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Sociological Perspective

Auguste Comte and the Emergence of Sociology

Influence of the Industrial Revolution on Sociology

The field of sociology emerged alongside sweeping social changes linked to the Industrial Revolution and the development of modern capitalism.
Early practitioners developed the discipline of sociology in an attempt to understand social changes, particularly those linked to the Industrial Revolution and the development of capitalist systems that occurred with industrialization. The Industrial Revolution, occurring in the 1700s and 1800s, was marked by the development of new technologies and products that dramatically changed how goods were made and how people worked. It led to a transformation from in-home craftsmanship to the mass production of goods with machinery. With these technological advancements came the need for many workers, each specialized in a specific task. Factories began to proliferate, as investors saw the opportunity for new ways to create wealth. People moved away from rural areas to cities, where there was a need for workers and thus new opportunities to earn money. Social structure and family structure changed. New work opportunities led to the growth of the middle class. Migration to cities meant that many people no longer lived near extended family. While many people had new opportunities, the rapid growth of cities and the expansion of factory-based work came with their own set of social problems. Urban life posed challenges for the relatively poor workers who poured into cities, living in crowded conditions and working in dehumanizing or dangerous jobs. At the same time, modern capitalism became an increasingly powerful force in people's lives. Those with enough wealth to invest in new business opportunities rose in social and economic power and standing, while workers were essentially at the mercy of business and factory owners. A number of intellectuals, including Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Harriet Martineau, Jane Addams, and Émile Durkheim, became interested in how social and economic systems shaped human experience.
Timeline: The Industrial Revolution and the Emergence of Sociology
1775: James Watt begins to produce efficient steam engines, making coal-powered factories possible.

1776: Adam Smith's book The Wealth of Nations encourages European rulers to adopt capitalism and trade freely with other empires.

1837: Harriet Martineau publishes Society in America.

1839: British factory workers protest and riot for the right to vote.

  • Revolutions break out across Europe as urban workers demand democracy.
  • Auguste Comte outlines the new field of sociology in his book A General View of Positivism.

  • 1851: For the first time ever, more people in Britain live in cities than in the country.

    1861: The American Civil War begins.

    1867: Karl Marx's book Capital examines society as a product of material conditions.

    1869: The transcontinental railroad is completed in the United States.

    1870: Women in Britain gain the right to own property.

    1889: Jane Addams establishes Hull House, a community organization aimed at researching solutions to urban poverty and hopelessness in the United States.

  • René Worms founds the Institut International de Sociologie in Paris, France.
  • New Zealand becomes the first modern country to allow women to vote.

  • 1894: American philosophy professor George Herbert Mead works with Hull House and other charitable organizations. He proposes using sociology to solve social problems.

    1895: Émile Durkheim creates the first academic department of sociology, at the University of Bordeaux in France.

    1903: W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk is published.

    1905: The American Sociological Association is founded (first called the American Sociological Society).

    1919: Max Weber creates a department of sociology at the University of Munich in Germany.

    1949: The International Sociological Association is founded.

    Influence of Comte's Positivism in Sociology

    Influenced by Auguste Comte's positivism, sociology seeks to examine the world as it happens through empirical data.

    French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857) wanted to make sense of changes brought about by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism. He felt that an entirely new science was needed because the existing social sciences of political science and history couldn't explain such widespread massive change.

    Comte developed the concept of positivism, a philosophy that holds that truth can be determined by scientifically verifying or proving ideas and assertions. Comte argued that society could be studied using a scientific approach. Comte's positivism laid the groundwork for the development of the new idea of social science. Comte believed that by using empirical data, sociologists could uncover unseen forces and social laws that work in people's daily lives. He thought these laws were analogous to the laws discovered by scientists that govern the physical world, such as the law of gravity, unseen yet always at work. Comte wanted to use an understanding of these laws to improve society.

    Sociology has since moved beyond positivism. It is no longer believed that a single set of laws can apply to all societies. Comte wanted to discover the natural laws that governed society in order to build the optimal society. Comte was not concerned with the notion of a utopia—an ideal, perfect society. He wanted to identify the principles that could build the best possible kind of society. Comte believed that the optimal society would emphasize knowledge, reason, and morality. Modern sociologists do not believe there is one optimal kind of society. Rather, they study many different societies throughout the world. While the goals and theories have changed, Comte is considered a founder of the field of sociology. His theories influenced French philosopher Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), another important figure in the early development of sociology. While positivism is no longer a reigning theory, sociologists continue to stress the scientific approach to the study of society.