Section 1.2: History of Sociology

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

The study of sociology has fascinated people since ancient times, as individuals sought to understand the relationship between themselves and the societies they belonged to. Pioneering philosophers investigated various aspects of society, including social cohesion, conflict, economics, and power dynamics, in their quest to describe an ideal society.  The history of sociology has its origins in these classic philosophical writings, and this evolved into the modern science we know today over time.

The Age of Enlightenment

Once upon a time, between the 1600s and 1700s, there was an extraordinary period called the Age of Enlightenment. Think of it like a massive brainstorming session across Europe, where some super-smart people called philosophers started asking big questions about life, society, and government. Let’s meet some of these thinkers who were like the rock stars of their time!

John Locke: The Champion of Your Rights

Imagine a world where your rights weren’t protected. Scary, right? Well, John Locke, an English thinker, didn’t want that. He believed that everyone is born with certain rights, like life, liberty, and owning things (property). Locke thought it was the government’s job to protect these rights. And if the government didn’t? He said the people should stand up and make a change. Locke’s ideas were so influential that they even inspired parts of the United States Constitution!

Voltaire: The Guy Who Wanted You to Speak Your Mind

Now, meet Voltaire, a French philosopher with a sharp tongue and an even sharper pen. He was famous for his humor and for standing up for freedom of speech, religious beliefs, and being tolerant of others. Voltaire didn’t like how the French king and the Catholic Church had too much power and didn’t treat people fairly. He wanted a society where everyone could live together in peace, no matter their beliefs. His funny, yet hard-hitting book, “Candide,” showed how unfair society could be.

Immanuel Kant: The Thinker Who Valued Doing the Right Thing

German philosopher Immanuel Kant was all about using reason and making moral choices. He believed that we should do the right thing not because of rewards or consequences but because it’s our duty. Kant’s big idea was that our actions should be based on rules that everyone could agree on, no matter who or where they are.

Thomas Hobbes: The Man Who Wanted Order

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, had a rather gloomy view of human nature. He thought people were naturally selfish and that life without rules would be chaotic and dangerous. His solution? A social contract. In his view, people should agree to give up some freedom in exchange for protection and order from a strong government. His book “Leviathan” is still a classic in political theory.

Mary Wollstonecraft: The Voice for Women’s Equality

While these guys were busy with their ideas, Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer, was fighting for women’s rights. She was one of the first to say, “Hey, women should be treated equally!” In her book, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” she argued for women’s education, voting rights, and equal treatment. It took a while, but she’s now celebrated as a pioneer in feminism and gender equality.

Reflect and Discuss

  • How do you think the ideas of these Enlightenment thinkers affect our lives today?
  • Can you think of a situation where it’s important to stand up for your rights, like John Locke suggested?
  • Have you ever faced a dilemma where you had to choose between doing what’s easy and doing what’s right, similar to Immanuel Kant’s ideas?

The Age of Enlightenment was more than just a chapter in history; it was a revolution in thinking that still impacts our lives. These thinkers challenged the status quo and paved the way for modern ideas about rights, freedom, and equality. Let’s keep their spirit alive by asking our own big questions and thinking critically about the world around us!

The Industrial Revolution and the Birth of Sociology

Picture a world transforming at lightning speed. That’s what happened during the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t just about cool inventions; it brought massive changes in how people lived and worked. Suddenly, people could travel easier and faster, and there were all sorts of new jobs popping up. What does this mean? A lot of people packed their bags and moved to cities in search of a better life.

New Places, New Ideas

With all these moves, people found themselves in bustling cities, surrounded by folks from different backgrounds and cultures. This was a huge change from the quiet, traditional life many were used to. One of the biggest shifts? People started questioning and sometimes leaving behind their old religious beliefs. It was a time of big questions and even bigger changes.

Émile Durkheim: The Guy Who Made Sociology Official

In the middle of all this, a brilliant mind named Émile Durkheim decided it was time to study these changes scientifically. In 1895, he started the very first sociology department in Europe at the University of Bordeaux. Think of it as the official birthplace of sociology as a subject you could study in school.

Sociology Takes Off in the UK

Not to be left behind, the United Kingdom jumped on the sociology train. In 1904, the London School of Economics and Political Science opened its sociology department. This was a big deal because it meant that people were taking the study of society seriously.

