A Brief History of Sociology

Chapter 1: The Sociological Imagination–Continued

Section 2: A Brief History of Sociology

Early History

So as it turns out, sociologists are not the first to subject society to analysis. What could be referred to as a sociological imagination may be as old as civilization itself. Just about every complex civilization throughout history has given some thought to concepts of governing vast numbers of people, most of whom the governor does not know and will never meet. Think about it. Creating rules for a society of thousands will require more complex structures than would small clans or tribes. So if we are to govern a functional society, there must be some consideration toward resolving conflict, defining status, allocating wealth, a whole host of things. 

This then leads us to ask, “how do we arrange a good and just society?” “what changes need to be made in our own society to make it good and just?” “What exactly do we mean by goodness and justice as it applies to thousands or even millions, or as is the case with China and India, more than a billion people!

Some cultures have a richer tradition in this kind of thinking than others. In ancient Egypt, for instance, society was whatever the Pharaoh, seen as a god incarnate, said it was. So…you know…that’s easy.

…gee, how strange that Ancient Greek philosophers believed that Ancient Greek philosophers were the best qualified to rule. I happen to think sociologists would be a better bet, but that’s just me…

But in places like Ancient Greece, where the people had a greater say in their social affairs, the thinking on this was especially fruitful. 

In Athens, the great philosopher Plato offered his take on a just society in his classic The Republic. Plato proposed a society that was neither too rich, nor too poor, and only large enough as can be reasonably governed, much like the city-states that dominated his time. In Plato’s city-state, however, philosophers ruled…

Plato also suggested censoring inflammatory poetry and telling people a lie about  the particular metals that incorporate their being. Some people are gold, some silver, some rusty iron I guess. 

The functions and defense of Plato’s ideal city would be taken care of by a specialized class called Guardians. The Guardians would live a communal and free-love existence in the city. They would own no property and be entirely supported by the citizens. Their educations, both men and women, would emphasize total dedication to the city. 

All right. So maybe there are some issues with Plato.

Ibn Khaldun

In the 14th Century the great Muslim philosopher and statesman Ibn Khaldun wrote The Muqaddimah in which he meticulously constructed a theory of historical change. 

According to Khaldun, religious ideologies help to build social cohesion. That social cohesion then helps build dynasties. As the dynasties mature, however, the original social cohesion breaks down as people become complacent in their power and status. This ultimately leads to the fall of the dynasty, only to be replaced by a new dynasty that is benefiting from the social cohesion of others. 

Khaldun postulated one of the first theories of historical process, but in doing so he accomplished so much more. His was the first exploration of historiography, or a systematic process for studying history. He also offered some profound sociological insights into politics, economics, urban life and even the sociology of knowledge itself. 

Things didn’t go well for More. As a devout Catholic he refused to acknowledge Henry VIII’s status as head of the Church of England as well as his marriage to Anne Boleyn. He was beheaded…as was Ann Boleyn some time later.

In the early 16th Century English scholar Sir Thomas More coined the term Utopia in his novel of the same name. He describes a fictional land of Utopia in which everyone is happy, living peacefully in a communal society free of greed and poverty. Everyone in Utopia works and contributes productively, there are no idle classes, so Utopians only have to work six hours a day–a vast luxury as compared to the laborious days of More’s sixteenth century England. Utopians are dedicated to a healthy mixture of reason and religious piety. Though their core religious beliefs look awfully Catholicy, no surprise from the devoutly Catholic More, the land of Utopia practiced religious tolerance. Ironically, some years later, Thomas More persecuted Protestants as Henry VIII’s chancellor.

The Enlightenment

During this time, Nicolaus Copernicus offered his heliocentric theory, that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe.

Wait! What the heck does this have to do with sociology? 

…Be patient, I’m getting there. 

His insights not only changed the way Europeans saw the universe and the non-centrality of our place in it, but was also part of a movement toward scientific thinking that was sweeping the world. He and Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton applied systematic methods and reasoning in order to understand the universe around them. It was a revolution in thinking. Previously, the universe was what the church or the religious leaders said it was. To question their revelations was to question God himself…and you didn’t want to do that!

I refer to this as the Revolution of Reason over Revelation.

