Published on November 26, 2008 By Paul Bourne In Philosophy

Paul Andrew Bourne


University of the West Indies,

Mona Campus

Kingston 7

St. Andrew, Jamaica

West Indies







It was during the unprecedented social upheavals in Europe that the formal study of sociology emerged as a discipline to explain social phenomena.  The industrialization of topologies at the time meant that people were migrating from rural to urban areas, and the traditional agents of authority, such as the Church and the landed aristocracy, were losing much of their influence.  This period earmarked the birth of organized labour, modern industrial capitalism and many revolutions and reform, and meant that new sources of power were emerging in order to fashion a new social space1. The doctrine of sociology emerged in the nineteenth century from the major discipline of philosophy; and it is primarily accredited to Auguste Comte. Despite Comte’s formulation of the terminology, sociology, and its basic tenets, the subject was also fashioned by Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. 


Many academia and other pundits have accredited those scholars as pioneers, fathers, of this branch of thought.  One contemporary sociologist, Dr. Orville Taylor, who is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of the West Indies, Mona, argued that William Edward DuBois must be credited as one of the pioneers of the discipline (Taylor, 2003).  His rational for that perspective lies in the scientific contributions of Dubois, in the field of sociology.  In an attempt to justify the science of sociology, like that of the natural sciences, Spencer, Durkheim and Weber, and to a lesser degree Comte, postulated its boundaries, scope and the techniques to which the subject matter can address while utilizing the principles of positivism.


1  Gosling, Hill, Fee, and Taylor, 2003


According to Inkeles, Weber on the other hand, forwarded the perspective that positivism is not the only tool that allows a discipline to attain the status of science when he formulated the principle of verstehen, a method of understanding “and ... discussing the vicissitudes of maintaining objectivity and neutrality of value judgment in social science” (Inkeles, 1964, p.6).  What then constitutes sociology from the perspective of its founding fathers?




According to a sociologist,

Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857), who gave sociology its name, devoted more energy to expressing hopes for and to staking out the claims of sociology than to defining its subject matter.  He felt that social science in his time stood in the same relation to its future as astrology once stood in regard to the science of astronomy and as alchemy stood in relation to chemistry.  Only in the distant future, he argued, would the sub-division of the field become practicable and desirable, and for his time he felt it ‘impossible . . . to anticipate what the principle of distribution may be’.” (Inkeles, 1964, p.3)



From Inkeles’ monograph, Comte categorized the field of study into “social statics” and “social dynamics” which allowed for the science of this subject matter.  According to Inkeles (1964), Spencer wrote that:

The science of Sociology has to give an account of [how] successive generation of units are produced, reared and fitted for co-operation, the development of the family thus stands first in order . . . Sociology has next to describe and explain the rise and development of that political organization which in several ways regulates affairs-which combines the actions of individuals… and which restrains them in certain of the dealings with one another… There has to be similarly described the evolution of ecclesiastical structures and functions… The system of restraints whereby the minor actions of citizens are regulated, also has to be dealt with…The stages through which the industrial part passes… have to be studied…[as well] the growth of those regulative structures which the industrial part develops within itself…(Inkeles, 1964, p.4)



Spencer coined the phrase “the science of Sociology” and although he did not depict the techniques that can be used to derive a conclusion as to its similarities to the natural science, he forwarded the perspective that the discipline must be studied as a ‘…whole society, this is a unit for analysis’ which allows for scientific inquiry.  Durkheim, on the other hand, used the words ‘the science of societies’ to describe sociology.  Sociology, therefore, is the scientific inquiry of society in which its foci are social facts, social world, functions of society, structures, institutions, social actions, “arrive through a causal explanation of its course and effects” (Inkeles, 1964, p.7).  Wallace and Wolf (1999) wrote that

Davis argued that sociology involves (1) examining the role (or function) that an institution or type of behaviour plays in society to other social features and (2) explaining it in essentially social terms (Wallace and Wolf, 1999, p. 17).



From Wallace and Wolf’s monograph, Davis concurred with other sociologists such as Waller, Weber, Spencer, Durkheim and other pundits that the subject matter of sociology is a social space in which people operate.  Davis’ theorizing is similar to that forwarded by Comte, and embedded within his perspective is scientific inquiry in which human roles are examined within society.


