Sociology is a social science focusing on the nature of society and human social relationships. The discipline emerged during a period of economic and political upheaval called the Enlightenment, which ushered in widespread social change. Since then, a series of important theorists and thinkers have contributed to the development of sociology and its attempts to understand and explain modern human society.
19th Century: Sociology Begins
Sociology emerged in the 19th century as a product of the larger intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, a period marked by a growing reliance on science and reason, rather than on religion and faith, as sources of knowledge and authority. The French philosopher Auguste Comte and other early sociological thinkers advocated scientific approaches to understanding societal organization and resolving social problems such as poverty. Comte is widely credited with coining the term 'sociology' as the new science of society. In addition to Enlightenment thought, the widespread social upheavals resulting from the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution contributed to the growth of sociology as a discipline.
Early Sociological Thinkers
Besides Comte, other early sociological thinkers included Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Although their views and ideas differed, all three shared the goal of using science to understand society and social problems. Marx saw society as marked by conflict between classes divided along socioeconomic lines. Weber studied the cultural influences of religion, capitalism and government on society. Durkheim had great interest in education and its potential to shape the composition of modern society. The website Learn Sociology credits Marx, Weber and Durkheim as three of the founders of modern sociology.
Late 19th Century: Sociology Comes to the US
During the 1920s, John Lewis Gillin, a former president of the American Sociological Association, wrote about the history of sociology in the U.S., noting that the discipline came to prominence after the Civil War, which affected all areas of American social life. Like their European counterparts, the earliest American sociologists were trained in other disciplines, including philosophy, theology, economics, history and even journalism. Gillin identifies Lester Ward's 1883 book, "Dynamic Sociology," as an important early work in American sociology. Early U.S. sociologists also saw the discipline as having the potential to address poverty and other problems. Learn Sociology cites American social worker and sociologist Jane Addams as an example. During her lifetime, Addams was an important advocate for immigrants and the poor in the U.S.
20th Century and Beyond
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, sociology has continued to leave its mark on all areas of society. Sociologists such as Ida B. Wells and NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois influenced the civil rights movement, while others influenced the women's movement. Many modern sociologists have studied the ways in which race, class and gender influence all people. Sociology has also influenced the conduct of research. Learn Sociology credits sociologist Robert K. Merton with developing the focus group, a research technique used in areas ranging from social science to marketing.