Some philosophers, most notably the French Philosophes, ushered in the Age of Enlightenment by suggesting that if the universe operated according logical and mathematical laws that could be understood through human reason, then perhaps human beings and human societies functioned much the same way. And if we can figure out what these laws are, then we can establish a just society and maximize human happiness. 

Thomas Hobbes

I know…Still waiting..

Shortly before Newton published his awesome Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes postulated that human beings were, by their natures, greedy and violent. In his book, Leviathan, Hobbes suggested that human societies in the state of nature were in a constant state of warfare with every man against every man. According to Hobbes, human existence in this hypothetical state of nature was one of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

To provide for individual safety, human beings decided to give up their dangerous freedoms in exchange for the stability provided by a strong leader. It was the responsibility of this strong leader to lead responsibly and justly, and the obligation of the citizen to obey. Only in this way could human beings find protection from their own greed and aggression.

Well…that’s nice!

Locke’s suggestion of a social contract was profound, but not for slaves. Locke considered slaves to be part of the “property” end of the agreement. Imagine that. 

English philosopher John Locke offered a similar interpretation in his Second Treatise on Government. Only Locke suggested that in forming this government, citizens formed a social contract between the ruled and the ruler. According to Locke, the rulers governed by the consent of the governed and were expected to respect some basic rights of the individual, namely the right to life, liberty and property. 

Hey! That sounds familiar.

French philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau, however, had a somewhat different take on this social contract. Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believed that human beings were born good, but were corrupted by society. He began his elaboration of the social contract by saying, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau believed that the people come together to form a sovereign. The sovereign forms a government that is charged with promoting the general will. The government is charged with making laws that preserve and protect human liberty. 

Rousseau pointed out, however, that governments tend to usurp the power of the sovereign. To avoid this, the sovereign must come together to evaluate and, perhaps, replace a government that has taken on too much power. 

The great conqueror, Napoleon I, once commented about Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Time will tell if this earth would not have been a more peaceful place if Rousseau and I had never existed.”

All of this new thinking on government developed at a time when European merchants were expanding wealth and becoming more powerful, challenging the status of the traditional nobility. This came to a head in the English Colonies of North America. They rebelled against their monarch and established a republic based on Enlightenment thinking. 

This revolutionary zeal based on Enlightenment ideals of sovereignty of the people, rights and freedom caught on and traveled around the world. Slaves in Haiti achieved the first and only successful slave uprising, throwing off the yoke of their colonial overlords. Revolutions spread throughout South America and Mexico. Social movements were inspired in the Middle East and even as far away as China throughout the 19th century. The most influential of these Enlightenment revolutions, however, took place in France.

In France, these Enlightenment philosophies confronted an incompetent and abusive nobility during a time of drought and economic hardship. France was structured according to a brutal Estate System, a holdover of feudalism in which society was divided into three classes, Nobility, Clergy and Commoners. In France and other such systems, the Nobility and Clergy prospered often at the expense of the commoners. This was especially true during times of drought and economic hardship. In the late eighteenth century, the increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie, the merchant class among the commoners, were tired of being treated as second class citizens. They led the hungry masses in revolution against the Estate System, overthrew the nobility and the clergy and established their own republic based on the Enlightenment principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, these changes in France gained momentum and traditional power structures and value systems broke down. The normal forms of social control were upended leading to a bloody Reign of Terror in which thousands were persecuted and beheaded, mostly peasants, and culminating in an imperial dictatorship that would itself fall after more than a decade of brutal warfare.

What happened? How did these Enlightenment principles work so well in the United States, have mixed results most everywhere else, but go so horribly wrong in France?

Auguste Comte eventually went bonkers! He abandoned positivism in favor of developing a godless religion of humanity in which sociologists would serve as high priests. He referred to himself as a profit, refused to read anything but his own writings in order to preserve his spiritual and intellectual purity and even excommunicated people, including friends like John Stuart Mill with whom he had disagreements. So…welcome to Sociology!

In the early 19th century, some innovative thinkers came about to add their two cents. 

