The Founding Fathers of Sociology

Sociology is a social science that was born during  the Industrial Revolution when vast numbers of people left the countryside and migrated to the cities in search of work. In doing so, they broke their ties to the land and the age old traditions that had been used to answer questions about social life. In the cities, those from the countryside experienced violence and felt alienated.  To further complicate matters, war inspired people to think differently about the workings of society.

Regarded as the father of sociology and the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte, born on January 20 1798, during the aftermath of the French Revolution focused his attention on the study of society-more specifically the ties that hold society together (social statics) and the forces that drive society (social dynamics). He believed that sociology would both reveal social principles and apply them to social reform.

According to the French philosopher, society underwent three phases of development. These were theological, metaphysical and scientific. From the theological viewpoint, man’s place in society and the restrictions it placed upon him were referenced not only to God but also to tradition since man relied on what was taught to him by his ancestors to answer questions that couldn’t otherwise be explained. The metaphysical stage also relied on speculation and superstition to explain the problems of society.

Comte practiced what is today known as “armchair philosophy” or coming to conclusions by observing social life without further research. Because of the manner in which he applied the scientific method to the study of society, his conclusions have been abandoned.

Sometimes referred to as the second father of sociology, Hebert Spencer (1820-1903) did not follow the beliefs of Comte. Instead of believing that social reform should be led by sociology, Spencer, a liberal utilitarian, believed that society should follow its own natural pattern of evolution without outside interference. According to Spencer, society evolved from lower to higher forms with the strongest forms of life surviving and the weakest ones dying out. This “survival of the fittest” approach meant that over the course of time, society would naturally improve with the strongest members producing an advanced society.

Spencer’s idea of survival of the fittest comes from what he called rational utilitarianism which was an improvement to the work of Bentham. In the same manner as Comte, Spencer failed to perform scientific studies preferring to simply develop his own ideas about society. Although initially accepted in England, his ideas were later discredited.

The influence of Karl Marx on world history was so great that it earned him a place among the greatest modern thinkers. Moving to England after his exile from Germany because of his propositions of revolution, Marx , who was influenced by the works of Hegel, believed that society was influenced by social conflict with its main feature being class conflict. He argued that the bourgeoisie- the capitalists (the owners of the means to produce) and the proletariat (those who were being exploited) were locked in conflict. Marx also contended that the only way to resolve the conflict was for the workers to overcome the capitalists to create a classless society free of exploitation. In this new society, work would be performed according to the abilities of its members and they would receive according to their needs. In later years, after listening to debates on his views of social life he declared that he was not a Marxist.   

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was among those who founded structural functionalism. He wanted sociology to be recognized as its own discipline separate from economics and history. To further his desire and prove that the behavior of society was indeed affected by social forces, he applied the scientific method to his study of society. Durkheim compared the suicide rates of numerous European countries. What he discovered was that the rates were different in each country with each rate remaining virtually the same over a period of years. After studying various groups within society and finding stability in the suicide rates, Durkheim concluded that social factors kept the rates fairly stable. This, he attributed to social integration or the strength of one’s ties to their social group. The stronger the ties, the less chance of committing suicide and likewise, the weaker the ties, the greater the chance.  Even today, the work of Emile Durkheim is still widely accepted and quoted.

Max Weber (1864-1920) a German sociologist and contemporary of Durkheim did not agree with Karl Marx’s belief that social change is fueled by economics. To him, capitalism was the result of religion. His conclusions were based upon the differences in the beliefs of the Catholics and Protestants. While the Catholic beliefs were rooted in tradition, Protestants embraced change. Unlike the Catholics who held onto their traditional belief that they would go to heaven because they were saved church members, Protestants saw financial success as their ticket to heaven. To earn their way into heaven they began saving their money and investing it to earn more.

Weber referred to this practice as the Protestant ethic. He tested his theory by comparing capitalism in Catholic countries with that in Protestant countries. He discovered that capitalism played a larger role in Protestant countries. His belief that religion played a large role in capitalism proved to be controversial even then and is still debated today.

The road to modern sociology was paved by many great thinkers and philosophers. With the application of the scientific method, sociology has greatly expanded and evolved over the years. Even so, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber are still remembered as the founding fathers of this scientific discipline.