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The Birth of Sociology

Auguste Comte (1798–1857), widely considered the “father of sociology,” became interested in studying society because of the changes that took place as a result of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. During the French Revolution, which began in 1789, France’s class system changed dramatically. Aristocrats suddenly lost their money and status, while peasants, who had been at the bottom of the social ladder, rose to more powerful and influential positions. The Industrial Revolution followed on the heels of the French Revolution, unfolding in Western Europe throughout the 1800s. During the Industrial Revolution, people abandoned a life of agriculture and moved to cities to find factory jobs. They worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay. New social problems emerged and, for many decades, little was done to address the plight of the urban poor.

Comte looked at the extensive changes brought about by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution and tried to make sense of them. He felt that the social sciences that existed at the time, including political science and history, couldn’t adequately explain the chaos and upheaval he saw around him. He decided an entirely new science was needed. He called this new science sociology, which comes from the root word socius, a Latin word that means “companion” or “being with others.”

Comte decided that to understand society, one had to follow certain procedures, which we know now as the scientific method. The scientific method is the use of systematic and specific procedures to test theories in psychology, the natural sciences, and other fields. Comte also believed in positivism, which is the application of the scientific method to the analysis of society. Comte felt that sociology could be used to inspire social reforms and generally make a society a better place for its members. Comte’s standards of “research” were not nearly as exacting as today’s, and most of his conclusions have been disregarded, as they were based mostly on observation rather than serious investigation. 

In the United States, sociology was first taught as an academic discipline at the University of Kansas in 1890, at the University of Chicago in 1892, and at Atlanta University in 1897. Over time, it spread to other universities in North America. The first department of sociology opened at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 1922, followed by sociology departments at Harvard University in 1930 and at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1950s.