August Comte was the first major thinker since Ibn Khaldun to apply a systematic, scientific process to the study of society. He coined the term Sociology and looked at social forces he called Statics and Dynamics to explain social change and stability. Statics were those forces in society that tended to keep society the same, predictable and stable. Statics are important because predictability and stability make everyday life possible. Imagine if every time you woke up in the morning you had no idea what was going to happen. Instead, you have a pretty good idea that you are going to class, or to work and you are going to do largely the same things that you did yesterday. 

Dynamics are those variables that lead to social change. This is important because society must develop and evolve. He saw society as developing in three stages, a theological stage in which phenomena is understood in terms of supernatural elements; a transitory metaphysical stage in which the supernatural is replaced by abstract concepts, and a final positivist stage in which phenomena are understood through reason and scientific scrutiny. Comte believed that systematically studying human interactions would lead to the development of a more rational society. He believed that sociology was the queen of sciences, the most important of academic disciplines. 

Harriet Martineau, arguably the first first in a long and distinguished line of great women sociologists

Social thinker Harriet Martineau translated Compte’s works into English and thus opened the door to his Positivist methodology. Though she was most noted in her own time for this translation she did do her own extensive sociological analysis in her great book Society in America. Society in America offered some interesting insights into religion, politics, and family. Martineau explored how institutions  can impact social problems. She was also a dedicated women’s rights and anti-slavery activist, believing that social scientists should be actively involved in shaping society. 

The United States was a fascinating subject for social thinkers in the early 19th century. After all, here was a new and expanding culture encompassing a vast territory. French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville  explored the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy as not just a political enterprise, but a cultural movement. His work became the classic required reading Democracy in America.

The 19th century was also experiencing major transformations in the economy. European society was becoming increasingly industrialized, drawing migrants into cities that struggled to keep up with the demands of a rapidly growing population. Great wealth was being created, but largely horded in the hands of a few wealthy and powerful industrialists. Changes were taking place so rapidly that understanding how society can hold itself together under such stress and how much stress the society could take became of the utmost importance. 

Sir Herbert Spencer: Not a pleasant fellow!

English social theorist Herbert Spencer developed the Organic Model of Society. He compared a society to a human body with the institutions and major groups serving as organs. In this social body all organs must function effectively in order for the society to function. Spencer applied concepts of biological evolution to social change, eventually coining the term Social Darwinism. As societies develop, those within the society who are the best adapted will thrive while those who cannot adapt must die to make room for others. Spencer believed that acts of charity and programs for relieving poverty may be well intended, but would ultimately cause the failure of society as the least adapted would be allowed to reproduce and curtail human progress by causing the social body to become weaker.

French and German Sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, more than anyone else up to that time, elevated sociology into the social science that we recognize today. Durkheim believed in pursuing social facts, phenomena that takes place external to the individual that can be observed and measured. He applied the method he wrote about in his Rules of Sociological Method to an analysis of suicide. Often understood as a psychological phenomenon, Durkheim showed that social forces were actually better predictors of suicide. 

If there is a founding father of Sociology, it’s Emile Durkheim

Durkheim observed that modern industrial society, with its rapid changes and demographic shifts was in danger of alienating its members by creating a state of normlessness, or lack of direction and structure. Durkheim referred to this state as Anomie. Anomie, according to Durkheim, happens as a result of rapid social change and poor integration of members into the society. Durkheim also analyzed the Division of Labor in Society  and elaborated on the functions of religion and of deviants to the society. Ultimately, Durkheim concluded that societies that were once held together through a social consensus based on values and tradition, what he referred to as Mechanical Solidarity, were changing as a consequence of modern forces. Societies were becoming more complex or Organic. Organic solidarity holds societies together through mutual dependence that comes from modern division of labor. Unfortunately, societies held together through Organic Solidarity tend to be less stable than those held together by Mechanical Solidarity. This instability leads to greater Anomie and the individual pathologies associated with it, including crime, alienation and even suicide.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, believed that the normal methods of objective study were insufficient for sociologists. The sociologist must practice what Weber referred to as Verstehen, or an insightful understanding of individual motivations. It wasn’t good enough to observe social actors and describe what is seen. It’s also important to understand the actors’ motivations and the meanings that they apply to their behaviors. Weber applied this Verstehen in an analysis of the effects of Protestant “work ethic” on the development of Capitalism. In this, Weber revealed that two seemingly separate variables, religion and economics are actually conjoined and even share a causal relationship. 

