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Introduction to Sociology

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 01 - History and Introduction

This New Science of Societies: Sociology

Sociology is a relatively new discipline in comparison to chemistry, math, biology, philosophy and other disciplines that trace back thousands of years. Sociology began as an intellectual/philosophical effort by a French man named Auguste Comte (born 1798 and died 1857). He is considered the founder of sociology and coined "Sociology." Comte's Definition of Sociology is the science of society. In his observation Comte believed that society's knowledge passed through 3 stages which he observed in France. His life came in what he called the positivism stage (science-based). Positivism is the objective and value-free observation, comparison, and experimentation applied to scientific inquiry. Positivism was Comte's way of describing the science needed for sociology to takes its place among the other scientific disciplines.

His core work, "The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte" was translated by a British-born philosopher named Harriet Martineau (1802-1876). She literally clarified Comte's original writing as she condensed it into a concise English language version. This expanded the interest in sociology to include English speakers. Martineau held values that are common today but were way before her time. She opposed oppression, especially of women and Black slaves in the US. Her own work about society which first addressed this, Society In America has been scanned and is free (public domain) to read at SOURCE .

Why did thinkers of the day find a need for a new science of sociology? Societies had change in unprecedented ways and had formed a new collection of social complexities that the world had never witnessed before. Western Europe was transformed by the Industrial Revolution, a technological development of knowledge and manufacturing that began in the late 1600s and continued until the early 1900s. The Industrial Revolution transformed society at every level. Look at Table 1 below to see pre and post-Industrial Revolution social patterns and how different they were.

Table 1. Pre-Industrial and Post-Industrial Revolution Social Patterns
Pre-Industrial Revolution Post-Industrial Revolution
Farm/ Cottage Factories
Family Work Breadwinners /Homemakers
Small Towns Large Cities
Large Families Small Families
Homogamous Towns Heterogamous Cities
Lower Standards of Living Higher Standards of Living
People Died Younger Peopled died older
© 2014 Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, families lived on smaller farms and every able member of the family did work to support and sustain the family economy. Towns were small and very similar (homogamy) and families were large (more children=more workers). There was a lower standard of living and because of poor sanitation people died earlier.

After the Industrial Revolution, farm work was replaced by factory work. Men left their homes and became breadwinners earning money to buy many of the goods that used to be made by hand at home (or bartered for by trading one's own homemade goods with another's). Women became the supervisors of homework. Much was still done by families to develop their own home goods while many women and children also went to the factories to work. Cities became larger and more diverse (heterogamy). Families became smaller (less farm work required fewer children). Eventually, standards of living increased and death rates declined.


It is important to note the value of women's work before and after the Industrial Revolution. Hard work was the norm and still is today for most women. Homemaking included much unpaid work. For example, my 93 year old Granny is an example of this. She worked hard her entire life both in a cotton factory and at home raising her children, grand-children, and at times great grand-children. When I was a boy, she taught me how to make lye soap by saving the fat from animals they ate. She'd take a metal bucket and poke holes in the bottom of it. Then she burned twigs and small branches until a pile of ashes built up in the bottom of the bucket. After that she filtered water from the well through the ashes and collected the lye water runoff in a can. She heated the animal fat and mixed it in the lye water from the can. When it cooled, it was cut up and used as lye soap. They'd also take that lye water runoff and soak dried white corn in it. The corn kernel shells would become loose and slip off after being soaked. They'd rinse this and use it for hominy, or grind it up and make grits from it. We'll talk more about women and work in Chapter 10.

These pre and post-industrial changes impacted all of Western civilization because the Industrial Revolution hit all of these countries about the same way: Western Europe, United States, Canada, and later Japan and Australia. The Industrial Revolution brought some rather severe social conditions which included: deplorable city living conditions; crowding; crime; extensive poverty; inadequate water and sewage; early death, frequent accidents, and high illness rates. The new social problems required a new science that was unique from any scientific disciplines of the day. Comte wanted a strong scientific basis for sociology, but because of various distractions he never quite established it.

Core Founders of Sociology

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was the first to take a position in a university and because of the scientific journal he edited, L'Anné Sociologique (the sociological year) and his scientific work, he was able to help sociology to become part of higher education's academic culture. He was also French and took the first position at a university as a sociology professor.

Durkheim discussed Social Facts, a phenomena within society that typically exists independent of individual choices and actions. Durkheim approached a subject that most thought of as being exclusively individualistic in nature-suicide. But, he defined suicide from a social fact perspective which helped him to establish the unique wisdom of sociological analysis.

