Section 1.2: History of Sociology

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

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The study of sociology has fascinated people since ancient times, as individuals sought to understand the relationship between themselves and the societies they belonged to. Pioneering philosophers investigated various aspects of society, including social cohesion, conflict, economics, and power dynamics, in their quest to describe an ideal society.  The history of sociology has its origins in these classic philosophical writings, and this evolved into the modern science we know today over time.

The Age of Enlightenment

During the Age of Enlightenment, a period of intellectual and philosophical development in the 17th and 18th centuries, several prominent philosophers emerged, including John Locke, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Hobbes. These thinkers, who hailed from various parts of Europe, sought to understand the world around them and apply rational thought to social and political issues. They developed general concepts that aimed to explain the intricacies of social life and believed that by doing so, they could address the social problems of their time and contribute to social reform.

John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher, was a key figure in the Enlightenment. He is often referred to as the “Father of Liberalism” due to his emphasis on the importance of individual rights and liberties. Locke believed that humans are born with certain natural rights, such as life, liberty, and property. He asserted that the role of government is to protect these rights, and if a government fails to do so, the people have the right to overthrow it (Locke, 1689).

Voltaire (1694-1778), a French writer and philosopher, was well-known for his wit and advocacy for freedom of speech, religion, and tolerance. He criticized the absolutism of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church’s corruption, arguing that religious tolerance and secularism were crucial for a harmonious society (Voltaire, 1763). His satirical works, such as “Candide” (1759), exposed the hypocrisy and cruelty in society, pushing for social reform.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher, believed in the power of reason and human autonomy. He argued that individuals have a moral duty to act according to universal principles, regardless of the consequences (Kant, 1785). Kant’s ideas about the relationship between morality, freedom, and reason laid the groundwork for many subsequent ethical theories and continue to influence contemporary philosophical thought.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), an English philosopher, is best known for his work “Leviathan” (1651), in which he argued that human beings are fundamentally selfish and that life in a “state of nature” would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To escape this condition, Hobbes believed that individuals must enter into a social contract, agreeing to give up some of their freedoms in exchange for protection and order provided by a central authority.

While these male philosophers were exploring various aspects of social life and political theory, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), an English writer and advocate for women’s rights, was tackling the issue of gender inequality. In her groundbreaking work, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), Wollstonecraft argued that women should be educated, have the right to vote, and be treated as equals to men. She criticized the prevailing notions of female inferiority and the limitations placed on women by society.

For a long time, Wollstonecraft’s contributions were overlooked, as the male-dominated academic structure failed to acknowledge her significance. However, since the 1970s, she has been widely recognized as the first feminist thinker of consequence. Her work has become a foundational text in the study of feminism and gender studies.

The Industrial Revolution and the Birth of Sociology

The Industrial Revolution brought about significant social and political changes, including increased mobility and new employment opportunities. These changes exposed people to different societies and cultures, leading to millions moving into cities and abandoning traditional religious beliefs.

Émile Durkheim, a pioneer in the field, founded the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895 (Durkheim, 1895). The first sociology department in the United Kingdom was established at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1904 (London School of Economics, 1904). The discipline of sociology was built on a foundation of scholarly work that had been developing over the previous century.  These milestones mark the true beginning of the history of sociology.

Key Figures in the History of Sociology

Auguste Comte (1798–1857)

Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a French philosopher and social scientist, coined the term “sociology” in 1838, aiming to establish a new scientific discipline that would systematically study society using empirical methods similar to those employed in the natural sciences (Comte, 1838). Comte believed that by uncovering the laws governing society, sociologists could contribute to the betterment of human life, addressing issues like education, poverty, and social inequalities.

Comte’s approach, known as positivism, sought to establish a new “positivist” age of history, marked by the scientific study of social patterns and the use of reason to guide human affairs (Comte, 1848). Positivism emphasized the importance of empirical observation, statistical analysis, and the development of testable hypotheses to study social phenomena. Comte believed that the application of the scientific method would lead to a deeper understanding of social dynamics and ultimately contribute to social progress.

Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was a pioneering sociologist and writer known for her keen observations of social practices and her role in translating Auguste Comte’s work into English. This translation helped introduce the discipline of sociology to English-speaking scholars (Martineau, 1831). Martineau’s contributions to sociology are evident in her groundbreaking work, which included the first systematic international comparisons of social institutions in her influential books Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838).

In Society in America, Martineau critiqued capitalism and its manifestations in the United States. She highlighted the contradictions between the nation’s professed moral principles and the exploitation of workers in a capitalist system that allowed business owners to amass wealth while leaving laborers at a financial disadvantage. Martineau also addressed the issue of women’s rights, pointing out the inconsistencies between the nation’s belief in equality and the lack of rights afforded to women at the time.

Martineau’s keen observations and analysis of social issues laid the groundwork for future sociological research and contributed to the development of the discipline. Her work continues to be regarded as a significant contribution to the field of sociology.

Karl Marx (1818–1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883), a German philosopher and economist, co-wrote the Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels in 1848. This highly influential political work has had a significant impact on the development of sociology and politics worldwide (Marx & Engels, 1848). Marx’s theory of society sharply contrasted with Comte’s positivism. He asserted that social conflict and class struggle over the means of production, such as factories and other methods of generating wealth, drive societal growth and change.

During Marx’s time, the Industrial Revolution and the growth of capitalism led to vast disparities in wealth between the owners of the factories and the workers. In response to these inequalities, Marx predicted that the extreme disparities in wealth and power would eventually lead to a workers’ revolt. This revolt would result in the collapse of capitalism and give rise to communism, a more equitable economic system in which there is no private or corporate ownership, and resources are owned and distributed communally (Marx & Engels, 1848).

Although some of Marx’s predictions have not come true as he anticipated, his idea that social conflict leads to change in society remains one of the major theories used in modern sociology.  This legacy makes him one of the most important figures in the history of sociology. 

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)

Spencer, an English philosopher, published the first book with the term “sociology” in its title, The Study of Sociology, in 1873. He rejected Comte’s philosophy and Marx’s class struggle theory, advocating for a form of government that allowed market forces to control capitalism (Spencer, 1873). Spencer’s work influenced numerous early sociologists, including Émile Durkheim.

Georg Simmel (1858–1918)

Simmel, a German art critic, and sociologist, took an anti-positivist stance and wrote about various social and political topics, including social conflict, the role of money, urban life, and the European fear of outsiders (Simmel, 1903). Much of his work focused on micro-level theories, analyzing the dynamics of small social groups. He also emphasized the creative capacities of individuals within a culture.

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917)

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French sociologist, played a crucial role in establishing sociology as a formal academic discipline. He founded the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, and published his Rules of the Sociological Method in the same year, laying the groundwork for future sociological research (Durkheim, 1895). Durkheim’s influence on sociology is vast, and he is often considered one of the discipline’s founding fathers.

In his groundbreaking work, The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Durkheim outlined his theory of societal transformation from a primitive state characterized by mechanical solidarity to a capitalist, industrial society based on organic solidarity and meritocracy (Durkheim, 1893). According to Durkheim, mechanical solidarity arises from shared values and beliefs among individuals in a homogeneous society. In contrast, organic solidarity develops in more complex societies where individuals are interdependent due to the division of labor.

Durkheim believed that sociologists could study objective “social facts” – the norms, values, and structures that shape society – to determine the health of a society. He argued that understanding these social facts could help explain why certain problems, such as crime and suicide, occur in different societies at varying rates. In his seminal work, Suicide (1897), Durkheim demonstrated how sociological research could be used to study social phenomena, such as suicide rates, which he found to be influenced by factors like social integration and moral regulation (Durkheim, 1897).

