Modernity and Social Change in Europe and Emergence of Sociology

Scope of the Subject of Sociology

Sociology and Other Social Sciences

     Sociology and Common Sense

Modernity and Social Change in Europe and Emergence of Sociology

Curious human mind had a desire to know more about its social surroundings since time immemorial, but such thoughts were systematized in form of a discipline only a few centuries back in first half of 19th century only.

Renaissance gave birth to ideology of modernism and it led to dawn of modernity. Old beliefs were liberally questioned and rationality emerged as new ‘religion’. Rousseau, Montesquieu etc talked of modern political ideas while likes of Adam Smith, Ricardo and J S Mill talked of new economic order. All these had a common thread – rationality of human thoughts. Further, new order started to replace the old order and it created considerable social upheaval and disturbance in society. In this background emerged earliest sociological thoughts in minds of likes of Hegel, Comte and Spencer. They were mainly western but with global consequences.

The distinct way of studying society can be better understood if we look back historically at the intellectual ideas, material context and political development within which sociology was born and later grew. These are broadly classified as –

  1. Intellectual ideas

The Enlightenment, as a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries led by Montesquieu and Rousseau, emphasized reason and individualism. It had a great influence on emergence of sociology, though an indirect one. As Irving Zeitlin puts it in his ‘Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, 1996’, ‘Early sociology developed as a reaction to the Enlightenment’. Early sociology has been a mix of Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment ideas. As enlightenment thesis put individual at center stage, on the other hand for counter-

enlightenment proponents society was the most important unit of analysis. On the other hands Enlightenment ideas of rationalism, empiricism, and change-orientation also affected early sociological thought.

Darwin’s ideas about organic evolution were another dominant influence on early sociological thought. Similarly, ideas of Newton also led to development of natural sciences which affected sociological thought as well. Thinkers of the early modern era were convinced that progress in knowledge of society on lines of natural sciences promised the solution to all social ills. For example, Auguste Comte, the French scholar, considered to be the founder of sociology, believed that sociology would contribute to the welfare of humanity.

According to T B Bottomore, main intellectual streams that particularly influenced the emergence of sociology are – political philosophy given by likes of Montesquieu, Rousseau etc, philosophy of history, theory of organic evolution given by Darwin, movements for social and political reform like French Revolution and development of method of social survey.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Claude Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte (disciple of Saint Simon), Spencer and especially Emile Durkheim became the face of French Sociology with their seminal formative work. Comte was the first to use the term sociology and he believed that study of sociology would be scientific. He developed his scientific view, ‘positivism’, or ‘positive philosophy’. Comte pioneered’social physics,’ later renamed’sociology,’ in 1839.

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