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What Is the History of Sociology?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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The history of sociology chronicles the emergence of sociology as a clearly-defined, modern field of study within the social sciences. This discipline has roots that stretch back to classical antiquity. Modern sociological theory and practice emerged in the 19th century, as scientific ideas and practices were applied to the study of society and social interactions. Sociology became a much more diverse field during the 20th century, and new schools of sociological thought emerged that emphasized particular theories and experimental practices.

Human society has been studied since the earliest days of civilization. The history of sociology begins with scholars in the ancient world, such as Aristotle or Thucydides. Although these writers lacked a scientific framework, they attempted to chart out the key characteristics of social formations and to identify areas of strength or weakness in the process paying attention to issues of class, status, and wealth that are of great concern to modern sociologists.

Sociology as a modern academic discipline requires both curiosity about issues of social structure and organization and the use of rigorous scientific practices to collect and analyze information about society. This became possible in the years following the spread of the Enlightenment across Europe. The Enlightenment stressed the use of science and reason to solve social problems, and the history of sociology as a modern discipline begins with the first attempts to use scientific methods to address questions about social organization.

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Karl Marx is perhaps the most famous early practitioner of sociology. Scholars have argued extensively about the theoretical validity of his work, but generally agree that Marx attempted to make use of scientific methodology to study society. He held that this use of scientific reasoning to support his work was a major advance over the work of earlier, utopian socialists, but his work lacked the rigorous theoretical basis of modern sociology.

During the early part of the 20th century, several different schools of sociological thought emerged. Max Weber is perhaps the most famous figure in the history of sociology during this period. He sought to examine and understand key features of the modern world with an emphasis on social structures that were linked to politics and economics. Weber contended, for example, that the rigid moral code of Protestantism fostered a very strict work ethic and encouraged the personal accumulation of wealth, and in turn, led to the rise of modern capitalism. This sort of theory could not be objectively proved, but Weber attempted to defend his assertions through rigorous argument.

Sociologists working later in the 20th century turned more often to the use of hard statistics and concrete examples. The Chicago School, for instance, used the city of Chicago as a sort of laboratory in which to do analytical work in the field of sociology. They combined the careful collection of statistics with the use of social theory to make sense of those statistics.

After the Second World War, sociology featured many divergent schools of thought. In the Soviet Union, the field of sociology tended to be limited in scope to problems that were not ideologically sensitive. In the West, sociology has been influenced by the rise of post-modernism and often turns a more forgiving eye on marginal or deviant groups in society, groups that older sociologists would have seen as social problems in need of solutions.

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SteamLouis
Post 3

Although I don't agree with Marxist ideology, it's undeniable that the ideas of Karl Marx about society and the problems that plagues society played a huge role in the development of sociology.

After his work in this field, many other theories quickly emerged, some in its favor and some against. But that's how ideas come about, through conjecture. So Karl Marx's work was very important in this sense. I'm glad that modern sociology recognizes this.

literally45
Post 2

@discographer-- Like the article said, sociology has actually existed far back than the 19th century. People were definitely interested in society and human interaction before that. But sociology as a field didn't get established until the 19th century. Research and theories about social topics became more relevant at that time.

I also suspect that social studies before the 19th century were often combined with cultural, historical, political and psychological studies. As I'm sure you know, sociology is a very wide field with lots of sub-fields. So various aspects of society were probably researched and discussed within these other fields before sociology became an official field of study by itself.

discographer
Post 1

Didn't sociology emerge late as a field? I would have expected its history to go back to the 18th century at least. But it only came about towards the end of the 19th century. I'm surprised.

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