Although some may think that sociology is a recent science, the truth is that its origins date back to a very distant time. In order to know in detail how sociology began to be forged , we are going to take a trip to the past that will allow us to discover the context in which this discipline began to be discussed, although logically the term that gives it its name has not yet been used. How did sociology begin?
What are the origins of sociology?
When talking about the origins of sociology, many people tend to affirm that this science was established during the Enlightenment, that is, in the early nineteenth century. Technically it is true, because it was after the French Revolution when it was consolidated as an academic discipline .
However, its roots go back much further back in time. In fact, the first signs of a proto-sociology seem to come from ancient Greece.
It is the time of the great thinkers, some philosophers, such as Plato , but also of historians, such as Thucydides, Polybius or Herodotus. All of them, in addition to other authors, have already made observations in their works that today could have been classified as within the parameters of sociology. That is why the origins of sociology are, therefore, in ancient Greece . But that was only the first approach to this science.
To continue observing clues about the origins of sociology it is necessary to advance several centuries and reach the Middle Ages. At this time, other thinkers, of a theological nature, such as Marsilio de Padua, Tomás de Aquino or Agustín de Hipona, also made observations in their studies that would have a place in a future science of sociology.
Even modern methodologies commonly used today, such as that of the survey, could be observed many centuries ago, specifically in the so-called “Domesday” book , a work commissioned by the English monarch, William the Conqueror (William I) as a luck of census or registry of the population of England, nothing less than in the year 1086. This would be another of the pieces that would make up the origins of sociology. How did sociology begin?
The Islamic Roots of Sociology
Another of the great advances for the crystallization of a future sociology took place thanks to the Islamic culture in times of the Middle Ages, specifically in the fourteenth century. It was from the hand of Ibn Khaldun, an Arab intellectual born in present-day Tunisia, who created his work “Muqaddimah” , translated into Latin as Prolegomena. It is a compilation of seven volumes in which Ibn Khaldun compiled the universal history known to that moment.
But why is this work considered part of the origins of sociology? Because not only does it limit itself to exposing the events that have occurred in the world, but it also makes a deep analysis about the causes that have generated conflicts on the one hand or cohesion on the other between different peoples, races or cultures, or whatever it is. himself, he performs a sociological analysis. That is why he is considered one of the fathers and pioneers of this discipline, even though he still did not have that name.
One of the phenomena that Ibn Khaldun explores in the Muqaddimah is that of the underlying differences between nomadic and sedentary cultures, comparing the very different lifestyles that both typologies imply. It is just one of the examples that we can find in this work and that therefore makes it one of the first complex sociological studies carried out in history, no less than in the year 1377, without a doubt one of the origins of sociology. How did sociology begin?
The part of the Muqaddimah dedicated to the topics that we would consider sociological is titled asabiyya , an Arabic term used to refer to concepts associated with the tribe or the clan, insofar as they are a community with certain characteristics. In fact, today that term is associated with nationalism. The interesting thing about Ibn Khaldun’s study is that it delves into the causes that generate the birth of new dominant cultures or civilizations.
In this sense, he maintains that when a new empire arises, it already harbors in itself the embryo of causes that in the future will cause it to be destroyed and replaced by another culture, generating a new cycle that is constantly repeated. It speaks of peoples that originate on the periphery of the great empires and that over time grow until they surpass them in power. A deep analysis that serves as an example to understand the origins of sociology.
The Age of Enlightenment
We already anticipated at the beginning of the article that the origins of sociology, already as a consolidated discipline, could indeed be found in the Enlightenment. The first to name it was Abbot Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès , an intellectual who laid the foundations for the ideas that would later underlie the French Revolution. He coined the term by combining the Latin word socius together with the ending -ology, which resulted in a new word that meant “the study of companions.”
Although Abbot Sieyès coined the term in 1780, it would not be until 1838, almost 50 years later, when Auguste Comte proposed an exact definition, the one he maintains today, that is, the study of the behavior of human societies . Comte was another French intellectual, in this case a philosopher and also the creator of the positivist current, in addition to the merit of having definitively established the origins of sociology, giving name and shape to this science.
Other great French thinkers of the 19th century collaborated with the first sociological studies, nurturing this nascent field of knowledge. This was the case of Henri de Saint-Simon, positivist philosopher, creator of the work “Social Physiology” . Not only did he use that concept, but he also referred to the new studies as social physics and science of society. In fact, Saint-Simon was a fervent advocate of giving sociology a similar category to the already existing natural sciences.
Another of the brilliant minds that drove the origins of sociology was Harriet Martineau, a British author who is considered the first woman sociologist in history. In addition to publishing a huge number of works, she was an important collaborator of the aforementioned Auguste Comte and in fact it was thanks to her that a large part of his volumes were translated into English, thus enhancing the international scope of sociology as a new science. How did sociology begin?
The origins of sociology in the rest of Europe
We have already explored the great impact that the Enlightenment and a whole generation of French thinkers had on the origins of sociology. We are now going to know how the rest of the European countries contributed to continue promoting this new science. One of the pillars on which sociology was based was the progressive secularization that the entire continent was experiencing, and in that movement, Karl Marx, a follower of Hegel, had a great influence .
Marx delved even further into the depth of studies encompassed by sociology, studying moral and historical issues in a way that had not been done until now. That is why authors such as Isaiah Berlin consider Karl Marx as one of the fathers of sociology, at least the most modern version of this science. In any case, whether he is a founder or not, he is a great contributor to the origins of sociology. How did sociology begin?
Another important contemporary author to Marx was Herbert Spencer , an English scientist who dominated various fields of knowledge, including sociology. Although he was a defender of Lamarck, his sociological theories would be more in line with Darwin’s postulates, adapted to society as a whole and not to the individual. In this sense, Spencer affirmed that in the nature those groups that were more apt survived.
But it was Émile Durkheim, a French philosopher, who brought sociology to the universities in a definitive way , consolidating it as a science independent from the others. This task would be achieved through the creation of a sociology department at the University of Bordeaux and at the same time creating a manual, that of the rules of the sociological method, which from then on would govern all studies created around this field of knowledge. How did sociology begin?
Therefore, Émile Durkheim was the last great promoter of a long list of authors who helped shape the origins of sociology, ultimately creating science as we know it today. Although there would be room for more authors, in this article we have been able to meet some of the most prominent.