The Development of Sociology

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the development of sociology through the work and theories of classical sociologists
Figure (a) shows two ancient Greeks (Plato and Aristotle). Figure (b) shows an ancient Chinese man, Confucius. Figure (c) shows a statue of a man, Khaldun. Figure (d) shows a portrait of a Frenchman, Voltaire.
Figure 1. Since ancient times, people have been fascinated by the relationship between individuals and the societies to which they belong. Many topics studied in modern sociology were also studied by ancient philosophers in their desire to describe an ideal society, including theories of social conflict, economics, social cohesion, and power (Hannoum 2003). Plato and Aristotle, Confucius, Khaldun, and Voltaire all set the stage for modern sociology. (Photos (a),(b),(d) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo (c) courtesy of Moumou82/Wikimedia Commons)

Creating a Discipline

Auguste Comte (1798–1857)

A portrait of August Comte.
Figure 2. Auguste Comte is considered by many to be the father of sociology. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In 1838 Auguste Comte, a Frenchman, coined the term sociology, from the Latin socius (companion or associate) and the Greek term logia (study of speech). Comte believed sociology could unify other sciences and improve society. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, greatly impacted Comte, as did the Industrial Revolution in Europe (1760-1840). Questions related to economic class, social status, urbanization, and the dangers of factory work raised new issues about society and social interaction.

Like other thinkers influenced by the Enlightenment (a philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized reason and individualism), Comte believed society developed in stages. In The Course in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842) and A General View of Positivism (1848), Comte described The Law of Three Stages as follows:

  1. theological stage where people took religious views of society
  2. metaphysical stage where people understood society as natural (not supernatural)
  3. the scientific or positivist stage, where society would be governed by reliable knowledge and would be understood in light of the knowledge produced by science, primarily sociology.

Comte originally studied to be an engineer, but later became a pupil of social philosopher Claude Henri de Rouvroy Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825). They both thought that social scientists could study society using the same scientific methods utilized in the natural sciences. Comte also believed in the potential of social scientists to improve society. He held that once scholars identified the laws that governed society, sociologists could address problems such as poor education and poverty.

Comte named the scientific study of social patterns positivism. He believed that using scientific methods to reveal the laws by which societies and individuals interact would usher in a new scientifically oriented “positivist” age of history. In this view, rational claims are seen as scientifically and systematically verifiable, and are opposed to metaphysical and or supernatural explanations. Although much of Comte’s Courses, a six-volume treatise, has been discarded, particularly the highly simplified and under-examined approach to social development, Comte’s lasting contribution to sociology has been his classification of sciences. He presented a hierarchy of the sciences, with sociology at the top of a list that begins with mathematics, and then moves to astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology. He argued that the sciences increase in complexity and decrease in generality as you move up the hierarchy, and that they build upon each of the foundational sciences below. Comte declared sociology the most complex science for its attempt to integrate all of the other sciences in order to explain natural laws of increasing complexity.

Harriet Martineau (1802–1876)

Harriet Martineau was a writer who addressed a wide range of social science issues. She was an early observer of social practices, including economics, social class, religion, suicide, government, and women’s rights. Her writing career began in 1831 with a series of stories titled Illustrations of Political Economy, in which she tried to educate ordinary people about the principles of economics.

Martineau was the first to translate Comte’s writing from French to English and thereby introduced sociology to English-speaking scholars. She is also credited with the first systematic methodological international comparisons of social institutions in two of her most famous sociological works: Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). Martineau found the workings of capitalism at odds with the professed moral principles of the United States; she identified faults of the free enterprise system in which workers were exploited and impoverished while business owners became wealthy. She further noted that the belief in all being created equal was inconsistent with the lack of women’s rights. Much like Mary Wollstonecraft, Martineau was often discounted in her own time by the male domination of academic sociology.

Karl Marx (1818–1883)

A photo of Karl Marx.
Figure 3. Karl Marx was one of the founders of sociology. His ideas about social conflict are still relevant today. (Photo courtesy of John Mayall/Wikimedia Commons)

Karl Marx was a German social philosopher and economist. In 1848 he and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) coauthored The Communist Manifesto, which is one of the most influential political manuscripts in history. It presents Marx’s theory of society, which differed from what Comte proposed.

Marx rejected Comte’s positivism. He believed that societies grew and changed as a result of the struggles of different social classes as they sought control over the means of production. At the time he was developing his theories, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism had led to great disparities in wealth between the owners of the factories and workers. Capitalism, an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of goods and the means to produce them, grew in many nations.

Marx predicted that inequalities of capitalism would become so extreme that workers would eventually revolt. This would lead to the collapse of capitalism, which would be replaced by communism. Communism is an economic system under which there is no private or corporate ownership of the means of production. Instead, economic resources are owned communally and are distributed as needed. Marx believed that communism was a more equitable system than capitalism.

While his economic predictions may not have come true in the time frame or in the locations he predicted, Marx’s idea that economic, class-based conflict leads to changes in society is still one of the major theories used in modern sociology.

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917)

Durkheim helped legitimize and define sociology as a formal academic discipline by establishing the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895 and by publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method (1895). In another important work, Division of Labour in Society (1893), Durkheim articulated his theory of how societies transform from a primitive state into a capitalist, industrial society. According to Durkheim, people rise to their proper levels in society based on merit.

Durkheim believed that sociologists could study objective “social facts.” He also believed that through such studies it would be possible to determine if a society was “healthy” or “pathological.” He saw healthy societies as stable, while pathological societies experienced a breakdown in social norms between individuals and society.

