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Founding Fathers Of Sociology

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Category: Social Issues

Autor: reviewessays 05 February 2011

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Sociology is the study of social behaviour. Our behaviour is patterned in certain ways and sociologists study these patterns and differences in a scientific manner. The study of modern sociology, the objective and systematic study of human behaviour and society, only began from the late 1700s onwards (Giddens, 1989, 1993, 1997, 2001). The origins of this science can be linked to the two great revolutions that occurred in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – The French Revolution of 1789 and the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. These revolutions greatly changed people’s values and ideas about society and the part they had to play in it. The early sociologists, who lived during these times of great social and economic change, put forward theories and approaches to try and make sense of the changing society around them and the consequences these changes would have. In this essay I will refer to the main founding fathers of sociology: Comte, Durkheim, Marx and Weber. I will discuss their main ideas and concerns about the changing societies that they encountered.

The Frenchman Auguste Comte (1798-1857) grew up in the wake of the French revolution of 1789. In these times of momentous change he noticed how French people’s lives were being changed completely in the period after the revolution and the growth of industrialisation (Giddens, 1989, 1993, 1997, 2001). He wanted to make sense of these changes as he believed that there were set laws in sociology like there are in the physical sciences. He sought to find these laws and understand how society actually operates. To do this Comte came up with what he called law of the three stages which stated that the development of knowledge changed the way we lived because we first went through a theological, metaphysical and then finally a positive stage in society. The theological stage as Comte put it was dominated by primitive religions whose moral structure was based on family and supernatural thought. The second metaphysical stage came about at the time of the renaissance and in it society was seen as a natural phenomenon not a supernatural one. The final positive stage came about with the discoveries of science and society was seen to be the result of scientific laws. Comte had concerns with the changing society he was observing; ‘he was concerned with the inequalities being produced by industrialization and the threat they posed to social cohesion’ (Giddens, 2001: 8). He thought that if people had knowledge about how society operates then they would be able to create a better future for themselves. In his opinion the solution was to produce a moral consensus; ‘that would help to regulate, or hold together, society despite the new patterns of inequality’ (Giddens, 2001: 8).

Йmile Durkheim (1858-1917) was mainly concerned with the study of social facts. He believed that sociologists should ‘treat social facts as things’, that: ‘they should accept that society had an existence that was independent of the individuals who comprised it’ (Bilton , 2002: 6). Since these cannot be observed directly Durkheim believed that they could only be studied by observing the effects that they create in society. As he was living in a society, which was rapidly changing because of industrialisation, he devised the concept of ‘social solidarity’ that examines the ways in which society can be integrated. Industrialisation and urbanisation which he was encountering was breaking down what he called mechanical solidarity in favour of new organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity was an old form of society where communities were held together because they lived similar lives in terms of their occupation and assets. Organic solidarity was the new form of solidarity that evolved with the coming of modern societies. This was the integration of society through the differences that now existed like occupation and economic factors. Durkheim saw modern societies as ‘the interrelationship of interdependent parts.’ In other words society would not function effectively without everyone co-operating to reach their personal objectives. (Bilton1, 2002: 6)

‘A major concern of his was that societies in which we are members exert social constraint over our actions’ (Giddens, 2001: 667). He believed that society is superior over single individuals and it sets boundaries to what we can do and achieve as individuals. Other sociologists have disagreed with Durkheim as they believe that society does not determine what we do and; ‘Society is only many individuals behaving in regular ways in relation to each other as … we inhabit a social world permeated by cultural meanings’ (Giddens, 2001: 668). In this way the dilemma over structure and action has two distinct viewpoints. Another important concept that Durkheim was concerned about was social stability. He believed that a breakdown in the common values shared by a society, such as morality and religion would lead to a loss of social stability (Microsoft Encarta 2004). He called this decline in the structure of society Anomie. He explained that when there is anomie individuals act independently to the norms of society. He believed that modern societies were especially prone to this sort of social decline as the Industrial Revolution had created social and economic inequalities that some people would be dissatisfied with and try and change, hence causing anomie (Bilton1, 2002: 6).

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was concerned with the inequalities in society created by the industrial revolution and the development of capitalism. He believed that the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, exploited the workers who had no ownership in the means of production, the proletariat. Although both classes depend on each other, the dependency is highly unbalanced in favour of the bourgeoisie. He believed that these two classes would be in conflict with each other until there was a change over from a capitalist system to a communist one, where all the people share in the ownership of the means of production (Encarta 2004). This would eradicate the large-scale divisions in society that the Industrial Revolution had created. Marx was in the opinion that; ‘it is not ideas or values human beings hold that are the main sources of social change but rather … social change is prompted primarily by economic influences’ (Giddens, 2001: 12).

The German, Max Weber (1864-1920) devoted much of his work to the development of modern capitalism and the differences between modern society and traditional society. In his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism (1904)” he set out his ideas about the creation of capitalism. He concluded that if people worked hard, saved the money they earned and invested it in their businesses then capitalism, as we know it today would be created. He tried to explain social change in terms of what it was and why it had come about. ‘Weber believed that sociology should focus on social action, not structures… that human motivation and ideas were the forces behind change – ideas, values and beliefs had the power to bring about transformations’ (Giddens, 2001: 13).

The early sociologists of Europe, who lived through times of great economic and social change, came up with different theories and concepts to try and make sense of the changing societies they were encountering. Comte and Durkheim believed in a functionalist approach where society was composed of different parts that work together for the benefit of society. ‘Although they were concerned with how society could be improved, their major goal was to understand how society actually operates’ (Macionis and Plumer, 1998: 32) Marx believed in an approach where, social change is driven primarily by economic influences and the individual is a product of the society in which they live. Weber, who was highly influenced by Marx, agreed on many of his points but had some very different ideas of his own. For example he argued that sociology should centre on social action, not structures. Scientific discoveries followed by technological advances, created large cities where people had to modify their traditional values in order to adapt to modern lifestyle and the new political changes that were taking effect. To understand these changes and the effects they had on people, a new type of science was created. Sociology was born.


Bilton, T. and Bonnett K. and Jones, P. and Lawson, T. and Skinner, D. Stanworth, M. and Andrew Webster, A. 2002. Introductory Sociology. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Giddens, A. 2001. Sociology. Cornwall: T.J. International Ltd.

Macionis, J. and Plumer, K. 1998. Sociology – A Global Introduction. London: Pentice Hall Europe.

Microsoft Encarta Premium Suite 2004.