Durkheim’s work laid the foundation for modern sociology and continues to influence contemporary research. His emphasis on the importance of social facts and the study of society through empirical methods has shaped the way sociologists approach their work today, making him another important figure in the history of sociology. 

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931)

Mead, a philosopher, and sociologist, examined the development of the mind and the self as a result of social processes (Mead, 1934). He argued that individuals form their self-concepts through interactions with others, emphasizing the micro-level of analysis. Mead’s work is closely associated with the symbolic interactionist approach.

Max Weber (1864–1920)

Weber, a prominent sociologist, established a sociology department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich in 1919 (Weber, 1919). His best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), explores the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism. Weber believed that accurately predicting group behavior using standard scientific methods was difficult, if not impossible, due to the influence of culture on human behavior.

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois (1868–1963)

Du Bois, a critical figure in the development of sociology, made lasting contributions to the social sciences by pioneering various sociological methodologies (Du Bois, 1903). His groundbreaking studies laid the foundation for modern sociology, although his work was largely ignored and omitted from history for many years. Du Bois was an accomplished scholar, civil rights activist, prolific social scientist, and the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University.

History of Sociology Conclusion

The history of sociology is rich and diverse, with key figures from various intellectual and cultural backgrounds contributing unique perspectives and methodologies to the study of society. Since its inception as a distinct academic discipline in the early 19th century, sociology has evolved significantly, embracing both quantitative and qualitative research methods to gain a deeper understanding of human behavior, societal norms, and the interactions between individuals and social institutions.

The early development of sociology was influenced by the Age of Enlightenment and the works of philosophers such as John Locke, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Hobbes, who developed general concepts to explain social life. They aimed to address social problems and promote social reform through their writings. The emergence of sociology as a formal discipline is often attributed to Auguste Comte, who coined the term in 1838 and envisioned a new scientific discipline that would study society using methods similar to those employed in the natural sciences.  This later development is considered by many to mark the true beginning of the history of sociology.  `

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sociology continued to evolve and diversify as theorists such as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel made significant contributions to the field. Durkheim emphasized the importance of studying social facts and the impact of social integration on individuals, while Marx focused on the role of class struggle and economic systems in shaping society. Weber explored the importance of understanding individual motives and social actions, and Simmel analyzed the dynamics of social relationships and the role of culture in society.

The discipline has incorporated both quantitative and qualitative research methods, allowing for a more comprehensive analysis of social phenomena. Quantitative research involves the systematic collection and interpretation of numerical data, and has been essential in identifying patterns, trends, and correlations in social behavior. This approach has been particularly useful in areas such as demography, social stratification, and the study of social networks. 

Qualitative research, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of understanding the meanings and experiences of individuals within their social context. Methods such as participant observation, interviews, and content analysis have allowed sociologists to explore the complex and nuanced aspects of social life that may be difficult to quantify.

As sociology has continued to evolve, the discipline has become increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing on insights from fields such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and political science. This interdisciplinary approach has allowed sociologists to better understand the complex interplay between individuals and societies and how social structures and institutions shape human behavior.

The history of sociology is characterized by the contributions of key figures who have developed unique perspectives and methodologies for studying society. These pioneers have laid a solid foundation for the discipline, which has grown to incorporate both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Today, sociologists continue to build on this foundation, seeking to better understand the intricate relationships between individuals, social institutions, and the broader social context in which they exist. As the discipline continues to evolve and adapt to new challenges and opportunities, it remains an essential tool for understanding and addressing the complex social issues that face our world.


Sociology, the study of human society and social behavior, has a rich and diverse history that spans centuries. Its roots can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment, a period of intellectual and cultural growth in Europe. During this time, influential thinkers like John Locke, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Hobbes began exploring ideas about human nature, social order, and the relationship between individuals and society. These early philosophical discussions laid the groundwork for the development of sociology as a distinct discipline.