The subject matter of sociology “begins with the idea that humans are to be understood in the context of their social life, [and] that we are social animals influenced by interaction, social patterns, and socialization” (Waller, 2006, p.5).  Waller’s monograph highlights the ‘social’ aspect of man, and accounts for he/she being in a social space.  The fact that man operates as a social being; he/she is separated from the other animals because of the socialization process.  Sociology, as a science, studies man as unit and collectively in his/her social world, in an attempt to explaining the behavioural patterns of that individual from a micro as well as a macrocosm perspective. In sociology, we study man’s culture, social institutions, and the social events to which he/she subscribes.  One of the primary reasons for the discourse as to whether sociology is or is not a science rests squarely on the continuous changeability of man, and his/her irrationality.  Some scientists argued that this militates against the objectivity of the space, as social behaviours are unpredictable even when given the same set of conditions and the process is repeated within known conditions.





The discipline of sociology studies social life, social change, and social causes and consequences of human behaviour. The parameters of sociology include an investigation of the structure of groups, organizations, and societies, and how people intermingle within these spaces; thereby generating channels for scientific assessment. Human beings are social animals; and so, they are shaped by social factors.  The subject matter of sociology covers from the intimate family to the hostile mob; from organized criminalities to religious denominations; from race, gender and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture; and from the sociology of work to the sociology of sports.

Sociology like anthropology and other areas within the Social Sciences provide plethora perspectives on the world, while generating new ideas and reviewing the old. Despite the subject matter, the field offers a range of research techniques that can be applied to virtually any aspect of social life: street crimes, prostitution, teenage pregnancy, wellbeing of the people, fertility, delinquency, corporate downsizing, how people express emotions, stress, education reform, how families differ and flourish, or issues of peace and war, and how social systems work. 



From Waller’s monograph, Denisoff, Callahan, & Levine (1974) attributed “the fundamental foundations of sociology . . . [to] ancient Greeks” (Waller, 2005).  Taylor (2003) forwarded the perspective that Comte coined the discipline from a Latin word Socios, which means ‘group or society, and a Greek word logos which denotes ‘the study of’ hence “…, we end up with a word which means, ‘the study of society” (Taylor 2003, p. 6).  In Waller’s (2006) presentation on the creator of sociology, he cited that “even though Plato is not considered the ‘father’ of sociology –he is probably the first person to systematically study society in a ‘sociological’ way” (p.2) to which Taylor equally subscribed in his monograph.  Comte as a positivist, borrowed ‘statics’ and ‘dynamics’ from Isaac Newton’s scientific theories (Taylor, 2003, p. 8), and applied this to the study of society.  To Comte we must accredit the basic tenets of sociology, although he did not categorically state how the subject matter should be studied, the mere fact he postulated that we can apply two fundamental tenets of positivism to social life makes the field of sociology worthwhile studying from a scientific position.


                        “By the middle of the 1800s, Comte had declared what, in his view, should be that task of sociology [and] [t]hen came Emile Durkheim who, influenced by Comte’s Positive Philosophy (Comte, 1974), published his ground-breaking The Rules to the Sociological Method (1982) in 1895” (Taylor, 2003, p. 8).  From the works of Waller (2006) and Taylor (2003), sociology owes many of the initial tentacles not only to Comte but in particular to Ibn Khaldun, Plato and to Isaac Newton. 


                        Even though Plato was not ascribed as the father of sociology, he argued that there is an order to the universe (or society) and that man is an organism in a social space who must survive, and that he/she does so in groups.  It is from the philosophical works of Plato and other scholars that Comte worked to coined the term sociology, which initially was known as social physics.  Comte, on the other hand, was the first to use the term sociology in print in 1838 (Waller, 2006) but based on Plato’s construct of the world, society is ordered which may have assisted Comte in conceptualizing that societies are governed by some laws, and so can studies using similar techniques as the natural sciences. 


