What did Spencer contribute to sociology?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Herbert Spencer’s main contribution to the field of sociology was to relate the ideas of Charles Darwin to societies.  Darwin’s ideas were, of course, conceived of in terms of animal species.  However, Spencer argued that they applied to human societies as well.  While this idea of Social Darwinism has been discredited, Spencer’s ideas have helped to inform the sociological perspective known as structural functionalism.

Spencer argued for a biological model of society.  He believed that a society worked much like a living organism.  That is, a society had parts that worked together like the organs in a body to keep the society living.  He also felt that societies would tend to move towards perfection in the long term.  Just as animals evolve to be more adapted to their environments, societies would evolve.  Their good aspects would be retained and their bad aspects would disappear.  For this reason, Spencer felt that governments should not interfere in society and should essentially let nature take its course.

Today, Social Darwinist ideas no longer have much credibility.  However, the idea of a society as a living organism with various organs all playing their own important roles is the basis of structural functionalism, which is one of the main perspectives in sociology.


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