History of Sociology

History of the Sociology

As a discipline, or body of systematized knowledge, sociology is of relatively recent origin. The concept of civil society as a realm distinct from the state was expressed in the writings of the 17th century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and of the later thinkers of the French and Scottish enlightenments. (see Age of Enlightenment). Their works anticipated the subsequent focus of sociology, as did the later philosophies of history of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico and the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel with regard to the study of social change. Relating to this discipline resarch, see about research methods employed by sociologists here.


The first definition of sociology was advanced by the French philosopher Auguste Comte. In 1838 Comte coined the term sociology to describe his vision of a new science that would discover laws of human society resembling the laws of nature by applying the methods of factual investigation that had proved so successful in the physical sciences. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer adopted both Comte’s term and his mission.

Several 19th century social philosophers who never called themselves sociologists, are today also counted among the founders of the discipline. The most important among them is Karl Marx, but their number also includes the French aristocrat Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, the writer and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville and, to a lesser extent, the British philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill. These people were largely speculative thinkers, as were Comte and Spencer and their predecessors in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quite different tradition of empirical reporting of statistics also developed in the 19th century and later became incorporated into academic sociology, especially in the United States.

Developments in Europe

Not until the 1880s and 1890s did sociology begin to be recognized as an academic discipline. In France, à‰mile Durkheim, the intellectual heir of Saint-Simon and Comte, began teaching sociology at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris. Durkheim founded the first true school of sociological thought. He emphasized the independent reality of social facts (as distinct from the psychological attributes of individuals) and sought to discover interconnections among them. Durkheim and his followers made extensive studies of primitive societies similar to those that were later carried out by social anthropologists.

In Germany, sociology was finally recognized as an academic discipline in the first decade of the 20th century, largely because of the efforts of the German economist and historian Max Weber. In contrast with the attempts to model the field after the physical sciences that were dominant in France and in English-speaking countries, German sociology was largely the outgrowth of far-ranging historical scholarship, combined with the influence of Marxism, both of which were central to Weber’s work. The influential efforts of the German philosopher Georg Simmel to define sociology as a distinctive discipline emphasized the human-centered focus of German philosophical idealism.

In Britain, sociology was slow to develop; until the 1960s the field was mostly centered in a single institution, the London School of Economics. British sociology combined an interest in large-scale evolutionary social change with a practical concern for problems relevant to the administration of the welfare state.

Developments of Sociology in the United States

Despite its European origins, sociology during the first half of the 20th century became primarily an American subject. After the early interest in the broad evolutionist theories of Comte and Spencer had declined, American sociology emphasized the study of particular social problems such as crime, marital discord, and the acculturation of immigrants.

The center of U.S. sociological study before World War II (1939-1945) was the University of Chicago. There, the American philosopher George Herbert Mead, who had studied in Germany, stressed in his writings the origins of the mind, the self, and society in the actions and interactions of people. This approach, later known as symbolic interactionism, was largely microsociological and social psychological (see Social Psychology) in emphasis. In 1937, the American sociologist Talcott Parsons introduced the ideas of Durkheim, Weber, and the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto in his major work The Structure of Social Action, which eventually overcame the narrow, limited outlook of American sociology. Leadership in the field passed for a time from Chicago to Harvard University and then to Columbia University, where the American social scientist Robert Merton attempted to unite theory with rigorous empirical (data-gathering) research.

After 1945 both American scholarship and a resurgence of Marxist thought increasingly penetrated European sociology, which expanded considerably. To a growing extent in both the United States and Western Europe, the three dominating figures of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber were recognized as the preeminent classical thinkers of the sociological tradition. Their work continues to influence contemporary sociologists.

Source: “Sociology,”Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia. Contributed By Dennis Hume Wrong, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology, New York University. Author of Class Fertility Trends in Western Nations and other books.

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Theory of Law
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Analytical School
Historical School
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History of Social Darwinism
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  • Description: ContentsHistory of the SociologyOriginsDevelopments in EuropeDevelopments of Sociology in the United StatesSee Also History [...]

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