In 1897, Durkheim attempted to demonstrate the effectiveness of his rules of social research when he published a work titled Suicide. Durkheim examined suicide statistics in different police districts to research differences between Catholic and Protestant communities. He attributed the differences to socioreligious forces rather than to individual or psychological causes.

Try It

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)

Ida B. Wells in an old photograph.
Figure 4. Ida B. Wells was a revolutionary teacher and journalist who brought many sociological issues to light, particularly racial and gender inequalities.

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi to parents were freed after the Civil War and who went on to be politically active during Reconstruction (1865-1877). Wells’ parents and younger brother died during a yellow fever epidemic in 1878 when she was just 16 years old. She became a teacher in a Black elementary school (Wells attended some college prior to her parents’ deaths) so that her five other siblings would not be separated and sent to foster homes[1]. She relocated from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee to earn higher wages, and to pursue further education. 

In 1884, when Wells was just 24 years old, she refused to give up her seat in a first-class ladies train car and was subsequently dragged from the car by the conductor and two men. After being criminally charged, Wells fought the case all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, based on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Although Wells lost after the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision, her passion for equality and social justice only became stronger and more influential. (Her direct action would be echoed by Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience 71 years later.) In 1891, she was fired from her teaching job for criticizing the quality of Blacks-only schools in Memphis and thus began a new career in journalism, starting at the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, which she later co-owned.

After the lynching of three of her friends in 1892, Wells became one of the nation’s most vocal anti-lynching activists. She launched an extensive investigation of lynching and published her findings in a pamphlet titled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases,” in 1892[2]. Wells exposed lynching as a barbaric practice of whites in the South used to intimidate and oppress African Americans who represented economic and political competition—and a subsequent threat to entrenched, hierarchical power—for whites. A white mob eventually destroyed her newspaper office and presses, though this did not stifle her voice or prevent her investigative reporting from finding a national audience, particularly through a distribution network of Black-owned newspapers.

Wells was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1908, but her name was left off the list of founding members. She also worked to have full inclusion for Black women in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and participated in the 1913 Suffrage March in front of the White House. Although not formally trained as an academic sociologist, Wells was the epitome of a public sociologist because she examined racial and gender inequalities and made them public issues. In Southern Horrors:  Lynch Laws in All Its Phases she stated, “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press” (1892). This forward-thinking statement is one of her many legacies in sociology. 

Max Weber (1864–1920)

Prominent sociologist Max Weber established a sociology department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich in 1919. Weber wrote on many topics, including political change in Russia and social forces that affect factory workers. He is best known for his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904). The theory that Weber sets forth in this book, which describes how religious belief shapes work habits and thus affects the larger social, political, and economic world, is still controversial. Some believe that Weber argued that the beliefs of many Protestants, especially Calvinists, led to the creation of capitalism. Others interpret it as simply claiming that the ideologies (i.e., belief systems) of capitalism and Protestantism are complementary.

Weber believed that it was difficult, if not impossible, to use standard scientific methods to accurately predict the behavior of groups. This view stood in opposition to positivism, which applied systematic, scientific interpretive frameworks to social phenomena in the same sense that one might apply them to natural phenomena.  Instead, Weber proposed a more empathic interpretive method that would take into account one’s own cultural biases and orientations. With fellow sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey,  Weber introduced the concept of verstehen, a German word that means to understand in a deep, empathetic way. In seeking verstehen, outside observers of a social world—an entire culture or a small setting—attempt to understand it from an insider’s point of view.

In his book The Nature of Social Action (1922), Weber described sociology as striving to “interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which action proceeds and the effects it produces.” He and other like-minded sociologists proposed a philosophy of antipositivism whereby social researchers would strive for subjectivity as they worked to represent social processes, cultural norms, and societal values. This approach led to some research methods whose aim was not to generalize or predict (as is traditional in science), but to systematically gain an in-depth understanding of social worlds.

The different approaches to research based on positivism or antipositivism are often considered the foundation for the differences found today between quantitative sociology and qualitative sociology. Quantitative sociology uses statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants. Researchers analyze data using statistical techniques to see if they can uncover patterns of human behavior. Qualitative sociology seeks to understand human behavior by learning about it through in-depth interviews, focus groups, and analysis of content sources (like books, magazines, journals, and popular media).

Further Research

Many sociologists helped shape the discipline. To learn more about prominent sociologists and how they changed sociology check out Profiles of Powerful Sociologists.

Try It

Think It Over

  • What do you make of Karl Marx’s contributions to sociology? What perceptions of Marx have you been exposed to in your society, and how do those perceptions influence your views?
  • Ida B. Wells emphasized the importance of the press 100 years ago as an educational tool. In what ways does this statement hold true today? How might one disagree that no teacher can compare with the press?


the view that social researchers should strive for subjectivity as they worked to represent social processes, cultural norms, and societal values
generalized others:
the organized and generalized attitude of a social group
the scientific study of social patterns
qualitative sociology:
in-depth interviews, focus groups, and/or analysis of content sources as the source of its data
quantitative sociology:
statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants
significant others:
specific individuals that impact a person’s life
a German word that means to understand in a deep way

  1. "Ida B. Wells biography," accessed September 10, 2018, A&E Television Networks.
  2. Steptoe, Tyina (2007). Ida Wells Barnett. BlackPast. Retrieved from


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