Person in fantasy image looking at a bubble world in space

Famous Figures in Sociology and Their Theories

 

Sociology has been a sector of science since the 1800s, but people have been producing and reproducing sociology from the beginning of time. People make inferences about the organization of society every day. Intellectuals constantly create discourse about the visualization of society. Sociology is so broad that it can cover the smallest comparison to the largest systems. However, grounding these questions and theories is a different task. Let’s discuss the most illustrious sociologists and their contributions to the field. 

Who Invented “Sociology”?

Man in lab coat is looking at a microscope
Image Source: uwaterloo.ca
Picture of scientist

Auguste Comte is a famous French philosopher who coined the term “sociology”. Like his scholarly competitors, he called it “social physics”. However, Comte wanted to differentiate himself from the crowd, thus creating “sociology” in 1838. To invent this word, he merged socius, and logia. The former segment means companion or associate in Latin. The latter segment means study or speech in Greek. 

Sociology as Science

His objective was to fuse all the sciences together under the umbrella of sociology. He thought that sociology was the most important and most detailed form of science. Comte was a positivist, which means that he believed in objective, empirical investigation. As a positivist, Comte advocated for the field of sociology to be scientific and prioritize evidence. While not being the first scholar in sociology, he pioneered channeling sociology through the scientific method. He maintained that people should use sociology to benefit society by scientifically understanding and predicting behavior. Comte divided sociology into social statics and social dynamics. Moreover, he ascertained that these ideas work together in a similar fashion to the human body. 

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau posing with quill and book in hand
Image Source: thoughtco.com
Picture of Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau was a female sociologist during a time when men dominated the discipline. She introduced sociology to England by translating Positive Philosophy by Comte from French into English. Without her translation work, Comte’s impact on sociology might have faded. Because her adaptation was so successful, Comte recommended that sociologists read her remake rather than his own. Not only that, he then had her version translated back into French. By making this text popular in Britain, she made it accessible to the rest of the English-speaking sphere, which was ever-growing.  

Martineau’s Contributions

Martineau was important in accounting for religious, political, and social factors when studying sociology. As the first woman to make a name in sociology, she expanded the scope to include understanding women’s experiences. Additionally, she added a focus on analyzing marriage, children, domestic life, religious life, and racial relationships. These topics had not previously been in the field. Along with that, Martineau felt that sociologists should take a position on issues and fight for social change, rather than only observing society. She was an advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slaves. 

Martineau, as a proponent of a feminist view in sociology, made her a progressive thinker. She conceptualized societal advancement through three criteria. First, one needs to examine the situation of those on the lowest rungs of society. From there, they could judge the progress of society. Second, they needed to look at widespread beliefs on the subject of autonomy and authority. Third, one had to assess resources that make people aware of their autonomy. 

Karl Marx’s Impact on Sociology

Karl Marx with a Soviet Union flag
Image Source: madeinatlantis.com
Picture of Karl Marx flag

Karl Marx is viewed as the founder of Marxist theory. He is a German philosopher and revolutionary, and his most famous work is The Communist Manifesto. All across the world, his ideologies permeated thousands of minds. As a result, he is considered one of the most pivotal figures in history. His ideas served as the foundation of many uprisings and their following governments. Therefore, people don’t view the father of communism as a sociologist. However, he also made a splash in the sphere of sociology. 

The Materialist Conception of History

In connection with communist ideals, Marx drew up the materialist conception of history. This means that economic phenomena induce social change, as opposed to human beliefs. He argued that every historical event was the result of class struggles, or the conflict between the wealthy and the poor. To support this, he cited two examples of the economy causing these upheavals. This was the switch from feudalism to capitalism, and the French revolution. Unsurprisingly, he mainly concentrated on capitalism. Marx concluded that within capitalism, class conflict was bound to happen. This was because the upper class were motivated to exploit the lower, and the lower class were motivated to overcome exploitation. He predicted that capitalism would be overridden by a society without classes. Clearly, with the Cold War, his predictions were correct. 

