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Sociology emerged from enlightenment thought, shortly after the French Revolution, as a positivist science of society. Social analysis, however, has origins in the common stock of Western knowledge and necessarily pre-dates the field. Modern academic sociology arose as a reaction to modernity, capitalism, urbanization, rationalization, and secularization, bearing a particularly strong interest in the emergence of the modern nation state; its constituent institutions, its units of socialization, and its means of surveillance.
Within a relatively brief period of time the discipline greatly expanded and diverged, both topically and methodologically, particularly as a result of myriad reactions against empiricism. Historical debates are broadly marked by theoretical disputes over the primacy of either structure or agency. Contemporary social theory has tended toward the attempt to reconcile these dilemmas. Whilst postmodernist trends in recent years have seen a rise in highly abstracted theory, new quantitative data collection methods have also emerged, and remain common tools for governments, businesses and organizations.
Sociological reasoning may be traced back at least as far as the ancient Greeks (cf. Xenophanes' remark: "If horses would adore gods, these gods would resemble horses"). Proto- sociological observations are to be found in the founding texts of Western philosophy (Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Polybius and so on), as well as in the non-European thought of figures such as Confucius.
There is evidence of early Muslim sociology from the 14th century. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), in his Muqaddimah (later translated as Prolegomena in Latin), the introduction to a seven volume analysis of universal history, was the first to advance social philosophy and social science in formulating theories of social cohesion and social conflict. He is thus considered by many to be the forerunner of sociology. Early Islamic sociology responded to the challenges of social organization of diverse peoples all under common religious organization in the Islamic Caliphate, including the Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid periods, as well as the Mamluk period in Egypt. It was rooted in methods from early Islamic philosophy and science in medieval Islam.
The term ("sociologie") was first coined by the French essayist Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836). (from the Latin: socius, "companion"; and the suffix -ology, "the study of", from Greek λόγος, lógos, "knowledge" ).
The term was independently re-invented, and introduced as a neologism, by the French thinker Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in 1838. Comte had earlier expressed his work as "social physics", but that term had been appropriated by others, most notably a Belgian statistician, Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874). Writing after the original enlightenment political philosophers of social contract, Comte hoped to unify all studies of humankind through the scientific understanding of the social realm. His own sociological scheme was typical of the 19th century humanists; he believed all human life passed through distinct historical stages and that, if one could grasp this progress, one could prescribe the remedies for social ills. Sociology was to be the "queen science" in Comte's schema; all basic physical sciences had to arrive first, leading to the most fundamentally difficult science of human society itself. Comte has thus come to be viewed as the "Father of Sociology".
Comte was for a long time a student of the utopian socialist thinker Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825). As a reaction to the perceived breakdown in the authority of Catholicism after the French Revolution, and a fear this would lead to further social malaise, Comte devised a positivist 'religion of humanity' in his old age. Though largely unsuccessful, it proved influential in the work of secularists such as George Holyoake and Richard Congreve, and the proliferation of secular humanist organizations later in the 19th century. Several of those involved in the military coup d'état that deposed the Brazilian monarchy and proclaimed Brazil a republic were followers of the ideas of Comte: The Brazilian flag is inscribed with his positivist motto L'amour pour principe et l'ordre pour base; le progrès pour but ("Love as a principle and order as the basis; Progress as the goal").
Many other philosophers and academics were influential in the development of sociology, not least the Enlightenment theorists of social contract, and historians such as Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). For his theory on social interaction, Ferguson has himself been described as "the father of modern sociology" Other early works to appropriate the term 'sociology' included A Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical by the North American lawyer Henry Hughes and Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society by the American lawyer George Fitzhugh. Both books were published in 1854, in the context of the debate over slavery in the antebellum US. The Study of Sociology by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer appeared in 1874. Lester Frank Ward, described by some as the father of American sociology, published Dynamic Sociology in 1883.
