European sociological thought can be traced to three major sources: the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, of the eighteenth century; the Industrial Revolution; and the romantic period’s counterreaction to these ideological, social, and political changes. Although there are important prefigurations of sociology (for example in the thought of Montesquieu, Marquis de Condorcet, Adam Smith, and others), the roots of modern sociology lie in the work of Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who coined the term sociology, Karl Marx (1818–1883), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), and Max Weber (1864–1920). The last three are conventionally represented as the founding fathers of the discipline.
The great question posed by these thinkers is that of understanding the history and consequences of the seismic changes associated with the origins of modern capitalism (Marx and Weber), industrialization and individualization (Comte and Durkheim), and the new social order of modernity (Weber). For Marx the central focus is upon the global effects of the capitalist mode of production with its new classes and class conflict, the alienating impact of new forms of factory production, and the rise of the working class movement. For Weber, the concern shifts to understanding the ethical and religious roots of rational conduct and institutions in Europe and North America, comparative analysis of earlier European social structures and non-European civilizations, and characteristic features of modern society (the modern state and rational administration, modern capitalism, democratic politics, bureaucracy, and so on). With Durkheim the central problem is the changing basis of social solidarity (from mechanical to organic solidarity) and the corrosive impact of individualism upon traditional social orders.
Sociology adopted two related perspectives, one focusing upon the structure and dialectics of social relations (the European paradigm) and the other emphasizing the evolution of whole societies along social Darwinian principles. The latter is best represented by early American sociology, especially in the writings of William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913), and Franklin H. Giddings (1855–1931). The guiding source is not Marx or Durkheim but the English evolutionist and individualistic thinker Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). Evolutionism informed by individualism and native pragmatism provided the framework for speculations about social organization, institutional adaptation, and change. However, the European tradition was not totally ignored. It entered into the texture of American sociology through the work of Albion Woodbury Small (1854–1926), the founder of the first American department of sociology at the University of Chicago in 1892 and influential editor of the American Journal of Sociology (from 1895). Through Small’s teaching American students gained access to the conflict tradition of Georg Simmel (1858–1918). Small also helped shape the Chicago School of W. I. Thomas (1863–1947), Robert Ezra Park (1864–1944), and Ernest Burgess (1886–1966). This is the context in which American sociology discovered its unique philosophical voice in the symbolic interactionist philosophy of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931).
After Durkheim’s death, Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) and Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945) continued his legacy. This would prove decisive in shaping the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. In Germany, Marxism regressed to a dogmatic evolutionism in the form of Second International Marxism (best represented by the Soviet theorist Nikolai Bukharin [1888–1938]) but was reinvigorated by the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno [1903–1969], Walter Benjamin [1982–1940], Max Horkheimer [1895–1973], and others). Weber’s legacy was more diffuse, transformed into the traditions of conflict theory (later represented by such thinkers as Lewis Coser [1913–], Ralf Dahrendorf [1929–], and John Rex [1925–]), action theory, phenomenological thought (through Alfred Schutz [1932–1998]), and figurational sociology (Norbert Elias [1897–1990]).
Post-World War II sociology marks a decisive shift to the American context both in the volume and quality of empirical research (associated with the Chicago School of ethnography, the Columbia School of Robert Merton [1910–2003], Paul Lazarsfeld [1901–1976], Samuel Stouffer [1900–1960], and others) and the emergence of the most original synthesis of European action theory in the work of Talcott Parsons (1902–1979). Parsons’s model of social action theory in The Structure of Social Action (1937) was later elaborated into a rather rigid form of structural functionalism and toward the end of his life into a general systems model of societal evolution. American empiricism and Parsonian sociology are often described as the orthodox consensus of post-World War II sociology.
The breakdown of the functionalist consensus came in myriad forms: rejection of Parsonian conservatism (C. Wright Mills [1916–1962] and Alvin Gouldner [1920–1980]), the behaviorist alternative formulated by George Homans (1910–1989), the exchange theory of Peter Blau (1918–2002), symbolic interactionism (represented by Herbert Blumer [1900–1987] and Erving Goffman [1922–1982]), phenomenological and interpretive sociology (Alfred Schutz [1899–1959], Aaron Cicourel [1928–], and Harold Garfinkel [1917–]), and the resurgence of interest in conflict sociology (Randall Collins [1941–]), European critical theory, and reflexive sociology (Alvin Goulder, Alan Blum, Peter McHugh, and others). This is the period of the theory wars characterizing the late 1960s and 1970s. The result was the demise of structural functionalism as the sole framework for sociological thought and research and the emergence of alternative perspectives from within the European tradition. The most prominent of these are the structuration theories of Anthony Giddens (1938-) and Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) (essentially trying to overcome the separation of action and structure in sociological explanation), the reformulation of critical theory as a paradigm of communicative action (in the work of Jürgen Habermas [1929–]), the globalization and world-system perspective associated with Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-) and Manuel Castells (1942-), the revival of reflexive sociology (for example in reflexive approaches to science, ethnomethodology, and reflexive modernization theory), and the appearance of postmodern and poststructuralist discourses (associated with the names of Michel Foucault [1926–1984], Jean Baudrillard [1929–], Jean-François Lyotard [1924–1998], and Jacques Derrida [1930–2004]). In the twenty-first century ideological differences between European and American social thought are less entrenched, and the future promises new dialogues with the classical thinkers and new forms of thinking in response to the postmodernization of the global economy.
SEE ALSO Blau, Peter M.; Blumer, Herbert; Bourdieu, Pierre; Chicago School; Comte, Auguste; Condorcet, Marquis de; Derrida, Jacques; Durkheim, Émile; Empiricism; Ethnomethodology; Foucault, Michel; Giddens, Anthony; Goffman, Erving; Habermas, Jürgen; Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Marx, Karl; Marx, Karl: Impact on Sociology; Mead, George Herbert; Mills, C. Wright; Smith, Adam; Sociology, Parsonian; Spencer, Herbert; Wallerstein, Immanuel; Weber, Max
Parsons, Talcott. 1937. The Structure of Social Action; A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. New York: McGraw Hill.