The Founding Fathers of Sociology


Sociology is the study of society of human social life, groups and societies.

Plato and Socrates argued about their thoughts and views on social behaviour, but they did not make systematic observations to test their theories. Therefore, although their theories were valid arguments they became known as philosophers not sociologists. However, they and their theories paved the way for the science of sociology to develop.The difference between philosophy and sociology emerged in the nineteenth century when philosophers began to use scientific methods in their studies.

French philosopher Auguste Comte [1789-1857] is often referred to as the father of sociology as he was the one to coin the word in 1838, when he referred to the scientific study of society. Comte wrote and believed that every society went through three stages of development – religious, metaphysical and scientific. The religious and metaphysical stages were reliant on superstition and speculation but neither could explain or understand society or its problems, he argued that scientific knowledge was needed, based on social facts. In his general theory, the two branches of social study were – ‘statistics’, stating the requirements for social order, and ‘dynamics’, emphasising the importance of the division of labour and the process by which societies change. He believed sociologists would develop a scientific knowledge that would guide society towards peaceful and orderly evolution.

Herbert Spencer [1820-1903] A social theorist and Englishman who believed society could be compared to a living organism i.e. parts of an animal such as its heart, lungs etc, each part having its own function to perform. Each of the parts was independent, but change in one of the parts would affect the animal as a whole. The organisms parts in society being – The family, religion, government, industry etc. he concluded that if society was left alone it would naturally correct its’ own problems through the process of ‘survival of the fittest’. Therefore, Spencer believed the best thing a government could do was to leave well alone as the laws of nature governed the fate of society.

Not so according to Karl Marx [1818-1883], he saw conflict, exploitation and the seeds of revolution. Marx, a German who spent most of his life in England, claimed all societies past and present were marked by social conflict, and that the primary feature of society was ‘class conflict’. Marx claimed the class of capitalists (the bourgeoisies) owned the means of production and the labouring class (the proletariat) were exploited. Furthermore, he claimed that the labourers were destined to overthrow the capitalists and establish a classless society whereby everyone would work according to his ability and receive according to his need. These three men respected and valued the need for science in the study of societies, but they continued to debate and theorise without actually applying scientific study. Therefore surely Comte, Spencer and Marx pioneered only the ‘idea’ of sociology.

Emile Durkheim [1858-1917] was the first to apply scientific methods to sociological study. He collected masses of statistical data for his research into suicide. He then analyzed the data in order to discover the cause. He argued that sociologists should not only observe societies but also examine the facts. His best-known dictum is to ‘treat social facts as things’. Meaning social phenomena exist as an objective realm, they are external to individuals and operate by their constraining influence on individuals. They are a category of facts.

Max Weber [1864-1920] A German sociologist believed in a method he called ‘Verstehen’ (German for understanding) or sympathetic understanding of the subject by putting oneself into the position of the subject. By doing so, the sociologist could better understand the meanings of the subjects’ behaviour, which could then be tested, through observation.

Therefore, I can only conclude that Plato, Socrates and the likes, paved the way for sociology, by presenting their theories for Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx to expand, debate and re-theorise. Nevertheless, Emile Durkheim was the first to apply scientific methods to the study of societies. Auguste Comte gave sociology its name. Still the general belief is that Durkheim, Weber and Marx are the trinity of classical sociologists and the founding fathers.