompass all of the elements of society that bring together the circumstances they face in day-to-day life (Giddens, 2006).