Social Integration is the degree to which people are connected to their social groups. Let's check your own personal degree of social integration. On a piece of paper right down how many close family members you have. Then add in how many close friends and coworkers you have. Finally add in all others whose name you know and they know yours. This number is one measure of your social integration. But, to really get an idea you might evaluate these relationships. In other words list your top 6 closest relationships in order. Make a short list of the 6 closest relationships you have. Now, rank 1 for the closest, 2 for next closest and so on up to 6th. Durkheim realized from his suicide studies that the closer we are to others, the more socially integrated we are and the less likely we are to commit suicide. The second concept to understand is called anomie.

Anomie is a state of relative normlessness that comes from the disintegration of our routines and regulations. Anomie is common when we go through sudden changes in our lives or when we live in larger cities. Sudden changes bring stress and frustration. To illustrate this, I often tell my students to remember how they felt the day after high school graduation. They walk for graduation then wake up the next morning with very few demands on their time and energies. This sudden shift in demands from very intense to almost absent, leads many to feel extremely frustrated and lost. Add to that they are now adults and no longer students (children) and you get a prime formula for anomie (role shift + vague expectations about what is expected + sudden change=anomie).

One of my college students told me that at the end of last semester she had 4 finals, one paper, two presentations, and one lab project all due in the last 5 days of class. She finished it all, packed, and moved back home. The first morning she woke up at home she got out her planner and realized that all she had to do that day, in other words all the demands placed upon her were to eat and shower. She was not a full-time university student for now and was between significant roles. "It took a week to get my life back into a routine for the break," she explained.

As a larger social fact, anomie is a byproduct of large complex societies, especially around large cities. It's easier to get lost in the crowd, not be noticed, and to rarely receive praise or criticism for personal actions. Durkheim and others were aware that society impacted the life of the individual even if the individual had very little impact on society. By the way, Durkheim measured suicide rates and so do we in our day. Suicide is the purposeful ending of one's own life for any reason. Suicide Rate is the numbers of suicides per 100,000 people in a population.

Durkheim's first 2 types of suicide had to do with the degree of social integration of the individual into their groups. Altruistic Suicide is suicide which occurs when people are over involved and over committed to a group or society as a whole. This occurs when the needs of society as a whole override the needs of the individual. Soldiers often do this to protect their comrades.


Egoistic Suicide is suicide which occurs when people are under-involved or under-committed to groups. This is the loner-type suicide when an individual is disconnected (or never connected) to others. Certain social pressures isolate us more than others and suicide becomes more risky for the isolated. Certain social forces within society create this isolated state within us (TV viewing, video games, online time, and other solo activities that preoccupy us with our own interest and isolate us from our groups and relationships; see and search "James at war Halo3" for a humorous example of technology isolating us from others).

Interestingly, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center gives a few suicide prevention strategies that relate to social integration: "Strong connections to family and community support, cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support self-preservation and various other types of social support are recommended" (retrieved 13 January, 2009 from the "Risk and Protective Factors for Suicide," National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action, 2001). Interestingly Durkheim's work is quoted multiple times on this Website.

The next 2 types of suicide described by Durkheim have to do with the levels of social control and social regulation. Anomic Suicide is suicide which occurs when people are under-regulated by familiar norms that serve as anchors to their social reality. You'd expect this type of suicide in very large cities or when dramatic social changes have transpired (IE: 9-11 terrorist attacks or recent economic recessions).

Fatalistic Suicide is suicide which occurs when people are over regulated or over-constrained. This might happen in oppressive societies where people prefer to die rather than continue under the hopeless state of oppression (IE: prisoners of war, inmates, and refugees). The US Center for Disease Control list Suicide as the 10th most common form of death with about 38,364 US suicides reported in the United States 2010. That's a rate of 12.3 suicides per 100,000 living people (retrieved 16 June 2014 from Suicide and Self-inflicted Injury at SOURCE also see fact sheet at SOURCE ).

In Durkheim's day he found highest suicide rates for Protestants, males, singles, and wealthy persons. He found lowest rates for Jews, Catholics, females, marrieds, and poor persons. Many of these are still common predictors of suicide today. The World Health Organization reported that worldwide the suicide rates show clear patterns being higher for males at all ages and especially higher for the elderly (retrieved 23 April, 2009 from SOURCE ). The WHO reported that 800,000 die each year in the world from suicide which equates to about 1 every 40 seconds (retrieved 16 June 2014 from Suicide Prevention (SUPRE) SOURCE )

We are going to look at the specific US Suicide rates, but first, let’s take a moment and consider how you can understand what a figure is actually trying to say. I use many figures and charts in this book so let me just point out a few tricks to reading them. Look at the actual measure which typically show up on the left vertical side and across the bottom side. In this figure you are seeing death rates per 100,000 people in the population and on the bottom side you are seeing the sequences of years 1950-2010. You are also seeing a graph for males and females.

