Sociology 250

September 11 and 13, 2002

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, 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 society could be improved through this analysis and study. 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 and we will return to some of them.

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 some of the economic and social trends of modern, industrial societies became apparent.

While we may think of each sociologist as developing a new theoretical approach, what characterizes sociologists just as much is 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 – 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 and we will return to these.

c. Sociological Observation. Sociology as a discipline today is both theoretical and methodological, with theories of the 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.

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 though, there is a history of social observation. This involves historical studies, travelogues, statistical studies and observations, administrative records of governments and businesses, and studies of economic conditions. Later in the nineteenth century this 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)

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 and conduct governing 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 the traditional religious ideas, and began to develop 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, the Industrial Revolution began 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 social order – 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.

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. 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. 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. The American Revolution was associated with many of the same ideas. While democracy was slow to take root, the new slogans and structures began to move in this direction in the political world. 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.

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.



3. The Enlightenment and Liberalism

The Enlightenment refers to an intellectual movement, primarily in France and Britain, that spans approximately one hundred years from the 1680s to 1789. Adams and Sydie state that these "thinkers put society and social relations under intense scrutiny." (p. 11) Preceding and setting the stage for the Enlightenment were writers and scientists who investigated the natural world and systems of thought, writers such as Galileo (Italian), Newton (English), Francis Bacon (1561-1626, English), René Descartes (1596-1650, French). Enlightenment writers include Hobbes, Locke, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Rousseau – the French writers were sometimes called the philosophes. The leading representatives were religious skeptics, political reformers, cultural critics, historians and social theorists (Zeitlin, p. 1).

The writings of the Enlightenment profoundly affected politics and the development of sociology. The French Revolution (1789) and the American Revolution (1776) had many causes but many Enlightenment ideas and ways of thinking had a great effect on these political and social changes. The slogans of "liberty, equality, fraternity" and "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" state the political ideals of these revolutions and reflect the ideas of Enlightenment thought.

a. Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679, English) "contribution was the suggestion that the social order was made by human beings and therefore could be changed by human beings" (Adams and Sydie, p. 14). Hobbes looked on the individual as selfish, concerned with self-preservation, searching for power, and (potentially at least) at war with others. For Hobbes, in the state of nature, there was a war of all against all and life is nasty, brutish, and short. Since individuals are rational, they agree to surrender their individual rights to the sovereign in order to create a state whereby they can be protected from other individuals. Locke and Rousseau further developed this idea of a social contract, although in a somewhat different form than Hobbes.

Contributions of Hobbes include the recognition of the existence of the individual and individual rights along with the concepts of rationality, self-interest, competitiveness, and calculation as individual attributes. Adams and Sydie also point out (p. 14) that Hobbes did not consider the ruler or monarch to be ordained by God (as monarchs often claimed in the divine right of kings) or some external force, but by the people themselves since "authority is given by the subjects themselves." This is important in the development of ideas of political democracy in western Europe and North America.

b. Locke

John Locke (1632-1704, English) had a more optimistic view of human nature than did Hobbes, looking on humans as good, rational, social, cooperative and tolerant, at least in a state of nature. He believed in a certain original equality of all individuals, male and female, in the state of nature, where everyone had a right to autonomy and freedom. "The organization of the State evolved as a result of free individuals consenting to be governed by an abstract authority in the interests of protecting private property." (Sydie, p. 1). Locke believed that if each individual rationally pursues happiness and pleasure, this promotes cooperation so that in the long run individual and the general welfare coincide.

In terms of the mind and knowledge, Locke looked on the individual mind as beginning blank and empty, but gaining ideas through experience. Knowledge could be increased by further experience, and the mind collects these impressions.

Locke looked on women as having "natural differences" from men, one that justified domination of women by men. While property rights were an extremely important individual right for Locke, because of what he regarded as the natural differences between men and women, he did not believe property rights should be extended to women – thus denying women equality.

c. Rousseau

One of the major influences on western thought, and an important Enlightenment writer was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778, French). Rousseau is best known for the concepts of the social contract and the state of nature. He stated "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." (Zeitlin, p. 23). Rousseau begins with an optimistic view of human nature, that man is perfectible, that men are equal and have sympathy with one another. This creates the possibility of a better society. People are generally isolated in a state of nature, but with the development of cooperation, society begins to develop, and it is society that creates inequality and war.

Rousseau was critical of existing society, claiming that "private property brought about war, conflict, and thus the need for a civil state" (Adams and Sydie, 17) but thought that society could be improved "if all individuals shared equally in the construction of laws for their common general happiness." (Adams and Sydie, 18). Rousseau was looking for "a social order whose laws were in greatest harmony with the fundamental laws of nature." (Zeitlin, p. 17) This is the social contract, whereby the individual is

absorbed into the common, general will, without losing his own will ... He loses nothing and gains in return the assurance that he will be protected by the full force of society against the encroachment of individuals and groups. He is now a member of a society of equals and has regained an equality not unlike the one he enjoyed in nature – but in a new form and on a higher level. (Zeitlin, p. 25).

