While the term sociology was coined in the mid-nineteenth century by Auguste Comte, its origins can be seen in the work of many Enlightenment thinkers who sought to study human behavior scientifically. One early example was the Baron de Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws argued that certain types of government emerged from certain environmental and social settings. The cultural relativism that became an important part of Enlightenment thought was also a precursor to modern sociology.
However, it was in the early nineteenth-century, in the midst of the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, that sociology emerged as a field of study. Comte was an early example, and the rigorously empirical nature of his positivism provided an important foundation for the discipline. The influence of Karl Marx, who related social conditions to what he called "objective" economic conditions, i.e., the means of production, was highly influential in the development of sociology. Two turn of the century thinkers were also important sociologists: Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Durkheim argued that even apparently individual actions were rooted in a social context, which could be discerned by the study of aggregate numbers and statistics. Weber attempted to explain the differences between modern societies and premodern ones, arguing that the advent of industrial capitalism had led to the development of structures that organized society. Weber also made connections between culture and societal development. These thinkers would influence the development of European sociology in the twentieth century.
In the twentieth century, the epicenter of sociology moved to the United States, with such luminaries as Talcott Parsons dominating the field. One notable exception was the work of the "Frankfurt School," which included sociologists such as Max Horkheimer, who were, like Weber and Marx, critical of the effects of capitalism on society. Sociology in Europe was highly affected by the advent of postmodernism and structuralism (and post-structuralism), in which writers like Michel Foucault and Claude Levi-Strauss emphasized the importance of discourse as a site of power in society. Jurgen Habermas, one of the most important sociologists of the late twentieth century, attempted to untangle the relationship between ideology and social context. In the late twentieth century, many European sociologists also became interested in the development of nationalism and the state.