The Origins of Sociology

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FK8R 34 Sociology A: Introduction to Sociology Alisha Walsh

In the mid 1800’s, French author Auguste Comte came up with the term “sociology”. Although previous philosophers, historians and political thinkers had studied and tried to make sense of their societies, this was when it began to develop as a distinctive science. Comte grew up in a time of great social and political upheaval. As the world rapidly changed, he and others began to study the societies they lived in. He sought to create a science of society that could explain the laws of the social world just as science explained the functioning of the physical world. (Giddens 2006:11) Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century political revolutions occurring throughout Europe, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution all lead to previously unseen changes in many societies. The French Revolution of 1789 meant that monarchs of Europe came under severe scrutiny. Subjects began to question their “divine right” to rule. Ideas of individuals’ rights and their say in how society was run emerged. Political parties and social reform quickly followed. Great scientific discoveries formed a perspective of looking to science and reason to answer questions about the natural and social world. People were turning away from the church, religion and superstition for these answers. The Industrial Revolution 1780-1800 had a profound effect on Britain and laterally Europe. Almost all aspects of life were changed as people became part of the factory system. People moved from rural areas and agricultural jobs to towns where social life was more impersonal and anonymous. They began to work by a clock instead of the rhythms of the season. Traditional values and roles were dropped as new ones evolved. To study Sociology, one must have what C. Wright Mills called a “sociological imagination”. Sociological thinking and imagination requires us to remove ourselves from our everyday lives and experience, and look at them differently. Only then can we realise that individual experience can actually reflect larger issues. He emphasised the difference between “personal troubles of millue” and “public issues of social structure”(Mills 2000 :5) This means that the sociological imagination allows us to see that public issues such as war, marriage, the economy, urbanisation etc, can affect the individual as well as personal circumstance and experiences. “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two. That is its task and its promise.”(Mills 2000:2) He stated that sociologists must ask three crucial questions: What is the structure of this particular society? Where does this society stand in human history? What varieties of men and women prevail in this society and in the coming period? (Mills 200:3) He believed that as individuals these questions would help us make sense of our own place and experience in the society we live in and identify its structures and characteristics. He also stated that “they are the questions inevitably raised by any mind possessing the sociological imagination. For that imagination is the capacity to shift form one perspective to another”. The sociological imagination allows us to be analytical and critical of the world and to look at the bigger picture.

There are many sociological theories which attempt to explain how society works. They provide a framework for explaining social behaviour. They find the relation between individuals, groups and society. These theories can be put into two broad categories, macro theories and micro theories. Macro theories such as Functionalism and Marxism look to explaining behaviour through the notion of social structures and look at society holistically. Macro theories tend to use quantitive research when a social theory or model is being explored. Data has to be measurable and...
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