The Four Most Influential Sociologists
Sociology is the study of social order and how membership of social groups influences people’s behavior. This social science is centered around what makes people act the way they do and why.
Because of this basis, sociology has given rise to many philosophers who have attempted to develop and test theories that help explain human behavior. Among these influential philosophers were Auguste Comte, Carl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim. Although these sociologists had relatively different theories, they can be seen as intertwined in some aspects and continue to influence studies of both the contemporary natural and social worlds. Amid the period of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte began to question how social order in societies was created and maintained. He was a firm believer in the methodology of positivism and argued for a way of studying the social world the same way that the natural world is studied. Comte believed that there existed three stages that all human societies eventually transitioned through: the theological, metaphysical, and positive.
Overall, these stages were characterized by a society’s progression from religious and superstitious beliefs to relying on factual knowledge and reason. In a way, Comte is viewed as the first philosopher of science, because although science had always had some basis in philosophy, he made people consider the possibility of a single philosophy of science itself. Of all the classifications of science that have been proposed since his time, his structure of the six fundamental sciences (math, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology) remains the most popular to this day. Principles similar to his positivist ideologies have been applied to these natural sciences to further comprehend the natural world. This positive method varies among sciences, for example observation in astronomy and experimentation in chemistry, but has formed building blocks for which questions can be answered through these sciences. Although the science of sociology differs from these aforementioned natural sciences, it’s works involve natural methods of observation, comparison, and experimentation.
Thanks to Comte, such natural methods have helped to advance sociological research and knowledge. Unlike Comte, economist Carl Marx saw social order as maintained through conflict among groups, not co-operation among individuals. However, he saw social development as passing through four epochs not unlike Comte’s three transition stages: primitive communism, ancient society, pre-industrial society, and industrial society. In each of these time periods, an economic relationship characterized by conflict was involved. Such relationships were based on class conflict and the dominance of one group over another (most famous is the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in capitalist societies). Marx believed in power and wealth providing a strong cause for class stratification and inequality, with one group owning almost all the wealth at the expense of the other by the fourth epoch.
Marx’s work greatly contributed to the understanding of the effect conflict has on social change, and of how economic resources can greatly influence the organization of societies. Marxism entails the constant struggle of the working class against the oppression of the wealthy elite, and argues that capitalism will always persist until this social order is overthrown by the proletariat. Such arguments have led to present day “Occupy movements” in countries such as Nigeria and Mexico involving protests unequal economic power and the uneven distribution of wealth.Not only has Marx contributed to the further understanding of social change, but he has also provided a basis for this social change to occur today through his works. Rather than following the idea of a process of social development, the sociologist Max Weber was more focused on a process of modernization, consisting of industrialization, urbanization, and rationalization.
Weberian theory revolved around how and why it was that pre-industrial, agricultural based societies became industrial, manufacturing based ones. This theory of social action argued that social change was actually the result of groups and individuals within those groups acting together with a purpose. While Comte believed societies developed by turning away from religion, Weber stated that religious groups and morals were one of the many influences that pushed modernization. However, his ideas are viewed as a counter to those of Marx in the sense that they weren’t as deterministic. To Weber, social change was caused by factors other than economics, such as changing belief systems and scientific advancements. He contributed the idea that studies should be conducted with interpretive means, and to the overall observation o organizations within society.
Thanks to this philosopher, contemporary sociologists give more credit to structures that form institutions such as power and prestige. Similar to Comte, the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim was based in the idea that a society could only be fully understood when viewing the relationship between its various institutions. Such institutions include family, religion, and education, as they are patterns of shared behavior. Durkheim believed that by analyzing institutional relationships, it would be possible to understand what holds a mass of individuals together as a society. He saw society as an entity that existed beyond its individual members and was based on a common agreement among all of them about what is important.
A major contribution of this belief includes the idea of both mechanical and organic solidarity, in which people feel bound together by the belief that they belong to a larger group; this gave rise to the prevalent theme that societies do not just merely exist. Like Comte, Durkheim has also contributed to the development of sociology as a science that can both produce objective knowledge about human behavior and explain that behavior as more than the result of psychological choices. The reason for which contemporary basic principles for scientifically studying human behavior are set and applied can be traced back to Durkheim. The works of Comte, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim have distinct characteristics in beliefs about specific institutions and causes for social change. But despite this, all have the common theme of attempting to understand human actions and why it is that we gather into the institutions and societal forms that we do.