The Origins of Sociology


The social transformation of European societies in the 19th century resulted from a number of revolutionary changes. Sociology is seen as a reaction to these revolutionary developments which occurred in Europe. The key revolutionary developments were the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Sociology is seen as a reaction to these developments but also as a fundamental contributor to the ongoing social, economic, political and intellectual movements that developed as a result (Abbott, Wallace & Tyler, 2005).

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Scientific Revolution According to Abbott, Wallace and Tyler (2005), “the Scientific Revolution made possible the unprecedented understanding and control of natural world”. The thinking of sociologists was that the methodology of the natural sciences would make it possible to understand and control the social world. The Scientific Revolution was one of the most important movements in the 17th century to shape the modern world view. It made physical nature a valid object for the experimental inquiry and mathematical calculation.

The Scientific Revolution brought a new mechanical conception of nature, which enabled westerners to discover and explain the laws of nature mathematically. It entailed the discovery of a new replicable methodology. A new scientific culture was born. It provided the model for progress in the natural sciences and in human societies which were to imitate them. It changed the traditional world view which proposed that earth was the centre of the universe (geocentric theory). Copernicus was the first to try to explain the heliocentric universe using mathematical using mathematical explanations.

The work of Copernicus was advanced by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Galileo advanced the work on astronomy even further which substantiated the Copernican views. Galileo’s teachings were condemned and he was placed under house arrest. Newton synthesized the work of Kepler and Galileo. He formulated the mathematics for a universal law of gravitation and determined the nature of light. These findings transformed science – showed that matter is always the same, it is atomic in structure and its essential nature is dead or lifeless and it is acted upon by immaterial forces.

He explained the motion of matter by three laws inertia  acceleration  action/reaction. Prophets and Proponents Giordano Bruno was a catholic monk who accepted Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. He was one of the first to proclaim that the universe was infinite, filled with innumerable worlds. He speculated there might be life on other planets. His notions were deemed dangerous. He also established religion. Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England under James I, elevated the study of nature to a humanistic discipline.

He argued that science must be open; it must have human goals, the improvement of humanity’s material condition and the advancement of trade and industry but not for the making of war or taking lives. He preached the need for science to possess an inductive methodology. Bacon in advocating the method of inductive research argued that the observer must approach the physical world free from all reality distorting prejudices; at the same time he discovered man’s scientific endeavours are hindered by illusions and fallacies, both native and acquired (Remmling, 1973).

He identified these cognitive obstacles as the “idols of the mind”. Bacon’s writings influenced the work of Locke and Hume. Descartes was an existentialist. He argued that all he could know with certainty was the fact of his existence because he experienced not his body but his mind “I think, therefore I am”. Science for him meant confidence as opposed to confusion of medieval times. He was one of the first to see the capacity of science to control and dominate nature, though he could not imagine its potential to destroy nature. Benedict de Spinoza argued that God is nature and that matter and spirit in effect are one.


The Enlightenment also known as the Age of Reason was the most exciting intellectual movement of the 18th century. Enlightenment thought was the direct outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution, which provided a new method of inquiry and verification and demonstrated the power and self-sufficiency of the human intellect. If nature was autonomous then the human intellect could be autonomous. According to Abbott etal. (2005), Enlightenment thought led to the dominance of ideas of progress and of liberty and individualism.

Sociologists took on the ideas of progress but reacted against the emphasis on individualism stressing the importance of the collectivity and the interrelationship and the interdependence of members of society (Abbott etal. , 2005). Three factors were critically important in the new intellectual ferment;

  1. a revulsion against monarchical and clerical absolutism
  2. a new freedom in publishing and with it a rise of a new public and secular culture (especially England and Holland)
  3. impact of the scientific revolution, especially Newton’s Principia. Censorship and imprisonment was still common in this era.

Promoters of scientific and religious tolerance had secured new freedoms. The leaders of the Enlightenment sought to impose an ordered freedom on political and social institutions. They attacked in print the ideas which stood in the way of tolerance, freedom and rationality. These individuals became known as philosophes. Kant defined the Enlightenment as “light into dark corners of the mind”, dispelling the ignorance, prejudice and superstition. Kant called for self-education and critical thought. Philosophes were united by certain key ideas,

  1. they believed in the new science
  2. were critical of the clergy and all the rigid dogma but tolerant of people’s right to worship freely
  3. believed in the freedom of the press
  4. were willing to entertain if not accept the new heresies as atheism and evolution while seeing the bible as fanciful stories.

