I am currently teaching a module designed to introduce social theory to new sociology undergraduates and I will write a few posts on here summarising some of the issues I highlight in these sessions over the next few weeks.

In the first substantive session, after the introduction we discussed the impact of three revolutions on the emergence of sociology. There were:

    1. Political (French and American Revolutions)
    2. Social/Economic (Industrial revolution and urbanisation)
    3. Intellectual (The Enlightenment)

The impact of these three events enabled the emergence of sociological study in Europe by demonstrating the existence of society. Today we might take it for granted that society is a really existing “thing” but this was not previously the case.

Political Revolutions

The political revolutions of the late 18th century challenged the “divine right of kings” and sought to replace this with constitutional democracies. For centuries the rulers of European (and many other nations) had been monarchs who were “chosen” by God to rule.

Their rule could not therefore be challenged as they had a direct line to God; they were infallible. The French and American revolutionaries challenged this and installed democratic systems with rule “by the people” (although this was short lived in France).

Central principles to these revolutions were the redistribution of wealth and equality of rights as people were sick of the exploitation of their “superiors” and foreign rule by the British in the case of America. Because the existing social and political order was no longer considered to have been ordained by God this means that it can be changed and that a better society can be produced. This political change thus demonstrated to people that society is something worth studying and changing for the better.

The Industrial Revolution

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At a similar time to these political revolutions the industrial revolution was taking place with a move from small-scale agricultural production to large, factory based manufacturing. This change brought profound social changes. Prior to this time most people lived and worked in rural areas in small communities.

Over the course of the 19th century this changed completely until the overwhelming majority of people living in large towns and cities. As people began to live and work in dense close proximity the structures of society became more obviously discernible in such large groups of people and the similarities and differences between people became more obvious.

With many people being employed in similar professions (often in factories) new groups and social classes also began to emerge. The new technologies which were developed in the industrial revolution (such as the printing press and the steam engine) also changed peoples’ lives in many ways and helped to produce a sense that society was changing. Previously society had been assumed to be largely static or to be in decline from a perfect past.

People started to be more optimistic about the potential for a better society through technological advancement. Although, the terrible living and working conditions many people faced also highlighted the negative sides to this advancement. This simultaneous optimism and critical attitude towards development and progress would become central to the sociological imagination.

The Enlightenment

Perhaps the most significant and direct influence on the emergence of the discipline of sociology is that of the intellectual revolution referred to as the enlightenment. This was established by a loosely connected collection of philosophers, economists, scientists and other thinkers who introduced new ideas and criticised existing approaches to all of existence.

Central to their thinking was a focus on empiricism and rationality. Like the political revolutionaries the intellectuals of the enlightenment advocated a radical break with the past.  Until this time the tendency had been to look to the past for answers to the problems of the day usually in ancient religious or philosophical texts. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Adam Smith showed how we can look at the world for ourselves and understand it. Most crucial of all they demonstrated that we can build a better society based on that understanding.

It is the novelty of the situation people faced in the 18th and 19th centuries which gave birth to sociology. People saw the potential for a new and better society brought about through science, rationality and mass societies but they also saw the possibility (and reality) of a much worse society of poverty and degradation also enabled by these same changes. The early sociologists tackled both the positive and the negative in the new age of modernity and forever changed helped us to get a better understanding of how these changes had come about and what we should do in response to them.

In the next post I will discuss how some of the early sociologists showed it is possible to see society in social structures.