Social ideas of the scientists

Only when a set of research practices and exchange of ideas and results among members of an organised occupation begin to take place can we talk of the arrival of sociology as a discipline. So the invention of the word ‘sociology’ in 1839 by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was only a preliminary first step, though his idea that there was a law of three stages governing the development of society became widely known.

Herbert Spencer, a railway engineer from Derby, England, was even more successful as a publicist. His visit to the United States in 1882, travelling by rail, the new revolutionary means of transport, gelled with the American fervour for social improvement, popular education and philanthropy, and the ‘sociological movement’ took root in colleges and universities. William Graham Sumner, who had given the first lecture course in the subject in Yale University in 1876 addressed a farewell banquet to Spencer saying ‘we look upon his work in sociology as a grand step in the history of science’.

By 1895, Albion Small (1854-1926), the founding editor of what is to this day the top general journal of the profession, the American Journal of Sociology, was confident enough to write: ‘Sociology has a foremost place in the thought of modem [people]. Approve it or deplore the fact at pleasure we cannot escape it.’

By the outbreak of the Great War of the Western nation-states in 1914 the international exchange of ideas and the interest of the state ensured that there were professorships of sociology in most of the great capital cities of the world. National associations for sociology had been founded in the major countries. Governments and voluntary associations were promoting the systematic collection of data on social problems.

The same stimuli promoted the disciplines of statistics, psychology and economics whose development at the time was inter-twined with sociology, even as each sought to take charge of a special sphere of interest of its own. This was the time when the social sciences each began to provide an occupational identity and a potential career. Sociology became a subject to study in universities and then in high schools and colleges.

Human society has been around a long time and the ancient Greeks were notable for a developed interest in it. But only in the twentieth century has its study become the dominant concern of a distinct mass higher-education subject. Society has not only been transformed, it has become problematical for individuals, organisations and governments. That’s why they are interested in its study.

This historical overview of the origins of sociology itself depends on the sociology of occupations, education and science. ‘Sociologies of…’ fill textbooks and provide special courses for any occupation. For instance the sociology of medicine, social work or law are particularly in demand. These professions all involve direct services to people, and training for them makes explicit recognition of the relevance of sociology.

Each such special field of sociology relates the practices of the occupational area to the wider society and to the social relations of all who deal with it. So the sociology of medicine concerns itself with the social origins of the doctors and paramedical professions, with their social status, their professional ideology, their power in general and over patients, their relations with science and other professions.

Repeatedly sociology shows that an occupation takes a direction which depends as much on social forces as on its values, technical knowledge or even simple demand for its services. But that applies to sociology too. The discipline gets its identity from the special interest people have in society.

This waxes and wanes, possibly being greater in periods of permissive social control (see p. 11). Society then has greater autonomy from the state while the economy is led by consumption for personal social purposes rather than by investment or welfare spending. Business then also has an incentive to undertake research into lifestyles. A lot of market research is sociology under another name.

However, even in centralised and authoritarian regimes the state is also a customer for sociology. For if the aim is to control society, the threat of force is not necessarily the only or best means to secure this. Even the Nazi government of Germany in the 1930s sponsored social research. The controllers want good policy-relevant information and tend to treat the social sciences merely as means to that end; but knowledge can never serve one interest only.

Thus one of the classic topics for sociological research has been social class. The reason it has been so researched in relation to politics and voting behaviour stems from the nineteenth century when the ruling elite in Western nation-states was haunted by the theoretical possibility that the class of industrial workers would take power from them.

This was not an unreasonable fear. The ruling classes were intimidated by the theory of Karl Marx, who predicted the overthrow of a society divided between capitalist and working classes. Later when the working classes everywhere obtained the vote interest turned to the relation between class and voting behaviour. Workers’ parties could, and after all, on occasion, as in Britain in 1945, did come to power in democratic states.

So the sociology of politics and of voting became a twentieth-century growth industry. For a time class became the dominant research topic for sociology. It came indeed to be part of almost every explanation of any human behaviour, not just of voting but also of eating, feeling, thinking and speaking. Class as explanation was not just a Marxist interest arising in the 1960s, as many have thought, but pervaded sociology generally.

This concern to determine the importance of class in social behaviour was financed by powerful interests. Political parties wanted to know, but so too did business firms. Their thinking was straightforward. Even if the working class could not overthrow capitalism, if behaviour were linked closely to class membership, then it might be possible to predict which people would buy what goods. Consumption became ‘purchasing behaviour’. Public opinion polling and market

research were united in their interest in class, and the same organisations developed both activities.

At the very least both commercial and party interests felt the need to know what the main social classes were and how many people belonged to them. In this they shared in an overriding interest of nation-state governments. For tax raising purposes they needed to know how many people there were and where they lived. For their political fate they needed to know who they were. Everywhere in the West the census of the population came not just to record where people lived but also information which allowed them to be assigned to a class, however that was defined.

As early as 1867, when Karl Marx published his account of Capital, he could cite a sixfold increase of slaves in the United States between 1790 and 1861 from census returns and he could regroup the statistics of the 1861 census of England and Wales to show how increases in new industrial occupations were accompanied by the growth of an ‘unproductive’ servant class. 6

Putting these motive forces together: the state interest in counting people (which, as a specialised study, came to be known as demography); the radical interest in raising consciousness; the commercial interest in identifying social trends; those with a distinctively intellectual interest in understanding society found plenty of willing partners.

But what this account illustrates is that the forces which combine to create an intellectual discipline are not independent of historical circumstances. They are not simply a matter of an intellectual impulse. Nor is the way we talk and think about the time independent of power. The discourse about society by powerful agents within it, like the state or business, contributes to its ongoing formation.