Philosophes were most commonly found in European cities – Paris, Budapest, Berlin, Moscow, London, The Hague. Their writing spread far and wide – much of their success was due to the growing literacy of urban men and women who could now afford books because of their growing affluence. This group also resented the privileges of the clergy, nobility and the monarchy.

They called for the humanitarian treatment of slaves and criminals. They helped shape modern beliefs in tolerance, human rights and freedom of speech. The Formation of Public and Secular Culture Persecution of philosophers in France led to them fleeing to England and the Dutch Republic where they set up journals, newspapers, and formal clubs and began international discussions aimed at monarchical absolutism and religious persecution. Relative freedom of assembly gave rise to a new public and secular sphere, a zone for social life outside the family, church and courts.

Salons, coffee houses, Masonic lodges and academies for scientific learning laid the groundwork of the Enlightenment. These groups helped form a new secular and public culture where people mingled with strangers because of common interests to discuss politics, science, new novels or for self-improvement. This training in self-governance, self-education and social criticism helped pave the way for the liberal revolutions that swept across Europe. The Science of Religion The Enlightenment period was also an assault on Christianity. Philosophes argued that many Christian dogmas defied logic.

They denounced the church for inciting fanaticism and intolerance which led to the Crusades, the Inquisition and the wars of the Reformation. Skeptics, Deists and Freethinkers The philosophy of skepticism – the doubting of all dogma was revived by Bayle who distrusted Christian dogma and saw superstition as a social will. People should use their own intellect to search for truth. They questioned the claims of authority made by kings and clergy. With the questioning of religion, Bayle’s dictionary became an integral part of Enlightenment thinking.

It taught readers to question the clerical claim that God’s design governs human events – that “God ordains” certain human action. (Relate to Marxism). Skepticism seemed to point to “natural” religion, i. e. , toward a system of beliefs and ethics designed by rational people on the basis of their own needs. Freethinkers encouraged people to think for themselves (this influenced the American Revolution). Toland in his work Christianity Not Mysterious, argued that most religious doctrine seemed to contradict reason or commonsense and ought to be discarded (the resurrection and miracles of the bible).

He attacked the power of the clergy. By 1700 a general crisis of confidence had been created by skepticism, freethinkers and anticlericism. Most philosophes were Deists – believed only those Christian doctrines that could meet the test of reason. They believed in God as creator of the universe but felt he took no further part after the initial creation. They rejected clerical authority, original sin, revelation and miracles. Jesus was viewed as a great moral teacher not as the son of God. They regarded ethics not faith as the essence of religion.

Hume a skeptic, attacked both revealed religion and the Deists’ natural religion. For him all religious ideas stem from fear and superstition. He rejected the deist view that the seemingly ordered universe required a designing mind to create it. He notes that the universe may very well be eternal. Voltaire campaigned for the rule of law, a freer press, religious toleration, humane treatment of criminals and a more effective system of government administration yet he feared the power of the people. Machiavelli was not part of the Enlightenment period but his ideas influenced Enlightenment thinkers.

He analysed politics in terms of power, fortune and the ability of the individual ruler. He preferred a republican form of government. He influenced the writing of Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Montesquieu approved of constitutional monarchy. His main concern was to check the unbridled authority of the French kings. In opposition to the Old Regime, he proposed a balanced system of government with an executive branch offset by a legislature whose members were drawn from the landed and the educated elements in society.

From his writings we derive our notion of government divided into branches. He believed that the aristocracy possessed the natural obligation to rule and their houour called them to serve the community. His writings point to the need for a representative assembly. His views found favour in the new American Republic. Montesquieu’s effort to explain the origin of ideas and social institutions in socio-cultural terms make him one of the foremost pioneers of the sociology of knowledge (Remmling, 1973).