German sociologist Max Weber (pronounced Mocks Vaber)

Weber’s biggest contribution, however, was in an elaboration of bureaucracy. According the Weber, industrial society was replacing traditional values and beliefs with bureaucratic rules and norms. He referred to this as the rationalization of society. Organizations were forming rules to maximize output and increase efficiency in function. In other words, the rules regulating our behaviors were becoming more rational and less personal. Now the word “rational” should not be understood as a value judgement. Weber wasn’t saying that this rationalization was a good thing. In many ways, for the individual, it was an alienating and dehumanizing process. For society as a whole, however, bureaucracies and rationalization was necessary for functioning. Individuals within bureaucratic institutions may be dehumanized, but they were stuck to figure out how to thrive within this system. In doing so, they then perpetuate the bureaucracy. Weber referred to this as an Iron Cage. 

Now Weber and Durkheim, were sociologists and their contributions were massive. One does not have to be a sociologist to contribute to the field however. One of the most important and influential theorists during the industrializing 19th century was not a sociologist. I’m talking about philosopher and activist Karl Marx. Marx developed a system for analyzing history and society in terms of what he called Dialectical Materialism. In other words, history could be understood in economic terms of those who control the factors of production and those who have only their labor for exchange. In industrial societies, the bourgeoisie, or the capitalist class, controls the factors of production, the factories, farms and workplaces. The second class is the proletariat who must sell his labor for wages. 

Karl Marx was a writer, journalist, philosopher and political activist. His theories influenced socialist thought, but much of how we understand Marx’s theories is influenced by the development of Soviet style communism and the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. Best to just read what Marx actually wrote rather than rely on other people’s interpretations of his writings.

But here’s the thing. According to Marx, capitalism is inherently  exploitative. The value of goods is based on the cost of the materials and the labor that goes into production. In order for the capitalist to make a profit, however, the owner must pay the laborer less than the value of his labor, thus creating what Marx referred to as surplus value. There’s no other way to make a profit. Furthermore, the less the capitalist pays his employees, the more surplus value, the higher the profit. So the capitalist actually has an incentive to exploit his workers. Regardless, in a capitalist system, profit always represents the exploitation of workers. There’s no other way to do capitalism. This is important to understand. Marxist theory is not premised on the “greedy” capitalist exploiting his workers. Marxist theory suggests that regardless of how moral the capitalist is, he must exploit his workers to make a profit. The problem is capitalism, not the capitalist.

According to Marx, history is driven according to this inherent conflict between those who control the “material” wealth and those who must labor in the system. This conflict is called the “dialectic”. Hence the term Dialectical Materialism. Every era of history includes this dialectic relationship, from ancient slave/master relationships to feudal lord/serf interactions to modern bourgeois/proletariat divisions. History had to develop from early civilization to feudalism to capitalism to industrialization. According to Marx, however, the pressures of industrialization would lead the proletariat into a collective awareness that they are being shafted. They will develop a class consciousness and, ultimately, rise up in a worldwide rebellion, overthrow the capitalists. and establish a classless society in which everyone contributes according to their ability and receives according to their need. 

Well…okay Karl! You’re getting a bit ahead of yourself. 

Marx was among the first social theorists, however, to offer an analysis of class structure as a source of inherent conflict. Unlike other sociologists who understood society in terms of function and stability, Marx was looking at the underlying conflicts in society and who benefited from these conflicts. That’s an important innovation. After all, just because a society is functional does not make it just. It’s important to understand differential impacts of society on the various groups within that society. 

Now this is just a brief history of sociology, and we are ending that history with the 19th century. Clearly there’s more to discuss, but I wanted to give you taste of the evolution of social thinking and how it developed into a sociological science. For our purposes, modern sociology is largely founded on the works of Durkheim, Weber and Marx. We can call these theorists the Big Three. There will be some interesting innovations that we will elaborate later as we discuss the three perspectives of sociology that evolved from the work of the Big Three: Functionalism, Conflict and Interactionism.

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