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SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology

What is Sociology?

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

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 ideas and regulations became the foundation for the modern discipline of sociology (Turner, 1990).

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

  • An overview of Europe's social and political changes during the nineteenth century. This section will describe how industrialization and urbanization influenced sociology's development.
  • A description of how 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 sociology over the nineteenth century—in particular, the changes that occurred as sociological theory spread from Europe to America at the end of the century.

The social, intellectual, and political conditions of nineteenth-century Europe strongly influenced early sociological theory. The European industrial era, which spanned from approximately 1750 to 1900, was characterized by replacing manual labor with industrialized and mechanized work 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 Western world's technical, cultural, and social changes 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 significant social change, creating 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. With its increased need for workers, the revolution created new working, middle, and consumer classes. However, the factory production system (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 also created a divide between work and home life. The family unit and gender roles changed during the Industrial Revolution mainly due to shifts in the 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 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 speed and lifestyle. In 1811, they organized English artisans 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 (Text adapted from EBSCO).

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