The philosophers of the French enlightenment in general contributed significantly to the emerging search for linkages connecting thought and existence. Cesare Beccaria regarded private property as the root of all social injustice and hence the root of crime in his writing “Of Crime and Punishment”. Laws were made by the rich and powerful men. Injustice needed to be attacked at the source. He was labelled a socialist (first time the word was used – 1765) which meant that Beccaria paid attention only to people as social creatures and that he wanted a society of free and equal citizens.

Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) noted that the capitalist production and distribution which resulted form advances due to the Scientific Revolution sparked the interests of theorists. Smith regarded capitalist activity as worthwhile and should not be inhibited by outside regulation. Economic theorists saw self-interest as the foundation of all human actions and that at every turn government should aid people in expressing their interests. Government should cease regulating economic activity and the market should be allowed to be free.

This doctrine of laissez-faire – leaving the market to its own devices – was the centrepiece of Adam Smith’s economic thought. Smith viewed labour as the critical factor in a capitalist economy: the value of money or of an individual, rested on the ability to buy labour or the by products of labour, namely goods and services. The value of labour is determined by market forces by supply and demand (this will affect the value of goods and services). What were the implications of capitalist development of societies? The American Revolution High colonial taxes and import duties created conflict between colonists and the British.

A series of conflicts led to the colonists breaking away and declining independence from Britain. The colonists applied Locke’s theory of material rights – government derives its power from the consent of the governed, it is the duty of government to protect the rights of its citizens and that people have the right to “alter or abolish” a government that deprives them of their “unalienable rights”. Enlightenment thinking influenced the Americans awareness of liberty. Colonists had come to expect representative government, trial by jury and protection from unlawful imprisonment.


The exploitation ad oppression of the church and the nobility, increasing hardships for the peasantry and the urban dwellers and increasing dissatisfaction of the bourgeoisie all culminated in the French Revolution in 1789. Leaders of the revolution utilised the ideas and language of the philosophes. The American Revolution also influenced the French with its emphasis on the natural rights of man and the right to sanction a government which deprived citizens of those rights. The Economic Crisis of 1788-89 led to the revolt of the people.

The Meaning of the French Revolution:

  1. Ideas generated by the French Revolution influenced societies in other continents. There were many significant themes which arose due to the impact of this Revolution which have been the focus of interest of the early sociologists. The French Revolution was a decisive period in shaping the modern West.
  2. It implemented the thought of the philosophes, destroyed the hierarchical and corporate society of the Old Regime, and promoted the interests of the bourgeoisie (merchants, master craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, intellectuals and government officials).
  3. The revolution weakened the power of the aristocracy. Property not noble birth determined the composition of the new ruling elite.
  4. The principle of careers open to talent gave the bourgeoisie access to the highest positions in the state.
  5. It transformed the dynastic state to the modern state. In the new conception of the state, it belonged to the people with each individual being a citizen with rights and duties and was governed by laws not on the basis of birth.
  6. Limits were set on the powers of government.
  7. Equality before the law and protection of human rights – habeas corpus, trial by jury and freedom of religion, speech and the press.
  8. The Revolution accelerated the secularisation of European political life.
  9. Destroyed feudalism – taxation was now based on income.
  10. The Revolution unleashed two potentially destructive forces: total war and nationalism.

The world wars of the 20th century are a fulfilment of this development. Modern nationalism with its total dedication to the nation was capable of evoking wild and dangerous passions (Reference to middle-eastern Islam). It gave rise to the revolutionary mentality which justified mass murder in the name of a higher good (Nazis in Germany, socialists in China, Russia and Cambodia). Terror as government policy.


The term refers to the shift from an agrarian, handicraft, labour-intensive economy to an economy dominated by machine manufacture, specialisation of tasks or division of labour, factories and cities and worldwide market for goods, services and capital. The Industrial Revolution was marked by the increase in agricultural productivity, population growth, rapid development of cities, new and more efficient ways of organising tasks to stretch limited natural resources and the innovative ways of expanding capital.

It started in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and brought about changes in the economic and social life of the citizens. The significance of the scientific revolution can be seen here in the application of science and technology and the invention of new machinery and the harnessing of new sources of power. These developments changed the nature of the social and physical environment.