Paradigms and discourse

When Comte devised his programme for sociology he shared the widespread attitude of his time that sciences like physics had shown the way for all knowledge. This outlook is known to this day as positivism after ‘the positive philosophy’ which is how he described his own work. ‘Positivism’ refers to any approach which emphasises ‘hard’ data, predictive theory, and the exclusion of values from research. It treats the natural sciences as providing the model for social science.

But while sociology has drawn lessons from the theories and methods of various natural sciences, it finds that human society has features which require different approaches. The two main reasons are the fact that human society works through culture and because human beings experience themselves and others not as objects but subjects.

It is for these reasons that sociologists argue that the natural sciences, as human products, are embedded in society and culture. Scientists need to bear those limits in mind even while at work in their laboratories. In fact it is a physicist, Thomas Kuhn, who has provided important support for this view with his theory of scientific paradigms.

Kuhn’s paradigm is a complex entity, including not simply the topics of science but also theories, methods of research, journals, laboratories, applications, training, rewards and honours and all of these at once. They reinforce each other and when we refer to ‘physics’, ‘economics’ or ‘linguistics’ we allude to the whole range of social practices as well as the theories on which they depend.

The paradigm is then ‘normal’, what is broadly accepted as constituting the science, and this makes it very difficult to change without something pretty revolutionary, like Einstein’s theory of relativity or Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA. Instead of steady progress there are then periods of consolidation, followed by overthrow.

Society is built into this theory of science, indeed the theory draws on sociology which obviously is why it appeals to sociologists. It is not positivistic because it acknowledges that a whole range of factors influence scientific outcomes and directions quite apart from pure ideas or the nature of a world external to the scientist.

The history of science is not one of a simple quest for truth, but of theories and methods which are developed and discarded for a variety of different reasons. For instance, the announcement of a discovery is a media event and often reflects professional rivalry and commercial pressures as much as new truth.

If this applies to science in general then we have to draw its lessons for sociology. Which is what we have done up to now in stressing that, however clear-cut society is as the topic, it is our and other people’s interests which direct our attention to it.

The theory of the paradigm suggests we can best approach sociology as a set of practices, including methods of research, organisation, sponsors, training and so on, rather than just theory. Actually sociology is more led by theory than, say, psychology, geography or biology, mainly because there is such a long Western tradition of thinking about society going back to the ancient Greeks.

Sociologists, like any other professionals, including physicians, work through social networks covering the globe, sharing ideas and information in their specialities, ‘invisible colleges’. 10 They also work in teams and on collaborative projects, going out to gather data, to observe, record and work in a variety of ways which I will describe a bit later.

But it is a century of research and systematic collection of data which has changed a speculative field into a set of disciplined inquiries which now constitute core understandings of the limits and possibilities of personal, organisational and political projects. There is now no part of thinking about society untouched by sociology.

Sociology finds many ways to express continuing and partly self-induced change in our world. Awareness of this is the most important overall change in the discipline in the last 30 years. We express this in the idea of reflexivity, which is no more than the knower’s application of knowledge to change the knower. The most general way this awareness is evident is in the current widespread assimilation of the idea of discourse in sociology.

Discourse is the ongoing exchange and production of ideas in human interaction. It takes place in talk, writing and through any means of communication. It never stops and there is no limit in principle to the numbers who can engage in it. The problem is who takes part. The two major theorists of discourse in the late twentieth century are the German Jürgen Habermas and the Frenchman Michel Foucault. In Habermas’s view discourse implicitly has norms of equality and freedom built into it. We can only build full and free communication on the basis of allowing each person the same chance for self-expression in a relationship. On the other hand Foucault asserts that the terms of discourse are always established through power. The very way we talk about sex for instance creates sexuality as male dominance and its definitions and prohibitions actually create objects of desire. This isn’t personal to an individual or even to a couple, but part of a process of social construction which is an ongoing discourse with innumerable participants.

This puts power at the centre of sociological analysis; the power to define situations. But this is not in the hands of any one person, any more than a language is determined by the person who speaks it. To speak it is to share in the power it gives. Foucault’s people are spokespersons for power more than they are individuals making independent moral choices.

Recognising the importance of discourse in social relations puts severe limits on the scope of positivism in sociology for it brings people’s accounts of themselves and the accounts of authorities of all kinds into the frame of research. There aren’t just facts, there are the facts of accounts of facts, and so on.

These accounts are not just in words. They are often in numbers too. Numerical counts, statistics, are just as important in shaping our view of the world, and both business and the state devote resources to collecting them and, even more importantly, in defining what is to be counted. These accounts don’t just describe the world, they help to make it what it is. Sociology of course collects its own statistics, but much of the time it engages in the use and critique of officially gathered data.

One feature of accounts which has become very prominent in recent years is narrative, the telling of a story as a sequence of events. This is frequently what makes sense of situations for the participants. It applies at a biographical level, but also for collectivities. National history becomes a matter of ‘narrating the nation’, producing a collective memory which itself defines what the nation is.

Governments are as aware of this as historians or sociologists, and as a result Ministries of Heritage are constructed to preserve a past. Effectively this means that the past as commemorated in monuments and records is continually reconstructed. Sociologists try to detach themselves from this. They are not from their professional training spokespersons for nations or organisations, nor are they outside discourse and narrative. In their own accounts they tell a story of society which has its influence on those who listen.


1.David Popenoe. Sociology, 1977

2.Richard T.Shaefer, 1988

3.Jean Stockard. Sociology. Discovering society, 1991

4.Contemporary Society. An introduction to Social science. 6 edition. John A.Perry, Erna K.Perry, 1993

5.Sociology: An introduction. Book by Neil J.Smelser, 1967

6.Sociology: The Basics. Book by Martin Albrow, 1999