Sociology in the 19th Century Research Paper Starter

Sociology in the 19th Century

Sociology, as a field of study, emerged in early nineteenth-century Europe as European society and politics were changing as a result of revolution, warfare, reform, industrialization, and urbanization. Many of sociology's main subjects and tenets were shaped by these forces, as can be seen in the work of such early sociologists as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Toward the end of the century, the field experienced other major changes as it spread from Europe to North America and was institutionalized in American universities.

Keywords Comte, Auguste; Durkheim, Emile; Industrial Era; Industrial Revolution; Marx, Karl; Positivism; Simmel, Georg; Society; Spencer, Herbert; Weber, Max

Sociology in the Nineteenth Century


Sociology, as a field of study, emerged in early nineteenth-century Europe as European society and politics were changing as a result of revolution, warfare, reform, industrialization, and urbanization. In response to the changes in the sociopolitical climate, European scholars, including August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber, developed theories and principles to examine and understand society, in some instances with the hope of restoring order to it. This diverse body of theories and principles became the foundation for the modern discipline of sociology (Turner, 1990).

Understanding the history of nineteenth-century sociology, including the sociopolitical influences and main actors, is vital background for all those interested in sociology as well as social theory as a whole. This article explains the history of nineteenth-century sociology in three parts:

• An overview of the social and political changes that occurred in Europe during the nineteenth century. This section will describe how the forces of industrialization and urbanization influenced sociology's development.

• A description of the ways in which European intellectuals—in particular, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber—responded to nineteenth-century sociopolitical events and how their works defined the field of sociology.

• A discussion of the changes that occurred in the field of sociology over the course of the nineteenth century—in particular, the changes that occurred as sociological theory spread from Europe to America at the end of the century.

Europe in the Nineteenth Century

The social, intellectual, and political conditions of nineteenth-century Europe had a strong influence on early sociological theory. The European industrial era, which spanned from approximately 1750 to 1900, was characterized by the replacement of manual labor with industrialized and mechanized labor and the adoption of the factory system of production. The industrial era included the period of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting rise of capitalism. The Industrial Revolution refers to the technical, cultural, and social changes that occurred in the Western world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The movement, which began gathering force in approximately 1760 and ended around 1830, started in Britain and had spread to Europe and North America by the early nineteenth century. It was driven by technological innovation as industry and trade eclipsed farming and agriculture as regional sources of income. Across Europe, it promulgated the rise of capitalism, an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned (Ahmad, 1997).

The Industrial Revolution brought with it great social change as it created new types and conceptions of employment, time, scale, landscape, property, and familial and community relationships. Social, gender and class hierarchies, family units, gender relations, immigrants' roles in society, and the conception of childhood were all affected. The revolution, with its increased need for workers, created new working, middle, and consumer classes. However, the factory system of production (as seen, for example, in textile mills) also reinforced and maintained class relations by establishing a hierarchical and supervised workforce (Mellor, 2003). By separating the place of production from the domestic setting, the factory system created a divide between work and home life, too. The family unit and gender roles changed during the Industrial Revolution largely as a result of shifts in types of employment available for both men and women. They no longer labored in households or on farms, but inside factories. In some industries, women and children worked alongside men (Abelson, 1995).

The sociopolitical changes that occurred during the industrial era in Europe were not wholly accepted across society. Sectors of society protested and rebelled. For example, the Luddites, led by General Ned Ludd, rejected the fast pace of social change and advocated a slower, natural pace and lifestyle. In 1811, they organized English craftsmen to riot and protest against the changes created by the Industrial Revolution (Kirkpatrick, 1999). In addition, the nineteenth century saw a significant and growing protest against child labor. The roots of sociology as a tool for social reform can be traced back to these early signs of social conscience and social protest.

Further Insights

Nineteenth-Century Intellectuals

European intellectuals such as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Georg Simmel, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber developed the basic tenets of sociology to help explain the sociopolitical changes they saw around them and determine whether they were harmful or beneficial to society (D'Antonio, 1992). These nineteenth-century intellectuals would later become known as the classical theorists and founders of sociology. Though they all began their work in fields as diverse as religion, ethics, philosophy, law, and economics, over time, their ideas were grouped together to become a discrete field called sociology.

Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte (1798–1857), a French philosopher, is widely known as the "father of sociology." Wising to use science to rationalize and explain the social phenomena he saw occurring in France at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Comte coined to term "sociology" to describe his scientific approach to the study of society, seeing the field as a branch of the natural sciences, or a type of social physics. He believed society progressed through three stages: theological, metaphysical, and positive. According to Comte, the positive, or scientific stage, during which the natural laws governing social phenomena would be uncovered, could and would restore order to society.

Comte developed the philosophy of positivism to this end of understanding the social world through scientific approach and scientific reason. Doubtful that metaphysical speculation can yield useful knowledge, positivism seeks to understand phenomena by empirically observing and describing them, asking not "why" a phenomenon occurs, but simply "how." Comte believed that by understanding the underlying principles of the scientific process, people could achieve positive social change.

During Comte's lifetime, France was experiencing the social protest, unrest, and disorder caused by the destruction of the ancien regime and the aftermath of the French Revolution. Comte believed his historical epoch was characterized by a crisis in community values and a destructive spread of individualism. According to him, a sociopolitical system founded on positivism had the potential to restore social consensus and order. Comte believed that positivism in France had the potential to revolutionize and regenerate French society (Ferrarotti, 1990).

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), an English sociologist and philosopher, believing that societies moved from simplicity to complexity, developed the analogy of society as an organism, or an independently functioning living thing. According to Spencer, society, like an organism, represents a system with structures and functions as well as a certain level of evolutionary advancement based on its structural form. Spencer, a structural functionalist, believed that social structures function to meet the needs of society.

Spencer is perhaps best known for his theory of social...

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