The Industrial Revolution and the development and growth of industrial capitalism resulted in dramatic social and economic changes stemming largely from the separation of work and home – urbanisation, new class relationships, paid employment, the economic dependence of women and children etc. ( Abbott etal. , 2005). The significant themes of this Revolution which concerned the early sociologists were the condition of labour, transformation of property, industrial city/ urbanism and technology and the factory system. Sociologists wanted to understand and explain these changes.

In doing so they also suggested ways in which societies could be reformed and how the modernisation process could be mastered. Several factors led to the rapid industrialisation of Europe;

  1. Rapid population growth accompanied by new agricultural techniques which increased yields.
  2. Decline of feudalism, along with enclosure of the land for sheep rearing.
  3. Rapid technological developments in the textile industry, use of steam power, revolution in transport with the building of new road networks and railway systems, improvement in the communication systems and changes in the financial sector.

Society Transformed – European society remained largely rural and much of the old life continued while the foundations of the new society were being laid. Industrialisation brought a new world, with many forms of property and power – there was a sudden and complete break from the past. Rapid urbanisation accompanied industrialisation with many industrial cities growing without planning or regulation by local or national governments. This led to cities with minimal sanitation, no street lighting, wretched housing, poor transportation and scant security.

Such an environment bred disease and crime with the poor bearing the brunt of these evils. The housing patterns that developed saw the poorest living in the inner city with the wealthier inhabitants circling the city’s edge. Changes in the social structure – the development of industry caused a corresponding development of a bourgeoisie, a middle class comprising people of common birth who engaged in trade and other capitalist ventures. The middle class stressed the virtues of work, thrift, ambition and caution.

Their critics believed that the bourgeois perverted these virtues into materialism, selfishness and callousness. The middle class struggled to end the political, economic and social discrimination which still existed in European societies. Some of the wealthier bourgeois emulated the lifestyles of the aristocracy, even marrying their daughters to the sons of aristocrats. While industrialisation eroded the barriers between the elites and the middle class, it sharpened the distinctions between the middle class and the labouring classes.

The working class comprised mainly of those people who had moved to the city from rural areas in search of jobs in the factories, some worked in the mines under harsh conditions. Factory workers fared a little better than the miners. Many families worked together in the factories and earned more than when they lived in the country. Living and working conditions were awful. They lived in hardship and deprivation, and as immigrants to the city often felt no social connection to others around them. Many workers developed a life around the pub.

In the first half of the 19th century, workers’ political agitation did not achieve anything much, however workers realised the only hope for their class lay in unified action through trade unions, mutual aid societies, cooperatives or political organisations. Trade unions were illegal and workers were attacked for any type of strike action. In England, although trade unions were legalised in 1825, they were not allowed to strike. Reformers and politicians investigated the situation of the poor and saw the need to put mechanisms in place to alleviate the conditions of urban workers.

The English Factory Acts were series of measures which limited the hours of those (especially women and children) who laboured in mines and factories. The continuous changes in the law led to the hours for women and children being increasingly reduced until they were almost completely removed from the workforce. The Industrial Revolution modernised Europe, at the same time, the bourgeoisie increased in number, wealth, importance and power. People were increasingly judged by their talent or income rather than birth and opportunities for upward mobility expanded.

It became a force for democratisation. It also hastened the secularisation of Europe. Former villagers removed from the bounds of communal life, drifted away from religion. The Industrial Revolution made possible the highest standard of living in human history and created new opportunities for social advancement, political participation and educational and cultural development. Thinkers such as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber were concerned about building their society anew. They were considered the founding fathers of Sociology because they were seriously studied these issues in a systematic way.


  1. Abbott, P. , Wallace, C. & Tyler, M. (2005). An Introduction to Sociology: Feminist Perspectives. New York, Routledge.
  2. Perry, M. , Chase, M. , Jacob, J. R. , Jacob, M. C. , & Von Laue, T. H. (1999). Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society (Sixth Edition) New York, Houghton Mifflin Company.
  3. Remmling, G,W. (1973). Towards the sociology of knowledge: origin and development of a sociological thought cycle. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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