The numbers under each specific line show the age group specific death rates. For example, the 1-4 years are the youngest category in this figure and the 85+ years the oldest. If there were one over-riding trend this chart is portraying it would be that death rates for males and females of all ages have generally declined between 1950-2010.

Figure 1. Death rates, by age and sex: United States, 1955 - 2010*
* Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Kochanek KD. Deaths: Final data for 2010. National vital statistics reports; vol 61 no 4. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013. SOURCE

Now let's consider the US rates by age. Look at Figure 2 below. Notice that Figure 2 comes with a legend. Typically, the legend is on the side or bottom of the charts. It tells you which lines represent which categories. Also look at the title to make sure you read the details of what is being represented. Ironic, isn't it that the older persons (persons with the most wisdom and experience) would have the highest suicide rates? The 75-84 and 85+ age categories have the highest suicide rates while the 15-24 years olds have the lowest. Durkheim would argue that these rates are social facts and that at the core of the problem lies social level processes that either facilitate or inhibit personal choices by exerting social pressures.

Figure 2. Suicide Rates per 100,000 United States, Age Categories 1990 to 2010*
* National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2013: With Special Feature on Prescription Drugs. Hyattsville, MD. 2014.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was an influential person in the development of sociology as a strong academic discipline. He was not a sociologist. He was an economist, philosopher, and revolutionary. Marx was born in Germany and his writings on the class struggles that existed in society wherein the poor masses are exploited by the few wealthy elite still apply today (perhaps even more so than in his day). His philosophy and the timing of his writings helped early sociologists in the development of social theories and scientific approaches. We will talk more about Marx and Conflict Theory in Chapter 3.

Another key German founder of sociology was Max Weber (pronounced vey-bur) (1864-1920). He was a very intelligent person who strongly influenced the development of sociology and taught some of the other early sociologists of his day. Weber studied economics and his work gave balance to Karl Marx's extreme ideas. He studied religion and the economy and published a work called, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." He also studied bureaucracies and defined Ideal Type as the abstract description of a social phenomenon by which actual social phenomena may be compared (You'll see an ideal type in Chapter 9 on caste versus class economic systems). Ideal Types are given as hypothetical examples and we can compare current economic systems to them.

Another early sociologist was a British man named Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Herbert is remembered for his failed ideas about survival of the fittest in society (not the animal kingdom). He is most remembered for the sociology that wasn't. In other words, he believed that survival of the fittest applied to classes within society and that the wealthy aristocrats were the fittest. Whatever the wealthy people did was in effect better for society in the long run. The problem with his philosophy is that it was not supported by scientific inquiry. In fact his complex ideas were interesting, but not a good explanation of social processes and their causes when put to scientific rigors.

Eventually scientists adopted sociology in the US. Lester Ward is considered the founder of US sociology (1841-1913). Ward saw sociology and its potential to better the society in the US as a tool. He emphasized the scientific methodology in using sociology to solve real world social ills such as poverty. He, like Martineau felt that women had rights and should be treated as equals (most in his day thought he was wrong about women at the time because the prevailing belief was the inferiority of women). Ward is the founder of US sociology and first president of the American Sociological Association (see SOURCE ). His sociological principles and processes are still utilized by many who work in governmental and social service sectors today.

Another sociologist from the US was Talcott Parsons (1902-1979). Parsons was a Functional Theorist who did extensive work on Systems Theory (see Chapter 3). Parsons was also a president of the American Sociological Association and for a short period of time was the world's premier sociologist. His work at Harvard supported much of the professionalism sociology has today.

Sociology began in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and then the United States. Sociology waxed and waned in popularity outside of the US over its short history. Today, sociology has become a United States-centered scientific discipline with most sociologists living in the US. There is significant sociological work being done in various countries of the world, but most of the 14,000 members of the American Sociological Association (the world's largest professional sociology organization) live in the US.

During the 1920s and 1930s the Chicago School was a center for sociological research that focuses on urban and ecological sociological issues. Within the Chicago School were 2 other important US sociologists, Charles H. Cooley (1864-1929) and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). Their work together gave tremendous support to the Symbolic Interactionism Theory (Chapter 3). The construction of how we form the "I" and the "me", the self-concept, and the looking glass self (see Chapter 6) was crucial and is still widely used in today's scientific inquiry.

