Emergence of Sociology-An eassy

An Introduction

Sociology and social anthropology are closely related in many aspects. In fact, social anthropology is the closest discipline of sociology. Sometimes, it is rather difficult to differentiate sociology from social anthropology in some areas of inquiry and methodology. Both the disciplines are relatively young even within the social sciences. Despite similarities, the emergence of sociology and social anthropology has diverse historical roots. Although, social anthropology is said to have emerged somewhat earlier than sociology, from the very beginning it was very difficult to differentiate between the subject matters of the two disciplines. While the emergence of sociology is relatively easier to trace, the emergence of social anthropology (or for that matter ‘Integrated Anthropology’ including physical anthropology) is more complex. Both the disciplines trace back to several centuries ago; however, both emerged only in the 19th century as an academic discipline. As we go through the Unit, we shall find the varying historical developments of the emergence of the two disciplines.

To understand the emergence of sociology as a social science discipline, it is imperative to understand the socio-economic, political, and scientific factors. Western Europe, in the 18th-19th centuries, witnessed rapid and profound changes. This led to a paradigm shift to the understanding of society and of the individual’s place in it. Considerable advances were taking place in terms of scientific discovery and scientific methodology. Natural sciences, though still in nascent stages, began developing ‘systematic’ methods for study of the physical world. The question that occupied the minds of early sociologists like Comte and Durkheim was, could a similar scientific and systematic approach be applied to the study if the human social world? Scientific and technological advances led to the transformation from a traditional rural agrarian society to a modern urban industrial society. Due to new inventions as we will study later, the scale of production changed from small home-based to large-scale factory like enterprises. Alongside such developments there were also widespread social, economic, and political changes that had a profound effect on West European societies, including major political upheavals. These extensive changes, though central to the process of industrialization and modernization, rather created a paradoxical situation. Paradoxical because it was marked by hope and despair simultaneously. Hope because of the transformation of social, economic, cultural, and political aspects of life from an erstwhile traditional society towards what was viewed as rational and enlightened philosophy, especially with reference to the rule of the Church in the Dark Ages. Yet, this ‘modern’ society that fostered human creativity and rationality was in a perpetual state of disarray and chaos as the earlier stable orders were being replaced by new ones. Sociology, as a distinct discipline emerged in the background of these intellectual and material/social changes taking place in the latter half of the 19th century. We shall discuss some the factors which contributed to the emergence of sociology as an academic discipline


The Englightment Period

The Enlightenment or the ‘Age of Reason’ was a period of intellectual development which brought about significant changes in philosophical thought in Europe in the 18th century. Many existing ideas and beliefs, relating to social life, were overthrown, and replaced during this period. The most prominent thinkers associated with the Enlightenment were the French philosophers Charles Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

This period marked a radical change from the then existing philosophies of feudal Europe. The social and moral orders were no longer considered as divinely ordained and sacrosanct. Individuals became increasingly rational and critical. Departing from the age old Divine Right Theory of the Ruler, now nothing was considered sacrosanct - from the church to the state to the authority of the monarch, nothing was now infallible. The roots of such ideas, as the belief that both nature and society can be studied empirically, that human beings are essentially rational and that such a society built on rational principles will make human beings realize their infinite potentials, was seen because of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, which got firmly established during the period which witnessed the French and the American Revolutions.

The Scientific Revolution

Europe produced a ‘scientific revolution’ in the Renaissance period of the fourteenth to a sixteenth century which was marked by a new attitude towards man and nature. Natural objects became the subject of close observation and experiment. The impact of this revolution was crucial therefore, not just in changing material life, but also the ideas which people held about Nature and Society.

Some major developments of this Scientific Revolution were the Copernican Revolution and the movement towards a heliocentric theory from the previous geocentric one; the ushering of the age of experiments scientists like Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton that revolutionized science and led to a growing desire for sociologists to build a science of society modeled on the scientific method. Also, Darwin’s evolutionary theory posed a radical critique of the Biblical theory of Genesis.   Herbert Spencer had introduced the notion of evolution prior to Darwin and the French philosophers like Comte had described the evolution of society, but Darwin provided legitimate scientific proof for human biological evolution. This led to the development of the evolutionary theory of society wherein, not just organisms, but societies were seen as constantly evolving or developing from a lower to a higher stage. The dissection of the human body, which began to be performed only Post-Renaissance, helped people better understand the functioning of the human body. All this led to the challenging of the old ideas and suggestions of alternatives. These alternatives, however, were only accepted if they could be proved and repeatedly verified, else new solutions were sought. The scientific method, therefore, became regarded as an accurate and objective method.


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