Conflict Theory

The Marxist theoretical approach of conflict theory stated that domination and power drive social order. As expected for Marxist circles of thought, Marxist sociologists place more significance on class conflict, class divisions, power, and ideology than others. In his view, all of these terms are associated with each other. Power necessitates ideology, in which ideology rationalizes the decisions of those in power. Usually, the reason behind a conflict is to gain power. People with power often rely on ideology but also use brute force. This theory is a paradigm of how sociology is bridged with political reform. 

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim with side profile in suit and glasses
Image Source: thoughtco.com
Picture of Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim is another figure who made a far more lasting mark on sociology than Comte. He judged Comte as not really nailing a scientific lens and thought that he lacked clarity. He demarcated sociology as a science by looking at social facts. Social facts are parts of society that affect our individual lives and choices. Normally, these are social conventions, institutions, laws, and values that exist outside the individual. He desired objectivity in the scholarship of sociology, similar to how scientists investigate the natural world. In his words, Durkheim wanted to “study social facts as things”. According to him, sociologists should seek out the relationships between social facts. 

Durkheim interpreted society as akin to the human body. Society is composed of independent organs with biological functions. As a result, those elements serve the whole. Specifically, the vital parts are the government, the family, religion, and education. He called this unity of social institutions organic solidarity. Durkheim’s image of society also included social constraints. External social structures place limitations on our actions. 

Study of Suicide

One of Durkheim’s biggest influences was his interest in suicide. He postulated that social factors have a deep impact on one’s spiral into suicidal thoughts. Durkheim brought up the word anomie, or a sense of uselessness. He attempted to give his reasoning for suicidal patterns. The loss of traditional norms and standards in society has caused emotional despair. Since people feel like their efforts worked towards nothing, they had suicidal thoughts. He also used the concept of anomie to talk about societal normlessness. The eradication of social standards and values has led to internalized instability. 

Max Weber

Max Weber looking to the right with a beard
Image Source: wikipedia.com
Picture of Max Weber

Max Weber is a noteworthy sociological theorist in the same league as Durkheim. In response to Karl Marx, he disagreed that the economy primarily compels social change. In contrast, he lessened the emphasis on class conflicts. Instead, Weber increased stress on how core values can spark social change. Additionally, his analysis of bureaucracy was very formative for future bureaucracies that still thrive today. He held 6 pillars of bureaucracy. These were specialization, formalized rules, hierarchy, well-trained employees, dedicated managers, and impartiality of management. Evidently, the archetypal bureaucracy was built based on it. Industrial firms, the government, hospitals, and schools are examples of bureaucracy. They are efficient at producing labor, but it is not incredibly democratic. 

Capitalism and Christianity

Weber asserted that the rise of capitalism was fundamentally attached to Christianity, specifically Protestantism. Capitalism did not only generate from economic activity, it was due to our cultural values. In addition, he contended that Calvinist values enkindled the capitalist spirit. Because one of the Calvinist principles was predestination, Christians began to see economic profit as a positive sign from God. Consequently, personal financial welfare became linked to moral virtue. Society as a group began to gain motivation to work and fuel capitalism. Moreover, he interjects that Christianity was not the lone factor, but one of the influences. 

George Herbert Mead

George Mead looking at the camera with a long mustache
Image Source: pinterest.com
Picture of George Mead

George Herbert Mead developed the sociological perspective of symbolic interactionism. He directed his attention to the role of language in the social public sphere. Language engenders an avenue of self-awareness and self-consciousness. The constituent that being self-conscious revolves around is the symbol. The symbol is exemplified in how we can imagine anything even if it does not currently exist in our vision. Obviously, we can think in symbols. This ability considerably expands our human experience. As opposed to animals, we are not restricted to only dealing with the present reality. Humans navigate the world through symbols and through self-consciousness. Every interaction with other human beings is composed of symbols. Constantly, we look for social cues and then adjust our behavior accordingly. We are always aware of ourselves. Those simple interactions are rooted in understanding symbols. 