United States Sociology: A Career?

Other notable people who majored or made a career in sociology include: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; W. E. B. Du Bois; Georg Simmel, Alex de Tocqueville, Jorgen Habermas; Amati Etzioni; Ronald Reagan; Robin Williams and Dan Aykroyd; Anthony Giddens; and First Lady, Michelle Obama. Most people who take sociology take only 1 course (that's estimated to be 600,000 US students per year). But more and more are choosing it as a major. The next 3 figures, Figures 3, 4, and 5 show the numbers of sociology graduates from 1990 to 2004 at the Bachelor's, Master's and Doctoral level.

In Figure 3 you can see that over 20,000 students graduate each year with a sociology Bachelor's degree. Many of them find work in government, social service, business, and other service-related sectors of the economy. Figure 4 shows that about 2,000 graduates earn their Master's degree in sociology each year.

Figure 3. Numbers Graduating in Sociology-Bachelor's Degrees 1990 to 2012*
*U.S. Department of Education, National Center of Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System,1990-2012 ( Washington, DC: NCES, 2014). . Retrieved 16 May 2014. SOURCE

And in Figure 4 you can see that about 550 students graduate each year with their Doctorate in sociology. Of course the career with a doctorate pays the best, has the best career advancement opportunities, and is the most comprehensive training for research and theory that a student could acquire.

Figure 4. Numbers Graduating in Sociology-Master's Degrees 1990 to 2012*

*U.S. Department of Education, National Center of Education Statistics , Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System,1990-2012 ( Washington, DC: NCES, 2006). Retrieved 16 May 2014.

Figure 5 shows the numbers of US students graduating with a Doctorate in Sociology between 1990 and 2012. This type of doctorate is called a doctorate of philosophy and the person who earns one typically puts Ph.D. after their name (for example: Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.).

Figure 5. Numbers Graduating in Sociology-Doctoral Degrees 1990 to 2004*
*U.S. Department of Education, National Center of Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, 1990-2009 ( Washington, DC: NCES, 2014). SOURCE . Retrieved 16 May 2014.

Sociology is a good 4-year program and also offers good career opportunities. If I'm right, you probably won't major in sociology and you likely just needed the 3 credits of social science elective. I admire you for being in higher education. I urge you to graduate with your four-year degree. This course and textbook will enhance your thinking, science, and writing skills and make you an overall better student. Enjoy it. Ask questions of your professor. Participate in the classroom discussion. Out of the thousands of jobs a person could have, sociology tends to rank high among the most desirable and satisfying. In these two recent classifications, sociology was ranked by as the 11th best job in America 2011 and as the 20th best job in 2012 SOURCE

Additional Reading

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Key Sociological Concepts:

  • Society
  • Sociological perspective
  • Social location
  • Social Darwinism
  • Class conflict
  • Macro-level
  • Micro-level
  • Theoretical approach
  • Mid-range theories within the Conflict perspective
  • Mid-range theories within the Conflict Functional perspective
  • Mid-range theories within the Conflict Symbolic Interactionism perspective
  • Mid-range theories within the Conflict Social Exchange perspective
  • Three stages of sociology
  • Sociology in the context of globalization
  • Middle income countries
  • Low income countries
  • High income countries
  • Social structure
  • Social functions
  • Positivist sociology
  • Interpretive sociology
  • Marxian sociology
  • Critical sociology
  • Feminist sociology
  • Personal Sociology
  • Weberian sociology
  • Basic or pure sociology
  • Public sociology
  • Applied "clinical" sociology
  • Social construction
  • Organic solidarity
  • Social constraint
  • Division of labor
  • Materialist conception of history
  • Capitalism
  • Bureaucracy
  • Rationalization
  • Postmodernism
  • Anomie
  • Verstehen
  • McDonaldism/McDonaldization

Key Founders:

  • Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
  • Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)
  • Karl Marx (1818-1883)
  • William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)
  • Lester F. Ward (1841-1913)
  • Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
  • Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)
  • Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)
  • Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936)
  • Georg Simmel (1858-1918)
  • Karl Mannheim (1893-1947)
  • Max Weber (1864-1920)
  • Jurgen Habermas (1929-)
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935)
  • George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)
  • Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)
  • Charles Cooley (1864-1929) C.
  • Wright Mills (1916-1962)
  • Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)
  • Erving Goffman (1922-1982)
  • Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958)
  • Robert Merton (1910-2003)
  • Anthony Giddens (1938-)
  • Karl Mannheim

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