Sociologists, like all humans, have values, beliefs, and even pre-conceived notions of what they might find in doing their research. But, as Peter Berger (1963) argued, what distinguishes the sociologist from non-scientific researchers is that “[the] sociologist tries to see what is there. He may have hopes or fears concerning what he may find. But he will try to see, regardless of her/his hopes or fears. It is thus an act of pure perception...” (Berger 1963).
Sociology, then, is an attempt to understand the social world by situating social events in their corresponding environment (i.e., social structure, culture, history) and trying to understand social phenomena by collecting and analyzing empirical data.
Sociology is a relatively new academic discipline. It emerged in the early 19th century in response to the challenges of modernity. Increasing mobility and technological advances resulted in the increasing exposure of people to cultures and societies different from their own. The impact of this exposure was varied, but for some people included the breakdown of traditional norms and customs and warranted a nuanced understanding of how the world works. Sociologists responded to these changes by trying to understand what holds social groups together and also explore possible solutions to the breakdown of social solidarity.
Auguste Comte and Other Founders
The term sociology was coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in 1838 from the Latin term socius (companion, associate) and the Greek term logia (study of, speech). Comte hoped to unify all the sciences under sociology; he believed sociology held the potential to improve society and direct human activity, including the other sciences.
While it is no longer a theory employed in Sociology, Comte argued for an understanding of society he labeled The Law of Three Stages. Comte, not unlike other enlightenment thinkers, believed society developed in stages.
- The first was the theological stage where people took a religious view of society.
- The second was the metaphysical stage where people understood society as natural (not supernatural).
- Comte's final stage was the scientific or positivist stage, which he believed to be the pinnacle of social development. In the scientific stage, society would be governed by reliable knowledge and would be understood in light of the knowledge produced by science, primarily sociology. While vague connections between Comte's Law and human history can be seen, it is generally understood in Sociology today that Comte's approach is a highly simplified and ill-founded approach to understand social development.
Other classical theorists of sociology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Ferdinand Toennies, Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Weber. As pioneers in Sociology, most of the early sociological thinkers were trained in other academic disciplines, including history, philosophy and economics. The diversity of their trainings is reflected in the topics they researched, including religion, education, economics, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and theology. Perhaps with the exception of Marx, their most enduring influence has been on sociology, and it is in this field that their theories are still considered most applicable.