The term sociology was actually coined by French thinker Auguste Comte. While the form of sociology Comte represented would be scarcely recognizable to modern students, with its almost religious faith in progress, Comte and others believed that social behaviors and culture could be understood by studying using a similar methodology as had already been applied to natural phenomena.
Sociology as an academic discipline developed hand-in-hand with the Industrial Revolution as well as the rise of the modern nation-state. Its early practitioners included Englishmen such as Herbert Spencer, Germans such as Max Weber and Georg Simmel, and Frenchmen like Comte and especially Emile Durkheim. They all sought to explain human activities and beliefs through underlying social realities. In this, they owed much to Karl Marx, though few early sociologists took a position as explicitly material as did Marx. In the United States, sociologists turned their attention to the institution of slavery, with writer George Fitzhugh offering a defense of the institution based on sociological principles. William Graham Sumner, a Yale professor, taught a course entitled "Sociology" there and wrote one of the most important nineteenth century works of sociology, a treatise entitled Folkways, which sought to explain the development of different cultures. Graham, who has been categorized, like Spencer, a Social Darwinist, is often considered the father of the discipline in the United States.
Another important figure in American sociology was W.E.B. DuBois, whose seminal work The Souls of Black Folk sought to explain the development of African-American culture in opposition to white culture. DuBois's work was remarkably eclectic (indeed many would not, strictly speaking, consider him a sociologist) an approach that presaged a major development in sociology. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, sociology continues to function as a major discipline in American academics, and its methodology and findings have informed a number of other disciplines, including history, political science, psychology, and education.
Sociological theory has also become an instrument of social activism, as liberation movements have been inspired by the work of such thinkers as Antonio Gramsci. Religion remains a major subject of sociological inquiry, notably in the work of Talcott Parsons, and the sociology of knowledge itself, a major interest of Weber, has been interrogated by thinkers such as Michel Foucault (again, not a sociologist by discipline) and Thomas Kuhn. Emmanuel Wallerstein has famously offered a sociological framework for understanding global economic trends, known as "world systems theory." Sociologists continue to be interested in structural relations, including inequalities and the effects of technology on human interaction.