Analysis of How Sociology Developed as an Academic Discipline


Sociology, the systematic study of social behavior and society through the scientific method, has not always been recognized as a formal discipline. The beginnings of sociology go back to Ancient Greece where Aristotle developed the first system of sociologic analysis. Although the majority of his theories were based on his personal feelings rather than factual happenings, his research inspired future philosophes to question their environments and to study society. Throughout time, and the change brought with it, the study of society and social behavior has become a diverse, precise and renowned academic discipline, being officially coined sociology by a pioneer in the field, August Comte, in the 1800’s. In totality, to most sociologists, sociology is the study of the various aspects of society and interactions within it to promote a better cross-cultural, and general, understanding in order to lead to a more harmonious society.

Early Influences

In the late 1700’s-1800’s, France and other Western European countries went through what is now known as “the Age of Enlightenment” (or also “the Age of Reason”). Newfound scientific evidence, theories and studies provoked individuals to begin to question the overly religious and superstitious propaganda metaphorically spoon-fed to them since birth by whomever rule/ruler under which they resided. As can be imagined, in this period of time, mass media was not readily available. “Enlightened” artists and writers worked to spread and promote the ideas of early sociology, but the audience as to whom this artwork was available to was limited. However the ideas did reach some whose lives were changed, an especially relevant group of inquisitive minds worth noting are Charles Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Jacques Turgot. These men were self-defined philosophes, “one who trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, and authority…dares to think for himself, to go back and search for the clearest general principles, and to admit nothing except on the testimony of his own experience and reason” (Kramnick qtd. Kendall 11), as they defined it to be. I also find worth in mentioning that this is also around the time that Free Masonry became an established secret society promoting similar ideals of early sociologists. Despite these breakthroughs, the widespread practice of sociology didn’t really catch on until widespread drastic changes in the individuals’ life caused by rapid governmental revolutions, industrialization and in turn urbanization, caused more people to seek out the reasons and solutions to the societal and social problems they were facing.

Depiction of 1500's France, 'Peasant's Dance'.
Depiction of 1500's France, 'Peasant's Dance'.
August Comte
August Comte

Early Sociologists

One of the first sociologists of modern relevance is August Comte (1798-1857), who actually gave the practice its’ name. He stressed that the methods of science should be applied in practicing sociology in order to achieve factual and relevant information. Another relevant sociologist who promoted sociologic study be conducted in a scientific manner is Max Weber, “Weber emphasized that sociology should be value free – research should be conducted in a scientific manner and should exclude the researcher’s personal values and economic interests.” (Turner, Beeghley, and Powers qtd. Kendall 19). Sociologist Harriet Martineau is also of great importance in reference to Comte because she condensed and translated his work, making it more available for research, insight, and secondary analysis. Although Comte didn’t conduct any notable research, his theories of societal structure are so relevant he is considered to be the founding father of sociology. Comte theorizes that “societies contain social statics (forces for social order and stability) and social dynamics (forces for conflict and change)” (Kendall 13). An example of Comte’s social conflict dynamic could be linked to Herbert Spencer’s theory of social Darwinism. Social forces that cause conflict lead the strongest of the race to overcome said conflict and excel. “Spencer believed that societies developed through a process of “struggle” (for existence) and “fitness” (for survival), which he referred to as survival of the fittest.” (Kendall 14). Karl Marx, famous for the term Marxism, further theorizes the social class conflict, stating that it is necessary for the advancement of the society. He theorized the small population of wealthy peoples, the capitalist class, exploit the poor, working class leading them to feel insecure and estranged, eventually leading to an overturn of the classes. George Simmel (1858-1918) also believed that the class conflict was becoming more prominent in relevancy to industrialization and urbanization. Simmel linked the increase in individualism as a result of these newly social situations caused by urbanization/industrialization, “He also linked the increase in individualism, as opposed to concern for the group, to the fact that people now had many cross-cutting “social spheres” – membership in a number of different organizations and voluntary associations – rather than having the singular community ties of the past.” (Kendall 20).

Robert Merton
Robert Merton

Modern Sociologists

Moving into the 1900’s, sociology took on more of the functionalist perspective, “functionalist perspectives are based on the idea that society is a stable, orderly system.” (Kendall 23). The practice was beginning to focus on the stability of society and the individual and their role and contribution to society and its’ affects rather than social structure struggle. Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) theorized “all societies must provide for meeting social needs in order to survive.” (Kendall 23). He goes into further detail his belief of the meaning and importance of a person’s different roles, also those of institutions, and their importance in maintaining the cultural society. Functionalism is analyzed further by Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), who discovered the difference of latent and manifest functions in social institutions. “Manifest functions are intended and/or overtly recognized by the participants in a social unit…latent functions are unintended functions that are hidden and remain unacknowledged by participants.” (Kendall 23).

All of the aforementioned sociologists made major contributions as to how we approach sociology today. The feminist movement and desegregation of fairly recent timing greatly broadened the field of sociology, adding major contributions and diversity of study and understanding, promoting an even greater understanding of society and even the discipline of sociology. Through secondary analysis we can better understand the theories of the pioneers in sociology by analyzing and comparing works and coming to our own conclusion using the sociologic imagination and the scientific method. This widespread accessibility of information makes modern sociology much more insightful and factual. The large variety of media accessible to the majority of the people on Earth make sociology almost an everyday without even realizing it. Viewing, hearing, reading, and/or etc., of other people and social situations broadens our knowledge and understanding of humans and interactions. In conclusion, with the perseverant work of many sociologists, the never-ending change and evolution of the individual and society, the drive and compassion to understand one another, and the humorously diverse human spirit and culture, sociology is practiced passionately and is a scientific, factual, and renowned academic practice.

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