Social forces in the development of Sociological Theory

Social forces in the development of Sociological Theory

All intellectual fields are profoundly shaped by their social settings. This is particularly true of sociology, which is not only derived from that setting but takes the social setting as its basic subject matter.

Following are few of the most important social conditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, conditions that were of the utmost significance in the development of sociology.

1. Political Revolutions-

  • Long series of political revolutions ushered in by the French Revolution in 1789 and carrying over through the 19th century was the immediate factor in the rise of sociological theorizing.
  • Impact- enormous, and many positive changes resulted.
  • But, the negative effects of such changes attracted the attention of many early theorists (who were disturbed by the resulting chaos and disorder, especially in France).
  • United in a desire to restore order to society. Some of the more extreme thinkers of this period literally wanted a return to the peaceful and relatively orderly days of the Middle Ages. The more sophisticated thinkers recognized that social change had made such a return impossible. Thus they sought instead to find new bases of order in societies that had been overturned by the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • The interest in the issue of social order was one of the major concerns of classical sociological theorists, especially Comte and Durkheim.

2. The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of Capitalism-

  • (as important as political revolution)
  • (swept through many Western societies, mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries).
  • The Industrial Revolution was not a single event but many interrelated developments that culminated in the transformation of the Western world from a largely agricultural to an overwhelmingly industrial system.
  • Large numbers of people left farms and agricultural work for the industrial occupations offered in the burgeoning factories.
  • The factories themselves were transformed by a long series of technological improvements.
  • Large economic bureaucracies arose to provide the many services needed by industry and the emerging capitalist economic system.
  • In this economy, the ideal was a free marketplace where the many products of an industrial system could be exchanged. Within this system, a few profited greatly while the majority worked long hours for low wages. A reaction against the industrial system and against capitalism in general followed and led to the labor movement as well as to various radical movements aimed at overthrowing the capitalist system.
  • The Industrial Revolution, capitalism, and the reaction against them all involved an enormous upheaval in Western society, an upheaval that affected sociologists greatly.
  • Four major figures in the early history of sociological theory- Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel- were preoccupied, as were many lesser thinkers, with these changes and the problems they created for society as a whole. They spent their lives studying these problems, and in many cases they endeavored to develop programs that would help solve them.

3. The Rise of Socialism-

  • One set of changes aimed at coping with the excesses of the industrial system and capitalism can be combined under the heading “socialism.”
  • Although some sociologists favored socialism as a solution to industrial problems, most were personally and intellectually opposed to it.
  • On the one side, Karl Marx was an active supporter of the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by a socialist system. Although he did not develop a theory of socialism per se, he spent a great deal of time criticizing various aspects of capitalist society. In addition, he engaged in a variety of political activities that he hoped would help bring about the rise of socialist societies. However, Marx was atypical in the early years of sociological theory.
  • Most of the early theorists, such as Weber and Durkheim, were opposed to socialism (at least as it was envisioned by Marx). Although they recognized the problems within capitalist society, they sought social reform within capitalism rather than the social revolution argued for by Marx. They feared socialism more than they did capitalism. This fear played a greater role in shaping sociological theory than did Marx’s support of the socialist alternative to capitalism. In fact, as we will see, in many cases sociological theory developed in reaction against Marxian, and, more generally, socialist theory.

4. Feminism

  • While precursors of feminism can be traced to the 1630s, high points of feminist activity and writing occurred in the liberationist moments of modern Western history:-
  • A first flurry of productivity in the 1780s and 1790s with the debates surrounding the American and French revolutions;
  • A far more organized, focused effort in the 1850s as part of the mobilization against slavery and for political rights for the middle class;
  • And the massive mobilization for women’s suffrage and for industrial and civic reform legislation in the early 20th century, especially the Progressive Era in the United States.
  • All of the abovd had an impact on the development of sociology, in particular on the work of a number of women in or associated with the field- Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Wells-Barnett, Marianne Weber, and Beatrice Potter Webb, to name just a few. But their creations were, over time, pushed to the periphery of the profession, annexed or discounted or written out of sociology’s public record by the men who were organizing sociology as a professional power base. Feminist concerns filtered into sociology only on the margins, in the work of marginal male theorists or of the increasingly marginalized female theorists.
  • The men who assumed centrality in the profession- from Spencer, through Weber and Durkheim- made basically conservative responses to the feminist arguments going around them, making issues of gender an inconsequential topic to which they responded conventionally rather than critically in what they identified and publicly promoted as sociology. They responded in this way even as women were writing a significant body of sociological theory. The history of this gender politics in the profession was also part of the history of male response to feminist claims, is only now being written.

5. Urbanization

  • Partly as a result of the Industrial Revolution, large numbers of people in the 19th and 20th centuries were uprooted from their rural homes and moved to urban settings. This massive migration was caused, in large part, by the jobs created by the industrial system in the urban areas.
  • But it presented many difficulties for those people who had to adjust to urban life. In addition, the expansion of the cities produced a seemingly endless list of problems- overcrowding, pollution, noise, traffic, and so forth.
  • The nature of urban life and its problems attracted the attention of many early sociologists, especially Max Weber and Georg Simmel. In fact, the first major school of American sociology, the Chicago school, was in large part defined by its concern for the city and its interest in using Chicago as a laboratory in which to study urbanizatiob and its problems.

6. Religious change-

  • Social changes brought on by political revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, and urbanization had a profound effect on religiosity.
  • Many early sociologists came from religious backgrounds and were actively, and in some cases professionally, involved in religion. They brought to sociology the same objectives as they had in their religious lives. They wished to improve people’s lives.
  • For some (such as Comte), sociology was transformed into a religion.
  • For others, their sociological theories bore an unmistakable religious imprint.
  • Durkheim wrote one of his major works on religion.
  • A large portion of Weber’s work also was devoted to the religions of the world.
  • Marx, too, had an interest in religiosity, but his orientation was far more critical .

6. The Growth of Science-

  • As sociological theory was being developed, there was an increasing emphasis on science, not only in colleges and universities but in society as a whole. The technological products of science were permeating every sector of life, and science was acquiring enormous prestige. Those associated with the most successful sciences (Physics, Biology, and Chemistry) were accorded honored places in society.
  • Sociologists (especially Comte and Durkheim) from the beginning were preoccupied with science, and many wanted to model sociology after the successful physical and biological sciences.
  • However, a debate soon developed between those who thought that distinctive characteristics of social life made a wholesale adoption of a scientific model difficult and unwise.
  • The issue of the relationship between sociology and science is debated to this day, although even a glance at the major journals in the field indicates the predominance of those who favor sociology as a science.

Reference:

Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological theory (5th ed.). New Delhi: McGraw Hill Education (India) Private Limited.

 

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