Classical theorists of sociology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include Ludwig Gumplovicz (1838-1909), Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), Georg Simmel (1858-1918), Max Weber (1864-1920), Karl Mannheim (1893-1947). Many of these figures did not consider themselves strictly 'sociologists' and regularly contributed to jurisprudence, economics, psychology, and general philosophy. Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) rejected the sociology of Comte, but in attempting to develop a science of society Marxism became recognized as a form of sociology later as the word gained wider meaning. Other early social historians and economists have gained recognition as classical sociologists, perhaps most notably Robert Michels (1876-1936), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), and Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923). Durkheim, Marx, and Weber are typically cited as the three principal architects of modern social science. The classical sociological texts broadly differ from political philosophy in the attempt to remain scientific, systematic, structural, or dialectical, rather than purely moral, normative or subjective.
Formal academic sociology began when Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method. In 1896, he established the journal L'Année Sociologique. Durkheim's seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy. It also marked a major contribution to the concept of structural functionalism.
A course entitled "sociology" was in the United States taught under its own name for the first time in 1875 by William Graham Sumner, drawing upon the thought of Comte and Herbert Spencer rather than the work Durkheim was advancing in Europe. In 1890, the oldest continuing sociology course in the United States began at the University of Kansas, lectured by Frank Blackmar. The Department of History and Sociology at the University of Kansas was established in 1891  and the first full fledged independent university department of sociology was established in 1892 at the University of Chicago by Albion W. Small (1854-1926), who in 1895 founded the American Journal of Sociology. American sociology arose on a broadly independent trajectory to European sociology. George Herbert Mead and Charles H. Cooley were influential in the development of symbolic interactionism and social psychology at the University of Chicago, whilst Lester Ward emphasised the central importance of the scientific method with the publication of Dynamic Sociology in 1883.
The first sociology department in the United Kingdom was founded at the London School of Economics in 1904. In 1919 a sociology department was established in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich by Max Weber, who had established a new antipositivist sociology. In 1920 a department was set up in Poland by Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958). The Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (later to become the 'Frankfurt School' of critical theory) was founded in 1923. Critical theory would take on something of a life of its own after WW2, influencing literary theory and the 'Birmingham School' of cultural studies.
International cooperation in sociology began in 1893 when Rene Worms (1869-1926) founded the small Institut International de Sociologie, eclipsed by much larger International Sociological Association from 1949. In 1905 the American Sociological Association, the world's largest association of professional sociologists, was founded, and Lester F. Ward was selected to serve as the first President of the new society.
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The methodological approach toward sociology by early theorists was to treat the discipline in broadly the same manner as natural science. An emphasis on empiricism and the scientific method was sought to provide an incontestable foundation for any sociological claims or findings, and to distinguish sociology from less empirical fields such as philosophy. This perspective, called positivism, is based on the assumption that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can come only from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific and quantitative methods. Émile Durkheim was a major proponent of theoretically grounded empirical research, seeking correlations between "social facts" to reveal structural laws. His position was informed by an interest in applying sociological findings in the pursuit of social reform and the negation of social "anomie". Today, scholarly accounts of Durkheim's positivism may be vulnerable to exaggeration and oversimplification: Comte was the only major sociological thinker to postulate that the social realm may be subject to scientific analysis in the same way as noble science, whereas Durkheim acknowledged in greater detail the fundamental epistemological limitations.
Reactions against positivism began when German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) voiced opposition to both empiricism, which he rejected as uncritical, and determinism, which he viewed as overly mechanistic. Karl Marx's methodology borrowed from Hegel dialecticism but also a rejection of positivism in favour of critical analysis, seeking to supplement the empirical acquisition of "facts" with the elimination of illusions. He maintained that appearances need to be critiqued rather than simply documented. Marx nonetheless endeavoured to produce a science of society grounded in the economic determinism of historical materialism. Other philosophers, including Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936) argued that the natural world differs from the social world because of those unique aspects of human society (meanings, signs, and so on) which inform human cultures.