AUGUSTE COMTE (1798 – 1857)


Comte was the first to have used sociology in print in 1838 but borrowed ‘statics’ and ‘dynamics’ from Isaac Newton as agents that allowed him to foresee the measurability of social man. In using social statics and social dynamics, Comte saw the former as the assessment of the general principles of actions and reaction of the diverse parts of the social system (or society), which he argued cannot be studied separately “as if they had an independent existence” but must be analysed as a whole.  With regard to social dynamics, Comte believed that the whole society must be the unit of analysis, and how it develops and how it changes with time is knowable. According to Inkeles (1964), “He [Comte] was convinced that all societies moved through certain fixed stages of development, and that they progressed toward ever increasing perfection” (p. 4), and this explains how comparative study of society was possible for sociological analysis.



HERBERT SPENCER (1820 – 1903)


When Spencer published the three-volume Principles of Sociology in 1877, it was the first comprehensive systematic study devoted to an “exposition of sociological analysis”, and in this, he was more precise than Comte was.  Spencer used the phrase science of sociology in an attempt to channel the focus of the discipline, while forwarding how the subject matter must be addressed in particular social space.  He forwarded areas to which the discipline must study:  These were, the family, politics, religion, social control, and industry and work, community, associations, division of labour, social differentiation or stratification, aesthetics, the study of arts, and the sociology of knowledge.


                        Spencer like Comte believed that the whole society must be studied as a unit of analysis, and that the different parts of a society were ordered as was purported by Plato. This, then, speaks to his theorizing on ‘structures’ and ‘functions’ of the society.  Which explains Inkeles perspective that “He [Spencer] maintained that the parts of society, although discrete units, were not arranged haphazardly” (Inkeles, 1964, p. 5). The numerous parts bear some constant interrelationship and these facts make society a meaningful ‘entity’ fitting for scientific inquiry.



EMILE DURKHEIM (1858 – 1917)


Wallace and Wolf argued that ‘science of sociology’ as was developed by Durkheim is not possible “until it renounced its initial and overall claim upon the totality of social reality ever more among parts, elements, and different aspects which could serve as subject matter for specific problems” (Wallace & Wolf, p. 380), this is similar to the perspective of the other founding fathers. According to Taylor, Durkheim’s sociology is constructed on a set of assumptions of a system having interdependent parts that are held together by a large value system (Taylor, 2003, p. 14).  Durkheim’s works emphasized ‘consensus’ and ‘social order’ to the exclusion of social change and conflict to which Marx spoke extensively in his monographs. Despite the conservatism nature of Durkheim, “he advanced a discussion of the division of labour in society in which he accounted for the increased specialization, characteristic of modern capitalist society” (Taylor, 2003, p. 14), which would characterize some of his works – for example, religion, capitalism and the ‘history of the non-Western world’.


                        Despite the claim of many sociologists that Durkheim’s work on suicide represents the primal piece of social work that substantiates the validity that the discipline can be studied scientifically, Taylor (2003) was somehow sceptical of this laboured ‘truth’.  From Taylor’s work on Re-Appropriating the Stolen Legacy: The African Contribution to the Origin of Sociological Thought, he wrote that

                                    ...Emile Durkheim who, influenced by Comte’s Positive Philosophy (Comte 1974), published his groundbreaking The Rules of the Sociological Method (1982) in 1895.  He applied his methodology presented in Rules to suicide, a phenomenon, normally considered psychological.  Suicide, published in 1897, though flawed, was important because as Stephen Lukas remarks, ‘it represents both a typically bold and clear statement of the aspiration towards a social science that is absolutely objective, specific (to social reality) and autonomous (of non-scientific influences) (Taylor, 2003, 8-9).



Taylor’s perspective on Durkheim’s theorizing on suicide represents primarily a single piece of critique that insinuates that the positivist techniques used by Durkheim were flawed; however it provides a needed premise upon which the scientific techniques of the natural sciences were used in investigating a social phenomenon.  In response to Taylor’s viewpoint on the correctness of Durkheim’s methodology, what are merits of Taylor’s critique in denouncing the validity of Durkheim’s monographs on suicide?


