By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The first step in establishing sociology as a science was to see society as a part of reality, that is, as a real thing in and of itself. For sociology to exist as a science, cultural reality must be an emergent property. Society must have an independent reality and it must behave in a predictable, law-like way. What are the tools and methods for this new science? What is the fundamental essence of society?
Dawn of Modernity
The basis of society became a critical aspect in the first half of the 20th century with the dawn of what was known as “modernity”. Human experiences hardly differed before the end of the 19th century. The day-to-day life of people was not different from their parents, grandparents, or even their great-grandparents. There were some cities where some social change or technological advancements could be seen, but life was largely rural, where beliefs and rituals were handed down through generations and craftsmen trained apprentices in the standard way of doing things.
However, in the middle of the 19th century, technological advancements gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and everything began to change. Factories were set up, generating wealth for entrepreneurs. This led to the rise of a new class of rich and powerful individuals who were different from the traditional families, who had been living in that position for all generations. A sense of class mobility appeared which challenged the traditional picture of social reality in which one was born into a place. One could, now, make a place for oneself, something that was not possible earlier.
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Life after the Industrial Revolution
As more factories were set up, the need for workers increased. This resulted in a mass migration from the countryside to the cities. A lot of people came to the cities in search of work. Life in rural areas was different from the cities. It included working the land, intensive physical labor, and people being surrounded by the same families that had populated a village for generations, where everyone knew everyone.
However, as more and more people migrated from rural areas, the cities became crowded. People lived in small flats, in large buildings. They were removed from the sun by walls and pollution. They were surrounded by people but hardly knew anyone. Life was lived in a way in which people were both alone and never alone. Workers were no longer trained by their masters; they simply sold their labor to any factory that would hire them. They simply worked to earn a living rather than being connected to the product they were creating.
This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Views on the New Social Reality
By the end of the 19th century, society had changed to a great extent. The changes were incredibly profound, and the reality of life had changed. The sense of humanity itself was at a crossroads. The question of how one could make sense of this new social reality was quite critical in the first half of the 20th century.
French socialist, Émile Durkheim showed that to make sense of it one needed to work not from the individual psychological level, but to look at society itself as the thing to be studied. Durkheim sought a sort of social physics, a science that is data-driven, where one can find mathematical regularities as the foundation of one’s studies, and then find theories that could account for these regularities and predict more.
The great German thinker, Max Weber, disagreed with Émile Durkheim and believed that while data is necessary and a wonderful thing, interpretation is the hallmark of sociology. According to Weber, sociology should work less like physics and more like history. Historians use data and they have artifacts and texts that establish basic truths.
However, the historians’ job is not just to catalog these truths—names, dates, events—but to make sense of them. They create narratives that explain why something happened as it did. The reality, according to Weber, is multifaceted. One needs to look at its complex happenings using several ideological tools in order to gain insight into its range of interrelated elements.
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Common Questions about Sociology as an Emerging Science
In the middle of the 19th century, technological advancements gave birth to the Industrial Revolution that led to the rise of a new class of rich and powerful individuals in the society.
People lived in small flats, in large buildings. They were removed from the sun by walls and pollution. They were surrounded by people but hardly knew anyone. This was a profound change in the society.
Émile Durkheim showed that to make sense of the changes in the society one needed to look at society itself as the thing to be studied.
Max Weber believed that while data is necessary and a wonderful thing, interpretation is the hallmark of sociology. According to him, sociology should work less like physics and more like history.