People have criticized symbolic interactionism for excessively diving into small details. Looking at human interaction through a microscope causes one to lose sight of everything else. Sociologists in symbolic interactionism often faced challenges studying larger social structures. 

W.E.B. DuBois

Color picture of WEB DuBois
Image Source: poetryfoundation.org
Picture of WEB DuBois

WEB DuBois was the first black sociologist and remarkable for his progress in studying race relations. Unusually, he had grown up with a high-quality education and graduated from Harvard. This achievement was rare for black people during the time. To put this in perspective, he was the first black person to gain a PhD. He was born just after Emancipation and lived all the way up until the Civil Rights Movement. The historical context he lived in greatly informed his stance on race relations. His most memorable claim was about the double consciousness of black people. Black people in America must perceive themselves through the eyes of other people. Ascribable to the violent and discouraging racism in society, they struggle to reconcile their two identities. One half is being black, and the other is being American. Predictably, this internal grappling with identity is a reaction to slavery, segregation, and disenfranchisement. 

DuBois was the first sociologist to scrutinize in-depth the interactions between different races. In particular, he made clear the cause and effect of the racial issues that black people faced and their economic and social positions. This relationship remains relevant in sociology today. Also, DuBois was engaged in using sociology to produce social reform. To add on, he founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP. Generally, he was a strong influence in activism and in defending black people from prejudice. 

C. Wright Mills

C Wright Mills smoking in front of a book and a person, sitting at a table
Image Source: nytimes.com
Picture of C Wright Mills

C Wright Mills was instrumental in the development of sociology for the sociological imagination. He held the opinion that everyone lives within the walls of their experience. The geographical area and country you live in, the schools you attend, and the type of family and friends you have affects your social experience. This finite amount of social situations is the sole basis of our individual reasoning. Sociologists define the sociological imagination as the capacity to think outside those walls. Sociologists try to find the meaning of the larger world beyond that. Employing a sociological imagination means breaking down global events into individual behaviors. In an inverted way, it also means seeing how our individual behaviors can build up to global events. The simple acts of our everyday lives can have infinite nexuses to other social and cultural values. Thus, we must use our imagination to find those bonds. 

Functionalism

Robert Merton looking into camera with white hair
Image Source: wikipedia.com
Picture of Robert Merton

Talcott Parsons and Robert K Merton were sociologists operating under functionalism. While functionalism was embodied in Comte and Durkheim, Parsons and Merton made it popular. Functionalism establishes that a moral consensus is the reason for societal harmony. Moral consensus means similar beliefs of the whole citizenry. Furthermore, Merton explains manifest functions and latent functions. The manifest function is a function that one intends for a social activity. The latent function is a consequence of that social activity that one did not intend. Therefore, he wanted to lay bare the latent functions of social activity in our societal institutions. 

Criticisms

Because functionalism was the opposite to symbolic interactionism, it had its own problems. Functionalists, notably Parsons, were biased in emphasizing social unity over social strife. Besides this, sociologists would personify societies as having traits that they do not inherently have. For example, they would say that society has basic needs or that society has goals. If one steps back, society itself is actually independent. In reality, it is people who have basic needs and goals, and these people create society. 

Sociology’s Influence Today

Black Lives Matter protest with signs and crowds
Image Source: britannica.com
Picture of BLM

Understanding these figures in sociology is important because they individually changed the trajectory of thinking in their own style. Sociology is applicable to the modern day in both unexpected and expected ways. For example, tracing the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on different socioeconomic groups is sociology. Surveying the shutting down of educational spaces, restaurants, and recreational facilities is sociology. At the same time, the repercussions of the murder of George Floyd deeply affected the world. The Black Lives Matter movement produced hundreds of questions on racism, the police force, protesting, rioting, etc. The present events that will eventually make it into history often bring up challengings of society. We don’t need to become accomplished sociologists. Despite this, to stay engaged, we should at least look to experts and decide where we stand. 

 

Sources:

britannica.com

 

Leave a Reply