MAX WEBER (1864 – 1920)


From Weber’s perspective on the study of sociology that may be studied from a non-positivism understanding, Inkeles cited that Weber believed that social action is ordered to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effect (Inkeles, 1964, p. 7).   The method of understanding that he advocated is known as verstehen.  This scientific inquiry sees events from a subjective standpoint.  Notwithstanding the subjectivity of Weber’s theorizing on the subject matter, his method of interpreting social act and social relationship is not non-scientific but presents another channel in the process of garnering information  on the actors in their situational, historic, or symbolic contexts.

Unlike Durkheim’s work on suicide that embodied the principles of positivism, Weber’s work on religion, in which he used a rival paradigm, verstehen methodology, unearth some truths on the substantive issue from the position of the essence of man’s actions that sometimes are subtle and irrational.   According to Taylor, Weber ‘magnum opus’ in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, cited that “a religious ideology emanating from Calvinism was the driving force behind capitalism” (Taylor, 2003, p. 14) and offered an explanation of the use of the sociology to explain an aspect to man in society by the use of scientific inquiry.




            Auguste Comte, the man who is credited for the development and formulation of the doctrines of sociology based the fundamental principles of the subject matter on grounded facts and experiences, which one can reasonably use positivism to analyse various social issues (Hoult, 1974, 243-244).  Within the theorizing, Comte formulated the general framework of the content which allows for the establishment of the claim to a science.  This forward thinking of the subject matter allowed Comte to acknowledge how scientific approaches can be applied in the studying structures of and interactions within society.  It was Comte’s perspective of philosophy that was brought to the study of man in society that leads to Herbert Spencer’s work on the discipline.


                                    Inkeles (1964) argued that Spencer unlike Comte explicitly narrowed events in which sociological analysis should be applied.  This reality did not contravene the postulations of Comte, but that the specificity of a structure and its functions as depicted by Spencer on societies in different stages can be studied as a unit.  Therefore, when Durkheim forwarded a particular construct as to how this field of study can become a science, he obviously approved the idea that sociology can concern itself with a wide array of institutions and social processes.  This offers justifications for Durkheim’s position of sub-dividing the first sociological journal, L’Annee Sociologiqque, into General Sociology, Sociology of Religion, Sociology of Law and Morals, Sociology of Crime, Economic Sociology and Sociology of Aesthetics.  He [Durkeheim] agreed with Spencer by his actions that sociology spans plethora of social actions.


                        What Weber arrived at in sociology within the era of the dominant paradigm, positivism, in attempting to widen the scope of sociology to study the complete social fact, he developed a different methodology in understanding social action.  Verstehen the method of explaining issues within a subjective meaning system was not to lessen the dominance of objectivity and neutrality in social sciences but understanding social man who places certain motives to his/her society, and those actions are not quantifiable as man is irrational, a needed prerequisite for subjectivity and not objectivity as the positivists would want us to belief.  Weber wrote that sociology “is a science which attempts to the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects”, and this was not to contradict or militate against the other founding fathers but that he recognized that causality was a critical component of positivism.  Offering an alternative methodology in the studying of man in an ordered society allows social scientist to further capture and understand man’s social experiences, and so, does not militate against the “scientific ness” of the inquiry purely on the basis that the research did not utilize traditional positivism.


                        Inkeles (1964) summarized the perspective of the entire piece of this work fittingly, when he said:

                        Although they by no means expressed themselves in precisely the same terms, the four founding fathers we consulted seem in basic agreement about the proper subject matter of sociology (Inkeles, 1964, p. 7)



                        The use of positivism (a doctrine that is embedded in the utilization of mathematical rigours) in the discipline of sociology shows the similarity between studying a social phenomenon and researching a natural phenomenon.  Durkheim’s work on suicide, despite the flaws that Taylor purported, adds value to the ‘scientific ness’ of studying a social space and equally so was DuBois’ work on the Philadelphian Negroes. Furthermore the use of positivism in the study of an event adds objectivity of the reality to which alternative paradigms have been used to establish this reality.   Despite Comte’s recognition of the need to study social phenomenon in a scientific manner (by positivism), the use of interpretivism only adds depth to the understanding of man in his/her social space, and so must be used to enhance the knowledge process.



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