Sociology 250

January 10, 2003


The Establishment of Sociology


1. General Considerations


a.  Intellectual Traditions.   Sociology emerged as a system of thought in the early 19th Century with writers such as Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in France and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in England.  As an academic discipline of study and research, sociology did not take root in universities until much later in the 19th Century, when Durkheim and Weber in Europe and Mead, Cooley, and others in the U.S. midwest began to develop it as an academic discipline.  Early writers like Comte and Spencer, generally considered to be sociologists, may be less important in the development of sociological thought than are other intellectual currents such as the enlightenment, liberal thought, and philosophical developments. 


We can now look back and trace the history of sociological thought and see that there were many precursors of sociology – writers who wrote about social relationships in society, described how these changed over time, and developed explanations of the structure of these social relationships.  Most of these are not considered sociologists and many wrote about various political, religious, social, or even scientific issues.  Among these were writers such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, de Tocqueville, Smith, Hegel, Kant, and others who were more political theorists and philosophers than sociologists.    


One characteristic that connects these various writers and approaches was their belief that society could be an object of study, that there were regularities in social action, that explanations of social relationships could be developed, and that betterment of society through social reform could be achieved by using this analysis.  That is, social analysis could be a way of explaining and dealing with the problems of society (AS, 9).


Adams and Sydie discuss several of these approaches as “philosophic precursors” on pages 8 through 20.


b.  Sociology and the Development of Society.  Sociological theories are not purely intellectual in nature, but are closely connected with developments in the social world and changes in society.  One reason why sociological approaches differ is that they are attempting to describe different sets of social forces that develop in society – at different times and places, with different actors and results.  As societies change, it is the nature of these changes that sociologists attempt to explain, and it is the changes themselves that lead to astute observers providing explanations of these changes.  For example, Marx's political-economic theory is an explanation of nineteenth century capitalism as it developed in Britain.  His theory could not have been developed fifty years earlier because the trends and forces that he described and explained were only beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century.  Weber's analysis of bureaucracy and rationalization could not have emerged much sooner than it did, because the bureaucratic structures and the forces of rationalization had not developed all that much before Weber's time.  And Durkheim’s analysis of the changing division of labour could take place only once the division of labour was well developed and its effects observable.


While we may think of each sociologist as developing a new theoretical approach, what characterizes sociologists just as much is empirical work – their careful and acute study of society and their ability to put together contributions from other writers.  The same is true today – as society changes, new sociological theories and approaches are developed in an attempt to understand and explain these changes – for example, feminist and post-colonial approaches.  Each is a response to the changed position of social actors – formerly excluded and still unequal, but with the increased activity of women in the labour force, politics, the public sphere and education and the increased ability of people of colour and others outside the mainstream to enter social life on a more equal basis.   Sociological approaches may also assist such individuals and groups in obtaining a place in society.


At the same time, if the sociological theory is to be useful at other times and places, it must have some universal aspects to it.  The three major classical sociological approaches each have these two aspects to them -- (i) describing the changes that took place or were taking place at the time and (ii) providing ways of explaining society at different times and places.   Adams and Sydie explain some of these changes on pp. 21-28. 


c.  Sociological Observation.  Sociology as a discipline today is both theoretical and methodological, composed of well developed theories of the social world, but with empirical studies of the social world being as important as, or more important than, the theoretical side.  The primary aim of Sociology 250 is to trace the development of theory and look on the major traditions in thought that could be considered sociological in nature.  But to provide worthwhile contributions, sociology must be somewhat applied and engaged with the social world.


Another side to sociology is the studies of people and social relationships that were important.   While the theorists examined in Sociology 250 did rely on observation and attempted to verify their findings in a rough way, standards for doing this were not always well developed.  Early theories were quite general and impressionistic, talking about stages of society or differences among and within societies.  For example Comte thought of society as having three stages (p. 42) – a theological stage (search for purpose through God or gods and the supernatural), a metaphysical or abstract stage (substitution of nature for God and intellectuals replace religious orders and supernatural), and a scientific or positive stage where facts and laws can be discovered and used in a scientific manner to improve society.  While there may be some truth in Comte’s approach, it was not based on detailed and rigorous observation so much as a general historical and impressionistic view. 


Along with the history of sociological theory, there is a history of social observation.  This involves historical studies, travelogues, statistical studies and observations, administrative records of governments, businesses, and non-governmental agencies, and studies of economic conditions.  Later in the nineteenth century these became more systematic with studies of poverty and working conditions being among the first systematic studies of this type.  Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) stands as one of the first great studies of this type.  Others who can be associated with this tradition are William Petty, T. R. Malthus, Benjamin Franklin, and Adolphe Quetelet.  Early censuses also took place in France and England and some other European countries.  These descriptive and statistical studies formed some of the raw material for sociological analysis.  Durkheim used a massive amount of data that had been obtained concerning suicide rates to develop his sociological approach.  Marx spent years in the British Library reading accounts of British society, industry, and economy and these helped him develop his theoretical approach. 