Zeitlin views Rousseau as a forerunner of sociology because he understands the notion of culture – what people acquire from society. He was one of the first to discuss inequality in society and he argued that change could occur in a way that would overcome some of the inequalities. Many earlier writers had viewed these forms of inequality as natural and good.

d. Wollstonecraft (1759-1799)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1799) was an English author and feminist, who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), one of the first great feminist documents. She lived in France during much of the French Revolution and was mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft adopts the "liberal model of the rational, self-determining individual" (Eisenstein, pp. 89-90) from Locke. She did not view women as different than men by nature, attributing the observed differences to "socially constructed gender roles." She placed strong emphasis on reason and argues that women are rational beings, and just like men, should be allowed an equal opportunity to develop their rational and moral capacities. Women should be educated in much the same manner as men, in order to develop "virtues such as courage, temperance, justice, and fortitude," the characteristics that men should develop. (Tong, p. 14). If women develop these characteristics, they will be able to develop into better wives and mothers, and this will also allow them to develop economic independence from men. In arguing in this manner, she takes the liberal vision of the rational and autonomous man and extends this to women. That is, she takes the liberal ideas of freedom and individuality and extends them to all people. Just as Locke criticized the divine right of kings, so Wollstonecraft contests the divine right of husbands.

Wollstonecraft does not view women as inferior to men in any way, and argues that "when women are ruled by reason ... they will be able to share in the equality of opportunities in society." (Eisenstein, p. 92). Because of this, it is important for women to cultivate reason, acquire strength of body and mind, see through the language of femininity, and obtain educational equality with men. Through this, women would become, and be treated as, autonomous decision makers and as persons.

Note that in Canada, women were not given the right to vote until 1918 in federal elections, and two years earlier in the Prairie provinces. Quebec women did not receive the vote in provincial elections until 1940. In terms of property ownership, this also rested with men through most of the nineteenth century, with changes that allowed property purchasers to become owner, regardless off sex, coming between 1872 and 1940. "By 1897 in English Canada and 1931 in Quebec, a wife employed outside the home was allowed to retain her wages." (Burt, p. 214). Also note that in Canada it was not until the 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code that sales of contraceptives became legal, or that abortions became legal.

e. Summary of enlightenment thought

Enlightenment writings demonstrate a shift away from the view that society and estates (ranks of nobility and the common people) are the basic unit of social analysis and toward the view that the individual is the basis. In this approach, individuals have inherent qualities, abilities, and rights and society emerged and developed as the result of a social contract among these individuals. Those writers who supported an earlier social order would have viewed Locke's notion that the state is the result of "individuals consenting to be governed" to be unacceptable – supporters of an earlier order viewed society as the basic unit, with people having to fill their place in this structure.

In contrast to systems of thought where the sacred had dominated and where questioning was discouraged, Enlightenment thinkers viewed human reason as dominant. No subjects of study were to be forbidden, there were no unaskable questions, with all aspects of human life appropriate for examination and study. In doing this, Enlightenment thinkers combined the philosophic tradition of abstract rational thought (Descartes and other philosophers) with the tradition of experimentation or empirical philosophy (from Galileo, Newton, Bacon and others). The result was a new system of human inquiry that attacked the old order and privileges, put emphasis and faith on science, the scientific method and education, and

acquired the practical function of asking critical questions about existing institutions and demanding that the unreasonable ones, those contrary to human nature, be changed. All social obstacles to human perfectibility were to be progressively eliminated. (Zeitlin, p.2).

The new approach was an empirical and scientific one at the same time that it was philosophical. The world was an object of study, and the Enlightenment thinkers thought that people could understand and control the world by means of reason and empirical research. Social laws could be discovered, and society could be improved by means of rational and empirical inquiry. This form of thought was reformist, and one that challenged the old order. Enlightenment thinkers were generally optimistic in outlook, looking on their system of thought as a way of improving the social world.

Ritzer (pp. 10-11) summarizes the effect of the Enlightenment as follows:

· People can comprehend, change and perhaps control universe.

· Philosophy and science – combination of reason and empirical research.

· Abstract systems of ideas that made rational sense, but with study of the real social world.

· Application of scientific method to social issues – discover social laws.

· Social analysis and social scientists should be useful to the world – create better world.

· Criticism of traditional authority, institutions and beliefs – irrationality of these.

· Human growth and development of society occur if tradition gives way to reason.

· Emphasis on the individual rather than society.

Early sociology developed as a result of the new features of thought that emerged out of the enlightenment, and out of the conservative reaction to this. Sociology was first used as a term by Auguste Comte (French, 1798 - 1857) in 1822. He looked on sociology as a science, first calling it social physics. The idea of sociology as the science of society has been adopted by some later sociologists.

These new developments and ideas were important for the development of sociology in several ways.

If Comte represents the first systematic social theory inspired by the reaction to the Enlightenment, it is Marx who was the first theorist to fully work out the implications of the Enlightenment ideas. While Marx grew up and wrote in Germany, where the Enlightenment did not have such strong effects as early as in France, Britain or North America, Marxian thought can be seen as resulting partly from Enlightenment thought.


Burt, S., L. Code and L. Dorney, Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, second edition (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1993). HQ1453 C48 1993

Columbia Encyclopedia, third edition, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963. AG5 C725 1963.

Eisenstein, Zillah, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism (Boston, Notheastern University Press, 1986). HQ1154 E44 1986

Hunt, E. K., Property and Prophets: the Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies, sixth edition, New York, Harper and Row, 1990.

Ritzer, G., Sociological, Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938

Sydie, R. A., Natural Women Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory, Toronto, Methuen, 1987. HM51 S97 1987.

Tong, Rosemarie, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder, Westview Press, 1989). HQ1206 T65 1989

Zeitlin, Irving M., Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall, 1990. HM19 Z4

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Last edited September 15, 2002