At the turn of the 20th century the first generation of German sociologists formally introduced methodological antipositivism, proposing that research should concentrate on human cultural norms, values, symbols, and social processes viewed from a subjective perspective. Max Weber argued that sociology may be loosely described as a 'science' as it is able to identify causal relationships—especially among ideal types, or hypothetical simplifications of complex social phenomena. As a nonpositivist, however, one seeks relationships that are not as "ahistorical, invariant, or generalizable" as those pursued by natural scientists. Ferdinand Tönnies presented Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (lit. community and society) as the two normal types of human association. Tönnies drew a sharp line between the realm of conceptuality and the reality of social action: the first must be treated axiomatically and in a deductive way ('pure' sociology), whereas the second empirically and in an inductive way ('applied' sociology). Both Weber and Georg Simmel pioneered the Verstehen (or 'interpretative') approach toward social science; a systematic process in which an outside observer attempts to relate to a particular cultural group, or indigenous people, on their own terms and from their own point-of-view. Through the work of Simmel, in particular, sociology acquired a possible character beyond positivist data-collection or grand, deterministic systems of structural law. Relatively isolated from the sociological academy throughout his lifetime, Simmel presented idiosyncratic analyses of modernity more reminiscent of the phenomenological and existential writers than of Comte or Durkheim, paying particular concern to the forms of, and possibilities for, social individuality. His sociology engaged in a neo-Kantian critique of the limits of perception, asking 'What is society?' in a direct allusion to Kant's question 'What is nature?'
In the early 20th century, sociology expanded in the U.S., including developments in both macrosociology, concerned with the evolution of societies, and microsociology, concerned with everyday human social interactions. Based on the pragmatic social psychology of George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), Herbert Blumer (1900-1987) and, later, the Chicago school, sociologists developed symbolic interactionism. In the 1920s, Georg Lukács released History and Class Consciousness (1923), whilst a number of works by Durkheim and Weber were published posthumously. In the 1930s, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) developed action theory, integrating the study of social order with the structural and voluntaristic aspects of macro and micro factors, while placing the discussion within a higher explanatory context of system theory and cybernetics. In Austria and later the U.S., Alfred Schütz (1899-1959) developed social phenomenology, which would later inform social constructionism. During the same period members of the Frankfurt school, such as Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), developed critical theory, integrating the historical materialistic elements of Marxism with the insights of Weber, Freud and Gramsci —in theory, if not always in name— often characterizing capitalist modernity as a move away from the central tenets of enlightenment.
During the Interwar period, sociology was undermined by totalitarian governments for reasons of ostensible political control. After the Russian Revolution, sociology was gradually "politicized, Bolshevisized and eventually, Stalinized" until it virtually ceased to exist in the Soviet Union. In China, the discipline was banned with semiotics, comparative linguistics and cybernetics as "Bourgeois pseudoscience" in 1952, not to return until 1979. During the same period, however, sociology was also undermined by conservative universities in the West. This was due, in part, to perceptions of the subject as possessing an inherent tendency, through its own aims and remit, toward liberal or left wing thought. Given that the subject was founded by structural functionalists; concerned with organic cohesion and social solidarity, this view was somewhat groundless (though it was Parsons who had introduced Durkheim to American audiences, and his interpretation has been criticized for a latent conservatism).
In the mid-20th century there was a general—but not universal—trend for U.S.-American sociology to be more scientific in nature, due to the prominence at that time of action theory and other system-theoretical approaches. Robert K. Merton released his Social Theory and Social Structure (1949). By the turn of the 1960s, sociological research was increasingly employed as a tool by governments and businesses worldwide. Sociologists developed new types of quantitative and qualitative research methods. In 1959, Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, whilst C. Wright Mills presented The Sociological Imagination, encouraging humanistic discourse and a rejection of abstracted empiricism and grand theory. Parallel with the rise of various social movements in the 1960s, particularly in Britain, the cultural turn saw a rise in conflict theories emphasizing social struggle, such as neo-Marxism and second-wave feminism. Ralf Dahrendorf and Ralph Miliband presented pioneering theory on class conflict and industrialized nation statess. The sociology of religion saw a renaissance in the decade with new debates on secularisation thesis, globalization, and the very definition of religious practise. Theorists such as Lenski and Yinger formulated 'functional' definitions of religion; enquiring as to what a religion does rather than what it is in familiar terms. Thus, various new social institutions and movements could be examined for their religious role. Marxist theorists continued to scrutize consumerism and capitalist ideology in analogous terms. Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks [1929-1935] was finally published in English during the early 1970s.