Each of the major approaches to the study of sociology used these observations of society to help build a theoretical approach.  These theoretical approaches use the observations to build a model of the society being described, and they also provide material to help those who analyze other societies at different times and places.


2. Social Change in Europe (Adams and Sydie, pp. 21-26)


Sociology began as the study of society – that which was different than nature and the private world.  Society developed as individualism, citizenship, and a public sphere emerged in Europe.  Society can also be considered to be that which separates the private world from the state.  It was this newly emergent society that early sociologists took note of and attempted to understand.


In Western European societies, tradition and religion had governed many aspects of society until 1500 or later.  For several centuries, society was organized in a feudal form, with the Roman Catholic church being dominant in many aspects of life and society.  Almost everyone lived in rural, agricultural areas, with most people being serfs or peasants.  Society was organized hierarchically, with lords being landowners and serfs being agricultural workers or servants.  The Roman Catholic Church was a powerful force in the daily lives of people, it was the wealthiest organization in Europe, and was the largest landowner in Europe.  Centred in Rome, it was also the only large scale organization in Europe.  Other forms of political power were decentralized and local – nation states developed much later.   Rules governing conduct of daily life were often determined by the church and traditional values, and there was little questioning of these traditions – or the questioning was not effective at promoting change.  Feudal organization and the church had different strengths at different places in Europe, and social and economic change did occur.  But in general, this change was very slow, societies were mostly rural, tradition governed, and social organization was hierarchical in nature.


At the same time, various developments were taking place – resulting in dramatic changes that would alter the nature of these societies forever.  The power of the Roman Catholic church was challenged by the Reformation, beginning in the early 1500s.  Philosophers began to write in ways that challenged traditional religious ideas, and  developed a more secular basis for systems of thought.  Agriculture began to become much more economically productive, basic forms of industry began to develop, trade routes vastly expanded, and commerce and the use of money became much more widespread.  These changes first took place in Western and Southern Europe, with Eastern Europe taking many more centuries to change.  While Italy was originally in the forefront of these changes, it was in Britain, France and Germany where the major changes took place.


a.  Industrialization and Urbanization.  Trade, commerce, finance, and exploration all developed rapidly after 1500.   Changes in the organization of agriculture helped to increase food production, populations grew, and this meant that more people in rural areas than needed or more than the land could support.  Cities had begun to develop as isolated centres for trade and commerce in the middle ages – centres where local products could be exchanged or where products from more distant locations could be distributed (tea and spices from the East, gold and silver, furs).  Production of cloth and other manufactured products also began in some of these emerging urban centres.  These cities were important for their economic role and also for their political role:  they were often self-governing units free of feudal control (democracy begins to develop) and as centres for the emergence of the new middle classes or the bourgeoisie.  These changes took place through much of Europe, and by the 1700s, the stage was set for major economic developments in European society.


In the economic sphere, by the 1750s, the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Britain, changing forever the relative roles of agriculture and industry, and introducing a period when change would become the norm in production of goods and services.  Britain was clearly the leader, but other countries also had industrial revolutions, although somewhat later.  Britain developed cotton textile production in factories.  The nature of production changed dramatically, with more production taking place in factories – associated with a new relationship between producers and those organizing production.  The way in which this took place changed the class structure – from lords and serfs to capitalists and workers.  As Adams and Sydie note, “class relations replaced hierarchies of rank and status in importance” (p. 21).


It was the development of markets and the capitalist organization of production that helped fuel rapid change and created great dislocations of population and the economy.  Associated with the rural, traditional, feudal organization were difficulties associated with the seasons, crop failures, wars, or political changes.  What began to be different was that markets and economic changes began to dictate where and when people would be employed or located.  The new markets that developed helped create massive cheapening of products, but resulting in rural and urban unemployment, poor working conditions, and cycles of boom and bust.  This great transformation separated public and private and created an ongoing dominance of markets over many aspects of social life.


The Industrial Revolution has never stopped, with continual changes in the nature of production occurring after this.  Production of industrial commodities also began to be centred in urban areas, and the population shift from rural to urban began.  Over time, the effects of the Industrial Revolution have spread to all areas of the world – partly through colonialism and imperialism.  In this sense, the effect of industrialism has been universal, and theories describing the new economy of capitalism and industrialization can also claim a certain universality.  At the same time, the record of how such changes occur and the manner in which social relations develop is different in each area. 


b.  Religion and Secular Thought.   The teachings of the church in the middle ages have been called the “Christian paternalist or corporate ethic,” reflecting the idea of society as a single entity or corporation.  This was in contrast to a later view of society as a set of individuals.  Within this traditional form of society the individual was not important, nor the basis for analysis of society.  The common person was to take his or her place in society and carry out his or her duties willingly.  Society could be compared to a traditional family with the Church or God as father and with the others as willing subjects in this institution, accepting leadership and not questioning authority.  These traditional teachings of the Church also were anticapitalist – prohibiting profit and obtaining interest on loans and also discouraging innovation, trade and gain.  (See Hunt, Ch. 1).


