The number of fathers of sociology is a topic of debate, but, generally speaking, there are five prominent figures: Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer, and Max Weber. This article gives a brief overview of these thinkers’ theories.
1. August Comte (1798-1857)
Comte’s major ideas:
- Sociology refers to the “scientific study of society.”
- All societies go through three stages of development: religious, metaphysical, and scientific.
- 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.
- Sociology consists of two branches: dynamics and statics. The former refers to the study of the processes by which societies change. The latter, the study of the processes by which societies endure.
2. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
Spencer’s major ideas:
- Society is like a living organism, and all its parts are interdependent.
- Changes affect everyone, everywhere so we are all contributing to the society’s success.
- If one part is dysfunctional, the other part must make up for its dysfunction.
- Society will correct its own defects through “survival of the fittest.”
- Social problems will work themselves out when the government butts out.
- The “fittest” refers to the rich, powerful, and successful. They achieved their status because nature “selected” them to do so and likewise for the “unfit”.
- Government obstructs the progress of the laws of nature.
3. Karl Marx (1818-1883)
Marx’s major ideas:
- Denied Spencer’s beliefs.
- Postulated a theory of social or class conflict driven by competition.
- Capitalist elites are called the bourgeoisie. They own the means of production.
- The working classes are called the proletariats. Elites exploit workers.
- Laborers will overthrow the bourgeoisie. Hence, Marxist groups form under the title of Worker’s Party.
- The class revolution will lead to a classless society.
- Economics, not natural selection, determines differences in status.
- 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.
4. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)
Durkheim’s major ideas:
- First person to systematically apply scientific methods to the study of sociology.
- Social facts are important. They are defined as patterns of behavior characteristic of a particular group.
- Wrote an influential book on suicide, and based his conclusion on the analysis of statistical data.
- Sociologists should be concerned with objective fact, not subjective experience.
5. Max Weber (1864-1920)
Weber’s major ideas:
- Disagreed with Durkheim. Sociologists should consider peoples’ perspectives.
- Behavior cannot exist without interpretation. People act according to interpretation.
- Sociologists must investigate people’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of their behaviors.
- They should adopt his method of Verstehen, meaning empathetic understanding.
- It allows sociologists to put themselves into “the other person’s shoes” and thus obtain an “interpretive understanding” of the meanings of individuals’ behaviors.