In the 1960s and 1970s so-called post-structuralist and postmodernist theory, drawing upon structuralism and phenomenology as much as classical social science, made a considerable impact on frames of sociological enquiry. Often understood simply as a cultural style 'after-Modernism' marked by intertextuality, pastiche and irony, sociological analyses of postmodernity have presented a distinct era relating to (1) the dissolution of metanarratives (particularly in the work of Lyotard), and (2) commodity fetishism and the 'mirroring' of identity with consumption in late capitalist society (Debord; Baudrillard; Jameson). Postmodernism has also been associated with the rejection of enlightenment conceptions of the human subject by thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss and, to a lesser extent, in Louis Althusser's attempt to reconcile Marxism with anti-humanism. Most theorists associated with the movement actively refused the label, preferring to accept postmodernity as a historical phenomenon rather than a method of analysis, if at all. Nevertheless, self-consciously postmodern pieces continue to emerge within the social and political sciences in general.
In the 1980s, theorists outside of France tended to focus on globalization, communication, and reflexivity in terms of a 'second' phase of modernity, rather than a distinct new era per se. Jürgen Habermas established communicative action as a reaction to postmodern challenges to the discourse of modernity, informed both by critical theory and American pragmatism. Fellow German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, presented The Risk Society (1992) as an account of the manner in which the modern nation state has become organized. In Britain, Anthony Giddens set out to reconcile recurrent theoretical dichotomies through structuration theory. During the 1990s, Giddens developed work on the challenges of "high modernity", as well as a new 'third way' politics that would greatly influence New Labour in U.K. and the Clinton administration in the U.S. Leading Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, wrote extensively on the concepts of modernity and postmodernity, particularly with regard to the Holocaust and consumerism as historical phenomena. Whilst Pierre Bourdieu gained significant critical acclaim for his continued work on cultural capital, certain French sociologists, particularly Jean Baudrillard and Michel Maffesoli, were criticised for perceived obfuscation and relativism.
Functionalist systems theorists such as Niklas Luhmann remained dominant forces in sociology up to the end of the century. In 1994, Robert K. Merton won the National Medal of Science for his contributions to the sociology of science. The positivist tradition is popular to this day, particularly in the United States. The discipline's two most widely cited American journals, the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review, primarily publish research in the positivist tradition, with ASR exhibiting greater diversity (the British Journal of Sociology, on the other hand, publishes primarily non-positivist articles). The twentieth century saw improvements to the quantitative methodologies employed in sociology. The development of longitudinal studies that follow the same population over the course of years or decades enabled researchers to study long-term phenomena and increased the researchers' ability to infer causality. The increase in the size of data sets produced by the new survey methods was followed by the invention of new statistical techniques for analyzing this data. Analysis of this sort is usually performed with statistical software packages such as SAS, Stata, or SPSS.
Social network analysis is an example of a new paradigm in the positivist tradition. The influence of social network analysis is pervasive in many sociological sub fields such as economic sociology (see the work of J. Clyde Mitchell, Harrison White, or Mark Granovetter, for example), organizational behavior, historical sociology, political sociology, or the sociology of education. There is also a minor revival of a more independent, empirical sociology in the spirit of C. Wright Mills, and his studies of the Power Elite in the United States of America, according to Stanley Aronowitz.