The challenge to the authority of Rome began in the 14th Century, but the Reformation is usually dated as beginning with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses to the door of  the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517.  In most countries of Western Europe, Protestant groups emerged over the next few years.  In England, the conflict between Henry VIII and Rome led to the break with Rome in 1534.  These developments challenged the authority of traditional thought in various ways.  (i) At the minimum, they meant several sources of independent thought, rather than having authoritative ideas coming from Rome.  (ii) The notion of a single entity or corporation as an adequate description of society was shattered.  (iii) Individualism began to be promoted, since many of the Protestant doctrines emphasized the relationship of the individual to God, without necessarily having the Church involved.  (iv) The possibility of the development of secular thought.  If the Church is no longer the sole authority, and different forms of relationship with God could exist, this could open the possibility of individual interpretations that do not involve God.  By the 1700s, a much more open view of ideas became possible.  Adams and Sydie note that this development began much earlier, with the shift from God as supreme creator to the idea of God as expressed in nature (p. 10), but these changes took several centuries to unfold. 


The new Protestant churches place less emphasis on the salvation through the church and tended to emphasize personal salvation.  Max Weber considered this more individualistic approach to be one of the major forces that gave impetus to the development of capitalism in Western Europe – even though it was not intended to do so.  We will discuss Weber’s analysis of the ethic of Protestantism later in the semester.


c.  Science and Technology.  The physical sciences had shown tremendous developments in the understanding of the physical world.  Galileo (1564-1642, Italian), Kepler (1571-1630, German) and Newton (1642-1727, English) each combined careful observation of the movement of physical bodies with reasoning to obtain laws of motion.  These laws could be described mathematically and were universal in their application.  In addition, these laws were useful in a practical way – they could be used to help understand motion and could be adapted to produce new technologies.  Zeitlin argues that these developments “had an incalculable impact on the intellectuals of the Enlightenment.  Here was a magnificent triumph of reason and observation, the new method that takes observed facts and advances an interpretation that accounts for what is observed, so that if the interpretation is correct, it can guide observers in their quest for new facts.”  (Zeitlin, p. 3). 


Adams and Sydie provide a list of inventions associated with the development of the industrial revolution (p. 23).   They note that the “social, technological, and economic transformations produced a new social world – of competitive individualism, of faith in the ‘invisible hand’ of the marketplace.” (p. 23).   


d. Political Changes.  The old political system began to break down in England by the 1600s.  There the parliament became supreme, with the authority of the king being replaced by that of parliament between 1640 and 1688.  This can be interpreted as the victory of the bourgeoisie, or middle classes, in the political arena – replacing the exclusive rule of aristocracy and landowners.   In France, change took place more slowly, but when change did occur it was much more spectacular.  The French Revolution of 1789 overthrew the old feudal and religious order in a few months and created dramatic changes very quickly.  Many of the ideas that had been developed in the Enlightenment were put into practice – with the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity setting the basis for a completely new social and political order.  These changes also represented the victory for the new middle classes in France, and the beginnings of societies based on the individual and individualism.  Rather than being subjects of feudal rulers or the church, people became citizens.  While democracy was slow to take root, the new slogans and structures began to move in this direction in the political world.  


The American Revolution (1776) was associated with many of the same ideas.  The Declaration of Independence, with the claim to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness signifies a different approach from the traditional view of society.  Canada had no such successful revolution, but the forces of democracy did have some effect within this country as well.  While Canada remained a colony until 1867, with colonial influences continuing until much later, Canada also developed some forms of democratic rule by the 1840s.


Socialism was another political current that was influential.  In the English and in the French Revolution there were those who wanted to take equality seriously and create equality for all, not just for the middle classes.  Ideas of communal ownership or ownership by all emerged with the Levellers in England.  In the French Revolution, Babeuf argued for an egalitarian society and said that the existing government would have to be toppled by force.  There had been a long history of peasant revolts, but these did not create permanent organizations.  With the development of industry, workers began to form trade unions.  While it took considerable time for these to develop, they did show the effectiveness of the organization of ordinary working people.  Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a successful British industrialist who had a vision of a better society.  He established a model workers' community in New Lanark, Scotland where workers had decent wages and children were educated.  He argued for creation of a society of equals and for social reforms.  What is important about these is that there were socialist ideas of equality and improvement of society during the early nineteenth century.  These were to have a strong influence on the writings and activities of Marx.




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Last edited January 10, 2003


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