What is Sociology?

Sociology is the attempt to understand how society works. It studies the relationship between people, how those relationships form part of broader sets of relationships between social groupings, and how such groupings and institutions are related to the under society.

There are and have been a diversity of approaches to the development of social thinking and there has never been a discipline in which there is a body of ideas that all accept are valid. It is about our own lives, our own behavior and is therefore complex and difficult to study. The practice of Sociology is involves the ability to think imaginatively and to detach oneself from any preconceived ideas about social life. It can also increase self understanding and influence our own futures from what we learn.

This objective and systematic study of human behavior is a relatively recent development with its beginnings being found in the late eighteenth century. Any study or discovery was initially expressed in religious terms or drawn from well known myths and superstitions.

The French Revolution of 1789 marked a breakthrough in the abandonment of traditional ideas promoting those more secular such as liberty and equality.

During the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, there was a broad spectrum of social and economic transformations. These rises of industry lead to migration from land to urban areas resulting in new forms of social relationships.

Society as a whole has always been curious as to how we behave. The rise of a scientific approach in understanding the world brought about radical changes to our perspectives and outlook. Sociology emerged, as did biology, chemistry and physics as part of this important intellectual process and the shattering of traditional ways of life challenged thinkers to develop a new understanding of both the social and natural worlds.

Sociology embraces a variety of theoretical views. The disagreement between theoretical standings and viewpoints can occasionally be quite radical and these differences can occasionally produce complex issues due to the problem of subjecting our own behavior to study.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) can be seen as a key founder of the subject due to his coinage of the term, sociology. Comte was a French social thinker, often deemed eccentric whose thinking reflected the turbulent events of his age. As the founder of Positivism, the idea that the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge, Comte set up the concept of the law of three stages. This claimed that human efforts to understand the world have passed through a theological stage, the belief that society was an expression of Gods will, a metaphysical stage, that society was seen to be natural not supernatural, and a positive stage, encouraging the application of scientific techniques to the social world. Comte regarded sociology as the final science to develop
Comets vision was never actually realized but it had great influence on and contributed to sociology as the science of society and on its becoming an academic discipline.

Like Comte, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) another French writer, believed social life must be studied with the same objectivity as scientists study the natural world. Durkheims influence, however, had a much more lasting influence on modern sociology.

Durkheim tried to free the study of society from philosophical concepts and replace them with more rigorous scientific ones, in order to define sociology as a science comparable to the physical sciences of biology chemistry and physics.

Functionalism was a theoretical perspective based on the notion that social events can best be explained in terms of the functions they performed and on a view of society as a complex system whose various parts work in a relationship to each other in a way that needs to be understood. This was one of Durkheims most prominent and decisive viewpoints.

His most famous principle, however, was to study social facts as things to study aspects of social life that’s shape our actions as individuals such as the economy or the influence of religion. He conceded that social facts exercise coercive power over individuals. Durkheim argued that people often follow patterns that are general to society such as lifestyles, morals and religious beliefs and that processes of change in the modern world, the division of labor, are so rapid and intense that they give rise to major social difficulties and have disruptive effects. This theory leads to Durheim’s famous concept of anomie, a feeling of aimlessness or despair provoked by modern social life.

One of Durkheim’s most influential, although controversial, studies was that of Suicide and how on the outside it appears to be a purely personal act but that social factors exert a fundamental influence- anomie being one of these.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is one of the most well known if not, arguably, the most influential classical sociologist. However, his ideas contrast sharply with those of Comte and Durkheim.
Marx was not so conscious to develop sociology in to the science of society but through his witnessing of the growth of factories and industrial production, he became continuously aware of the social inequalities and class struggle that followed. He concentrated primarily on change in modern times as opposed to through history and found that the most important changes tied in with the development of industry and through that, capitalism.

Capitalism, a system of production contrasting radically with previous economic systems, saw Marx at his most dynamic. He saw it as a class system in which class relations are characterized by conflict and the relationship between classes to be exploitative. Marx came up with the concept of the proletariat, an urban based industrial working class who had previously supported themselves by working on the land but had now moved to the expanding industrializing cities. However, Marx saw the relationship between this proletariat class and its superior capitalizing class to be extremely unbalanced and also believed that in time; class conflict over economic resources would become more acute.

Marx’s main theory was his belief that social change is prompted primarily by economic influences and that all class conflicts derive originally from an economic background. He believed that a workers revolution, overthrowing the capitalist system and providing a new classless society was inevitable.

Marx’s recognition in the field of sociology is predominantly due to his concern with connecting economic problems to social institutions and his writing, diverse in topics, was rich in sociological insights. Marx has had a far reaching effect on the twentieth century world and more than a third of the world’s population live in societies ruled by a government influenced by Marx’s ideas.

Another writer who concentrated on the field of economics, as well as philosophy and history was Max Weber (1864-1920). He identified key sociological debates that remain central for sociologists today and was both influenced by and critical of some of Marx’s major views, seeing class conflict as a less significant reason for social change.

Weber believed that sociology should focus more on social action as opposed social structures. He argued that human motivation and ideas were the forces behind change and that they had the power to bring about transformations. Unlike Durkheim and Marx, Weber did not believe that structures exist externally of individuals and that they were formed by a complex interplay of actions It was the job of sociology to understand these actions.

Weber came up with the idea of an ideal type, conceptual or analytical models that can be used to understand the world forming very useful hypothetical situations.

Weber saw the increasing shift from traditional beliefs to those of science and this development of science, modern technology and bureaucracy was described by Weber collectively as, rationalization. This was a concept referring to the process by which modes of precise calculation and organization, involving abstract rules and procedures, increasingly come to dominate the social world. In Webber’s view, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism were proof of a larger trend towards rationalization, a concept which has put him to the forefront of classical sociological thinking.

All of the above classical sociologists saw sociology as a science and agreed unanimously that sociology is a discipline in which we set beside our personal view if the world and look more carefully at the influences that shape our lives and society.

Comte and Marx established some of the basic issues of sociology, such as Positivism, later elaborated on by Durkheim and Weber. However the three employed very different approaches in their study of the social world. Where Durkheim and Marx focused on the forces external of the individual, Weber was more interested on the ability of individuals to act creatively on the outside world. Such differences have persisted throughout the history of sociology.
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