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What social forces were at work that led to the emergence of sociology in the late 18th and early 19th century? (2004)



The emergence of sociology coincided with two of the most significant social and political revolutions of recent times. In 1838 the French social thinker Auguste Comte was the first to use the term sociology as a way of studying the world in terms of society, having grown up during the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. Along with the industrial revolution in England during the 18th century and the rise of urbanisation and mass social change, thinkers such as Comte, Durkheim and Marx began to realise the need to study society in its current form as opposed to the tendency of past philosophers on “imagining the ideal society” (Macionis, Plummer, 1997, p.15).

This period of history is often described as ‘the great transformation’, which led to the emergence of sociology. Around the late 18th century an intellectual period known as ‘the Enlightenment’ challenged many of the established orders of society from an analytical and scientific perspective. 


The French revolution of 1789 in many respects overshadowed the 19th century as a revolution that challenged and successfully overthrew the old order of society. It was a revolution that strengthened the state which aimed to represent the will of the people. It is important first therefore to recognise that the political and cultural climate that existed before the revolution was dominated by the church and the monarchy.

The abolishment of all religious order falls into Comte’s theory that throughout history, society has been guided by three distinct stages, theological, metaphysical and scientific[1]. A country with religious order, Comte believed, was a theological approach which deemed the condition of society to be Gods will. The monarchy had always upheld their position of power by insisting that the right to rule derives from God and that kings are answerable for their actions to God alone. By abolishing both the monarchy and religious order, the revolution marks the move away from Comte’s ‘theological’ stage.

The citizens of France were granted new legal rights, a broad centralised education system and a new system of inheritance. These changes all challenged a previous traditional model, and hence gave individual citizens a different perspective of society.

The study of this new perspective and the introduction of individual rights marked the beginning of sociology as a discipline, and confirm the French revolution’s vast influence over the field. Karl Marx, one of the key philosophical, economic and sociological figures of modern times was strongly influenced by the revolution of 1789, and hoped other similar revolutions elsewhere against feudal or oppressive societies would follow. When Marx’s ideas finally got put into practice after the Russian revolution in October 1917, analysis of this event by Leon Trotsky was written and conducted in terms of the French Revolution and therefore shows how this event still has relevance when studying social uprisings today.

With a greater emphasis on the state as opposed to an established monarchy and church system, a new social movement known as nationalism came into existence, as some replaced allegiance to God and the monarchy with an allegiance to the state. Nationalism has sparked various uprisings since the French revolution (most notably National Socialism in Germany during the 1930’s) and again gave people another perspective of the society they live in. This is relevant as Nationalism is studied in depth in social scientific fields such as anthropology and sociology today.


It could be argued that the intellectual revolution known as ‘the Enlightenment’ during the 18th century lay the ground for the French revolution which saw through significant social change. It brought about an ideology which believed that scientific and historical study should be looked at and incorporated into a philosophical perspective. Enlightenment figures such as Charles Montesquieu, one of the pioneers of social science, saw humanity as something that develops from infancy to maturity with conflict in between the different stages. He also believed that the Enlightenment could be the beginning of a great period of human development, as science was being applied to humanity. This could be described as the birth of sociology and of social scientific thought.

Another important Enlightenment philosopher was Claud Henry de Saint Simon, who fell in-between enlightenment and counter enlightenment ideas. Through the study of western history he believed in rational progress through scientific thought, and a new society based on industrial production and scientific discovery. His ideas were highly influential during this emergence of sociological thought.

The Enlightenment period coincided with the increase in knowledge in other scientific fields such as life sciences. Darwin’s studies into evolution were controversial as they challenged old established ideas of the church. From a sociological perspective, the basis of ‘survival of the fittest’ brought about ‘social Darwinism’, a fiercely conservative ideology that believed that society will gradually improve on the basis that the ‘fittest’ (i.e. the most intelligent and productive members of society) will be the most successful and therefore ‘survive’. Since this is one of the cornerstones of capitalist thought (the dominant political and economic presence in the western world today) it has contributed to the emergence of sociology, with thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx holding completely contrasting sociological ideas regarding capitalism.


The industrial revolution in 18th century England was a different kind of revolution. The development of different technologies allowed the mass production of products for the first time in history, and factories began to appear across the country. Karl Marx believed that the factories were a weapon of the rich to enslave the proletariat, and he discusses this in his works that argue for socialism. Industrialisation began a process of rapid urbanisation to the point where in 1851 Britain became the first country in the world to have more people living in cities than in rural areas.

With this mass urban migration came other significant changes to society such as the improvement of transport by the establishment of a railway network and numerous ship canals built to help establish and maintain trade links in an increasingly significant capitalist climate following the decline of the guild system. As a result of this decline “peasants were wrenched from their roles as agricultural producers and formed a large class of landless laborers who were forced to seek their livelihoods in the new industrial centers” (Morrison, 1995, p.13).

People without jobs came to the city to look for work in one of the numerous factories. Workers went from small scale manufacturing within local communities to, as described by Macionis and Plummer, becoming “part of a large and anonymous industrial workforce, toiling for strangers who owned the factories” (Macionis, Plummer, 1997, p.16). This congregation of workers in cities led to the establishment of the working class.

The working class are hugely significant in the field of sociology as the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie is the focus of the works of Karl Marx and fellow social thinker Friedrich Engels, the co-authors of the Communist Manifesto. Engels’s book The Condition of the Working Class in England gives an insight into the squalid conditions of 18th century urban living, and therefore demonstrates why thinkers such as himself and Marx contributed to the field of sociology by arguing the case of the proletariat and establishing Marxism as a political and sociological ideology, which, for at least some period of time has affected the lives of millions of people[2].


In conclusion, the period of the late 18th century and early 19th century contributed significantly to the emergence of sociology due to the three significant revolutions that occurred during this time.

The Enlightenment was in many respects a renaissance of scientific thought and signalled the beginning of sociology as a discipline. It changed the way philosophers looked at the world by giving a scientific and analytical approach to their theories.

This intellectual revolution made way for the French revolution, and is thought by some to be the most important political event of modern times. It granted citizens individual freedoms and removed old established orders such as the church and crown, and gave people a new perspective of the world and the society in which they live.

The French revolution also led to the emergence of Nationalism which changed the way many people viewed the state as whole.

The industrial revolution saw massive changes in society by the destruction of the feudal system and the establishment of capitalism, which is a key area of discussion within sociology. Accelerated urbanisation and growing industry led to the emergence of the working class as a large and potentially powerful body, which led to the birth of Marxism, one of the most important fields within sociology, and gave people a new perspective and relationship with the society they lived in.

In summary these events were integral to the emergence of sociology and social sciences in this period of history.






MORRISON, K (1995) Marx Durkheim Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought, SAGE Publications, London


HUGHES, J, MARTIN, P, SHARROCK (1995), Understanding Classical Sociology Marx, Weber, Durkheim, SAGE Publications, London


MACIONIS, J, PLUMMER, K (1997), Sociology a global introduction, Prentice Hall Europe


MARX, K, ENGELS, F (1888), The Communist Manifesto (English Edition), Penguin Group, London


ENGELS, F (1892), The Condition of the Working Class in England, Progress Publishers, Moscow




[1] Comte was a positivist, which was a school of thought that attempts to understand the world by scientific means.

[2] Interpretations of Marxism have often been altered in order to benefit various regimes which did not reflect his true ideology, so in many respects it is difficult to assess the effect of his ideas upon a society for a sociological perspective.