Building Blocks of Sociology

These milestones in France and the UK weren’t just random. They were built on a whole century’s worth of thinking and writing about society. By the time Durkheim and the London School of Economics came around, there were already tons of ideas about how societies work and change.

Reflect and Discuss

  • Imagine moving to a big city from a small town. What changes might you experience?
  • Have you ever encountered a situation where you questioned a belief or tradition? How did it feel?
  • Why do you think it’s important to study how societies change and grow?

The Industrial Revolution wasn’t just about steam engines and factories; it was a time of social and cultural earthquakes. It paved the way for sociology to become a subject that helps us understand these big changes. So next time you’re in a sociology class, remember you’re part of a story that started over a century ago, with people moving, thinking, and changing the world!

Key Figures in the History of Sociology

Let’s dive into the fascinating world of sociology by getting to know some amazing thinkers who helped shape this field. Imagine sociology as a giant puzzle, and these people as those who started putting the pieces together!

Auguste Comte: The Founder of Sociology

  • Who Was He?: Auguste Comte was a French thinker who first came up with the term “sociology” back in 1838. Think of him as the person who decided to study society as if it were a science, just like biology or physics.
  • What Did He Do?: Comte wanted to understand society using data and observations, a method he called “positivism.” He believed that if we could figure out the rules that govern society, we could make life better for everyone.
  • Why Is He Important?: Comte’s ideas laid the groundwork for how we study societies today. He showed us that we could use scientific methods to understand how humans interact with each other.

Harriet Martineau: A Voice for Social Justice

  • Who Was She?: Harriet Martineau was an English sociologist and writer who brought Comte’s ideas to the English-speaking world. She was a keen observer of society and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
  • What Did She Do?: In her books, she criticized the unfairness of capitalism in America and pointed out how women were being treated unfairly. She was all about highlighting the gap between what we say we believe and what we actually do.
  • Why Is She Important?: Martineau’s work is like a foundation stone for sociology. She was one of the first to study society critically and inspired many others to do the same.

Karl Marx: The Revolutionary Thinker

  • Who Was He?: Karl Marx was a German philosopher who co-wrote the “Communist Manifesto.” His ideas have influenced politics and sociology all over the world.
  • What Did He Do?: Marx saw society as a battleground where different classes fought over resources. He predicted that workers would rise against the rich and create a more equal society.
  • Why Is He Important?: Marx’s idea that conflicts drive societal change is still a big deal in sociology. He helped us understand how power and resources shape society.

Herbert Spencer: The Market Advocate

  • Who Was He?: Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher who believed in letting market forces shape society, rather than government intervention.
  • Why Is He Important?: Spencer influenced many early sociologists and brought a different perspective to the study of society.

Georg Simmel: The Observer of Social Interactions

  • Who Was He?: Simmel was a German sociologist who wrote about many social topics, including money and urban life.
  • What Did He Do?: He focused on how individuals interact within society and emphasized the importance of these small-scale interactions.

Émile Durkheim: Laying the Foundations

  • Who Was He?: Durkheim was a French sociologist who is often considered one of the founding fathers of sociology.
  • What Did He Do?: He argued that we could study “social facts” to understand society. For example, he studied why people commit suicide and found that social factors played a big role.
  • Why Is He Important?: Durkheim’s work is essential because he showed how sociologists could study society scientifically.

George Herbert Mead: Understanding the Self

  • Who Was He?: Mead was an American sociologist who looked at how our self-identity is shaped by our interactions with others.
  • Why Is He Important?: His work helps us understand how we develop our sense of self through social interactions.

Max Weber: Exploring the Role of Culture

  • Who Was He?: Weber was a German sociologist who believed that culture played a significant role in shaping human behavior.
  • What Did He Do?: He studied how Protestantism influenced the development of capitalism.
  • Why Is He Important?: Weber showed that understanding society isn’t just about economics or politics; culture matters too.

W.E.B. Du Bois: A Trailblazer for Social Justice

  • Who Was He?: Du Bois was an African American sociologist and civil rights activist who was one of the first to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard.
  • What Did He Do?: He conducted groundbreaking studies on racial inequality and was a pioneer in using sociological methods to study society.
  • Why Is He Important?: Du Bois’ work is crucial for understanding race and inequality in society. He paved the way for future sociologists to tackle these tough issues.

Let’s Reflect

  1. Which of these sociologists’ ideas resonate most with you, and why?
  2. Can you think of a current social issue that one of these sociologists might have been interested in studying?

