Each field of academic study has its own cast of characters, and sociology is no exception. Although countless individuals have contributed to sociology's development into a social science, several individuals deserve special mention.
The French philosopher Auguste Comte
(1798–1857)—often called the “father of sociology”—first used the term “sociology” in 1838 to refer to the scientific study of society. He believed that all societies develop and progress through the following stages: religious, metaphysical, and scientific. Comte argued that society needs scientific knowledge based on facts and evidence to solve its problems—not speculation and superstition, which characterize the religious and metaphysical stages of social development. Comte viewed the science of sociology as consisting of two branches: dynamics
, or the study of the processes by which societies change; and statics
, or the study of the processes by which societies endure. He also envisioned sociologists as eventually developing a base of scientific social knowledge that would guide society into positive directions.
The 19th‐century Englishman Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) compared society to a living organism with interdependent parts. Change in one part of society causes change in the other parts, so that every part contributes to the stability and survival of society as a whole. If one part of society malfunctions, the other parts must adjust to the crisis and contribute even more to preserve society. Family, education, government, industry, and religion comprise just a few of the parts of the “organism” of society.
Spencer suggested that society will correct its own defects through the natural process of “survival of the fittest.” The societal “organism” naturally leans toward homeostasis, or balance and stability. Social problems work themselves out when the government leaves society alone. The “fittest”—the rich, powerful, and successful—enjoy their status because nature has “selected” them to do so. In contrast, nature has doomed the “unfit”—the poor, weak, and unsuccessful—to failure. They must fend for themselves without social assistance if society is to remain healthy and even progress to higher levels. Governmental interference in the “natural” order of society weakens society by wasting the efforts of its leadership in trying to defy the laws of nature.
Not everyone has shared Spencer's vision of societal harmony and stability. Chief among those who disagreed was the German political philosopher and economist Karl Marx (1818–1883), who observed society's exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful. Marx argued that Spencer's healthy societal “organism” was a falsehood. Rather than interdependence and stability, Marx claimed that social conflict, especially class conflict, and competition mark all societies.
The class of capitalists that Marx called the bourgeoisie particularly enraged him. Members of the bourgeoisie own the means of production and exploit the class of laborers, called the proletariat, who do not own the means of production. Marx believed that the very natures of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat inescapably lock the two classes in conflict. But he then took his ideas of class conflict one step further: He predicted that the laborers are not selectively “unfit,” but are destined to overthrow the capitalists. Such a class revolution would establish a “class‐free” society in which all people work according to their abilities and receive according to their needs.
Unlike Spencer, Marx believed that economics, not natural selection, determines the differences between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He further claimed that a society's economic system decides peoples' norms, values, mores, and religious beliefs, as well as the nature of the society's political, governmental, and educational systems. Also unlike Spencer, Marx urged people to take an active role in changing society rather than simply trusting it to evolve positively on its own.
Despite their differences, Marx, Spencer, and Comte all acknowledged the importance of using science to study society, although none actually used scientific methods. Not until Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) did a person systematically apply scientific methods to sociology as a discipline. A French philosopher and sociologist, Durkheim stressed the importance of studying social facts, or patterns of behavior characteristic of a particular group. The phenomenon of suicide especially interested Durkheim. But he did not limit his ideas on the topic to mere speculation. Durkheim formulated his conclusions about the causes of suicide based on the analysis of large amounts of statistical data collected from various European countries.
Durkheim certainly advocated the use of systematic observation to study sociological events, but he also recommended that sociologists avoid considering people's attitudes when explaining society. Sociologists should only consider as objective “evidence” what they themselves can directly observe. In other words, they must not concern themselves with people's subjective experiences.
The German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) disagreed with the “objective evidence only” position of Durkheim. He argued that sociologists must also consider people's interpretations of events—not just the events themselves. Weber believed that individuals' behaviors cannot exist apart from their interpretations of the meaning of their own behaviors, and that people tend to act according to these interpretations. Because of the ties between objective behavior and subjective interpretation, Weber believed that sociologists must inquire into people's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions regarding their own behaviors. Weber recommended that sociologists adopt his method of Verstehen (vûrst e hen), or empathetic understanding. Verstehen allows sociologists to mentally put themselves into “the other person's shoes” and thus obtain an “interpretive understanding” of the meanings of individuals' behaviors.