In the 19th century, a French philosopher named Auguste Comte played a significant role in formalizing sociology as a field of study. Comte is often referred to as the “father of sociology” because he coined the term and outlined its scope and methods. He believed that society could be understood and improved through scientific observation and analysis. Comte’s work provided a framework for future sociologists to build upon.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, several influential theorists made significant contributions to the field of sociology. Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, focused on the study of social facts and their impact on individuals and society. He emphasized the importance of social integration and the role of social institutions in maintaining social order.

Karl Marx, a German philosopher and economist, examined the relationship between social classes and the dynamics of power and inequality. He analyzed the economic structure of society and highlighted the role of capitalism in shaping social relationships.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, explored the influence of religion, bureaucracy, and rationalization on social behavior. He emphasized the significance of subjective meanings and interpretations in understanding social action.

Georg Simmel, a German sociologist and philosopher, focused on the social interactions and relationships that shape individual experiences. He examined topics such as social exchange, group dynamics, and the impact of urbanization on society.

Over time, sociology has embraced both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Quantitative research involves collecting and analyzing numerical data to identify patterns and trends. It allows sociologists to study large populations and draw general conclusions. On the other hand, qualitative research involves gathering detailed, non-numerical data through observations, interviews, and textual analysis. It provides a deeper understanding of individual experiences, social interactions, and cultural meanings.

As sociology has evolved, it has become increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing insights and concepts from other fields such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and political science. This interdisciplinary approach enriches the study of society by incorporating diverse perspectives and methodologies.

Sociologists today continue to build upon the foundation laid by early pioneers, seeking to better understand the complex interplay between individuals and societies. They examine a wide range of topics, including social inequality, gender roles, race and ethnicity, family dynamics, education, health, and social change. By studying these aspects, sociologists contribute to our understanding of how societies function, how they change over time, and how individuals are influenced by social forces.

By delving into the history of sociology, we gain insights into its origins, development, and key ideas. This knowledge helps us grasp the significance of sociology as a scientific discipline and provides a roadmap for its future exploration and contributions to society.

Word Count: 2565

Key Terms

Age of Reason, Auguste Comte, Conflict, Economics, Émile Durkheim, Enlightenment, Feminism, Immanuel Kant, Industrial Revolution, John Locke, Karl Marx, Liberty, Max Weber, Natural rights, Power dynamics, Property, Social cohesion, Sociology, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire

References and Further Reading 

Comte, A. (1838). Cours de philosophie positive. Paris: Bachelier.

Comte, A. (1848). A general view of positivism. Paris: Rouen Frères.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of Black folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.

Durkheim, E. (1893). The division of labour in society. Paris: Alcan.

Durkheim, E. (1895). The rules of sociological method. Paris: Alcan.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide: A study in sociology. Paris: Alcan.

Kant, I. (1785). Grounding for the metaphysics of morals. Riga: Johann Friedrich Hartknoch.

Locke, J. (1689). Two treatises of government. London: Awnsham Churchill.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. London: Workers’ Educational Association.

Martineau, H. (1831). Illustrations of political economy. London: Charles Fox.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simmel, G. (1903). The metropolis and mental life. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Spencer, H. (1873). The study of sociology. London: Henry S. King & Co.

Voltaire. (1763). Treatise on tolerance. London: J. Nourse.

Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). A vindication of the rights of woman. London: J. Johnson.

Learn More

On Other Sites

American Sociological Association. (2008). The Field of Sociology.

Comte, Auguste (1798–1857). (n.d.). In Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1868–1963. (n.d.). In Contemporary Black Biography.

Durkheim, émile. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914

OpenStax. (2019). The history of sociology. Introduction to Sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX.

Martineau, Harriet (1802–1876). (n.d.). In Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia.

Marx, Karl: Impact on Sociology. (n.d.). In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

Mead, George Herbert. (n.d.). In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

Herbert Spencer. (n.d.). In Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery.

Simmel, Georg (1858–1918). (n.d.). In Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sociology. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914

Weber, Max. (n.d.). In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

Modification History

File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  05/12/2023

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