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The Origins of Sociology

Sociology is one the youngest academic disciplines — far younger than history, physics, or economics, for example. It was only about one hundred and fifty years ago that many new ideas about society began coming together to form a systematic discipline that studies society. Auguste Comte, a French social thinker, gave the discipline its name in 1838; he is widely regarded as «the father of sociology».

People have had a deep interest in society since the beginning of human history, but the sociological perspective is a recent development, as is the scientific approach to knowledge on which sociological research is based.

Science and the Development of Sociology. The nature of society was an issue of major importance in the writings of brilliant thinkers of the ancient world, including the Greek philosophers Plato (427-347 Â. Ń.) and Aristotle (384-322 Â. Ń). Similarly, during the medieval era in Europe - between about 1100 and 1700 - theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 ) were deeply concerned with social life. Yet, as Emile Durkheim noted toward the end of the last century such social thinkers used a perspective somewhat different from that of sociology.

In other words, prior to the birth of sociology, philosophers and theologians were primarily concerned with imagining the «ideal» society as a standard to guide social life. They were less interested in understanding society as it was. Pioneering sociologists such as Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim reversed these priorities. Although they were certainly concerned with philosophical and moral questions about how human society could be improved, their major goal was to understand how society actually operates.

The key to distinguishing between understanding what society ought to be and what society is lies in the development of a scientific approach to knowing. During the medieval period in Europe, people's view of humanity was heavily shaped by religion. Society was widely held to be an expression of God's will - at least insofar as human beings, under the guidance of the church, were capable of fulfilling a divine plan. Gradually, however, science — based on identifying facts through systematic observation was growing in importance. Through the efforts of early scientists such as the Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543), the Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo (1564-1642), and the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642—1727) a scientific understanding of the natural world emerged. More than a century after Newton, sociology was established as the scientific approach to the study of society.

Reflecting on the origins of scientific sociology, Auguste Comte (1851-1854) suggested that organized efforts to understand the world tend to become increasingly scientific as they move through three stages of development. Comte's «law of the three stages» includes approaches he described as theological, metaphysical, and scientific. In the study of society, the earliest, theological stage is based on understanding society as a reflection of supernatural forces such as the will of God. The belief in a divine plan for human society dominated the ancient world and most of the feudal period of European history.

During the final centuries of the feudal era in Europe, the theological approach to society gradually gave way to what Comte termed the metaphysical stage, in which abstract forces (such as «nature») were believed to confer basic characteristics on society. A metaphysical approach to understanding society is found in the writings of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who suggested that society was a reflection of an innately selfish human nature. Notice that both the theological and the metaphysical approaches did not focus attention on society itself, but on other factors social thinkers believed shaped society — God's will in the theological view and human nature in the metaphysical.

The last few centuries have seen the dawning of what Comte characterized as the final, scientific stage in the humanity's long quest to understand society. Comte believed that a scientific approach focuses attention directly on society instead of external forces that, in earlier eras, were believed to be the cause of social patterns. The scientific approach is based on the assertion that society, like the physical world, operates according to its own internal forces and patterns. To Comte the goal was nothing less than a gradual understanding of all the laws of social life. This approach is often called positivism, which may be defined as the assertion that science, rather than any other type of human understanding, is the path to knowledge.

As sociology became established as an academic discipline in the United States at the beginning of this century, early sociologists such as Lester Ward (1841— 1913) were strongly influenced by Comte's ideas. Today as well, many sociologists share Comte's belief that science is a crucial element of sociology. But other sociologists do not agree that science can be applied to the social world in the same way it is applied to the physical world. These sociologists point out that the causes of human behaviour are often more complex than the causes of events in the natural world. In other words, human beings are more than physical objects; they are creatures with considerable imagination and spontaneity whose behaviour can never be fully explained in terms of any scientific «laws of society».


II. Answer the following questions:

1. Who is regarded a father of sociology?

2. What scholars were deeply concerned with social life?

3. What hindered the development of science?

4. What is the essence of Comte's law?

5. What is the basis of theological stage?

6. What is the essence of metaphysical stage?

7. Where is this approach mainly found?

8. What is the scientific approach based on?

9. How may positivism be defined?

10.When did sociology become established as an academic discipline?

11.Is there complete agreement among sociologists on treating science?

12.Whose viewpoint would you support?


III. Complete the following sentences:

1. Auguste Comte is widely regarded as ... .

2. Prior to the birth of sociology, philosophers and theologians were primarily concerned with ... .

3. The major goal of the pioneering sociologists Comte and Durkheim was to ... .

4. In the medieval period people's view of humanity was shaped by ... .

5. Scientific understanding of the natural world is connected with such names as ... .

6. Comte's «law of the three stages» includes ... .

7. Theological stage is based on ... .

8. At the metaphysical stage abstract forces were believed to ... .

9. Scientific approach focuses attention on ... .

10. Today many sociologists share Comte's belief that ...


Date: 2016-04-22; view: 3692

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