Origins of Sociology

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SOCY 112

The Origins of Sociology

The social transformation of European societies in the 19th century resulted from a number of revolutionary changes. Sociology is seen as a reaction to these revolutionary developments which occurred in Europe. The key revolutionary developments were the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Sociology is seen as a reaction to these developments but also as a fundamental contributor to the ongoing social, economic, political and intellectual movements that developed as a result (Abbott, Wallace & Tyler, 2005).

Scientific Revolution

According to Abbott, Wallace and Tyler (2005), “the Scientific Revolution made possible the unprecedented understanding and control of natural world”. The thinking of sociologists was that the methodology of the natural sciences would make it possible to understand and control the social world.

The Scientific Revolution was one of the most important movements in the 17th century to shape the modern world view. It made physical nature a valid object for the experimental inquiry and mathematical calculation.

The Scientific Revolution brought a new mechanical conception of nature, which enabled westerners to discover and explain the laws of nature mathematically. It entailed the discovery of a new replicable methodology. A new scientific culture was born. It provided the model for progress in the natural sciences and in human societies which were to imitate them.

It changed the traditional world view which proposed that earth was the centre of the universe (geocentric theory). Copernicus was the first to try to explain the heliocentric universe using mathematical using mathematical explanations.

The work of Copernicus was advanced by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Galileo advanced the work on astronomy even further which substantiated the Copernican views. Galileo’s teachings were condemned and he was placed under house arrest.

Newton synthesized the work of Kepler and Galileo. He formulated the mathematics for a universal law of gravitation and determined the nature of light. These findings transformed science – showed that matter is always the same, it is atomic in structure and its essential nature is dead or lifeless and it is acted upon by immaterial forces. He explained the motion of matter by three laws (i) inertia (ii) acceleration (iii) action/reaction.

Prophets and Proponents

Giordano Bruno was a catholic monk who accepted Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. He was one of the first to proclaim that the universe was infinite, filled with innumerable worlds. He speculated there might be life on other planets. His notions were deemed dangerous. He also established religion.

Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England under James I, elevated the study of nature to a humanistic discipline. He argued that science must be open; it must have human goals, the improvement of humanity’s material condition and the advancement of trade and industry but not for the making of war or taking lives. He preached the need for science to possess an inductive methodology. Bacon in advocating the method of inductive research argued that the observer must approach the physical world free from all reality distorting prejudices; at the same time he discovered man’s scientific endeavours are hindered by illusions and fallacies, both native and acquired (Remmling, 1973). He identified these cognitive obstacles as the “idols of the mind”. Bacon’s writings influenced the work of Locke and Hume.

Descartes was an existentialist. He argued that all he could know with certainty was the fact of his existence because he experienced not his body but his mind “I think, therefore I am”. Science for him meant confidence as opposed to confusion of medieval times. He was one of the first to see the capacity of science to control and dominate nature, though he could not...
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