Remember, sociology is all about understanding the world we live in, and these thinkers were some of the first to start piecing it all together!


Isn’t it fascinating how a puzzle comes together, piece by piece, to form a complete picture? That’s what the history of sociology is like—a rich tapestry woven from the ideas of thinkers from different corners of the world. Ever since sociology emerged as its own field of study in the 1800s, it has been like a living, breathing entity, evolving and changing with the times.

The Early Seeds

Think back to your history lessons about the Age of Enlightenment. Remember those big names like John Locke and Voltaire? These philosophers were like the gardeners planting seeds for sociology. They pondered deep questions about society and dreamed of making the world a better place through their ideas.

Now, picture a man named Auguste Comte. In 1838, he did something pretty cool: he coined the term “sociology.” Comte was like a chef, wanting to mix the right ingredients to create a new recipe for understanding society, using methods similar to science.

The Growth Spurt

Fast forward to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sociology was like a teenager going through a growth spurt. Big names like Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel added their own flavors to the mix. Durkheim talked about how society sticks together, while Marx focused on the tug-of-war between different social classes. Weber was curious about why people do what they do, and Simmel explored how people relate to each other and their cultures.

The Toolbox Expands

Imagine sociologists as detectives, each with a unique set of tools. Some use numbers and statistics to uncover patterns in society—this is called quantitative research. Others prefer to dive into people’s stories and experiences, which is known as qualitative research. By using both these approaches, sociologists can get a fuller picture of what’s going on in society.

Blending Disciplines

Today, sociology is like a smoothie with ingredients from different fields—psychology, anthropology, economics, and political science. This mix helps sociologists understand the complex dance between individuals and society.

The Ongoing Journey

So, here we are in the present day. The field of sociology stands on the shoulders of many great thinkers. It’s like a tree with deep roots and branches reaching out in all directions. As the world changes, so does sociology, constantly adapting and growing. It’s an exciting journey, and who knows what discoveries lie ahead!


Sociology is like a map of human society and behavior. It started taking shape during Europe’s Age of Enlightenment, with thinkers like John Locke and Voltaire exploring human nature and society. Fast forward to the 19th century, and a Frenchman named Auguste Comte really put sociology on the map by naming it and setting out its goals.

Over the years, big names like Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel added their own landmarks to this map. Durkheim studied how societies stick together, Marx looked at class struggles, Weber explored personal motives, and Simmel focused on social interactions.

Sociologists use two main tools: quantitative research, which is like looking at society through numbers and statistics, and qualitative research, which involves diving into personal stories and experiences. Nowadays, sociology borrows ideas from psychology, anthropology, economics, and political science, making it a richer field of study.

Today’s sociologists are like explorers, using the paths laid down by earlier thinkers to better understand our complex society. They look at everything from social inequality to family dynamics and how societies change. Understanding sociology’s history helps us appreciate its role in exploring and explaining the world we live in.

Word Count: 2761

Key Terms

Age of Reason, Auguste Comte, Conflict, Economics, Émile Durkheim, Enlightenment, Feminism, Immanuel Kant, Industrial Revolution, John Locke, Karl Marx, Liberty, Max Weber, Natural rights, Power dynamics, Property, Social cohesion, Sociology, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire

References and Further Reading 

  • Comte, A. (1838). Cours de philosophie positive. Paris: Bachelier.
  • Comte, A. (1848). A general view of positivism. Paris: Rouen Frères.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of Black folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.
  • Durkheim, E. (1893). The division of labour in society. Paris: Alcan.
  • Durkheim, E. (1895). The rules of sociological method. Paris: Alcan.
  • Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide: A study in sociology. Paris: Alcan.
  • Kant, I. (1785). Grounding for the metaphysics of morals. Riga: Johann Friedrich Hartknoch.
  • Locke, J. (1689). Two treatises of government. London: Awnsham Churchill.
  • Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. London: Workers’ Educational Association.
  • Martineau, H. (1831). Illustrations of political economy. London: Charles Fox.
  • Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Simmel, G. (1903). The metropolis and mental life. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Spencer, H. (1873). The study of sociology. London: Henry S. King & Co.
  • Voltaire. (1763). Treatise on tolerance. London: J. Nourse.
  • Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). A vindication of the rights of woman. London: J. Johnson.

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Last Modified:  10/27/2023

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