Sociology Essay Examples
What was the enlightenment
and why is it important for the development of sociology
The époque of the Enlightenment is one of the most important periods for sociological science development. Covering the late 17th and 18th centuries, it created the fundamentals for scientific and humanistic approaches and attitudes, positioning humans with their rational thinking in the center of the universe, opening the pathway for rational and critical thinking as a method of gnosis and rationalizing. These developments and approaches helped the sociology to grow as a science. This paper is aimed at describing the époque of the Enlightenment and its heritage important for developing the sociology.
The Enlightenment was an era of significant intellectual advancement in Europe on an intersection of 17th and 18thh centuries (Appelrouth & Desforedles, 2008.) This period was marked with reviewing of the great number of established beliefs and approaches. Along with establishment of the civil society, literacy and science were widely spread across the people starting thinking of political, economic and social life, noticing the progress in various areas. This progress (mental, scientific and moral) and social development were the key pillars of the world view during the period of Enlightenment. According to Milan Zafirovski (2010), the modern sociology rooted in the Enlightenment as an economic epistemological and social-scientific prototype.
The thinkers and scholars of the Enlightenment were mostly influenced by the 17th century science and ideology. They built their systems of ideas on real world facts, but nevertheless those systems were designed as abstract to a high extent. In their ideology, the scientists and philosophers tried to combine the empirical research with reasoning (Historical Context of Sociological Theory, 2.) Two key points of view influenced sociology development. The first one, referred as Humanitarianism, states that the human reason can change the society to the better and also can solve the acute social issues. The second, known as Positivism, believed that people can control and understand the universe using empirical evidence, so, all the social processes and events can be studied with the application of natural sciences’ methods and approaches.
Emphasizing reasoning and empirical evidence, the thinkers of the Enlightenment brushed aside traditional values and beliefs, labeling them as irrational and trying to overcome and change them, basing on rationality and human progressive development. The ideas of the thinkers of the Enlightenment (such as Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Comte and Diderot, etc.) affected the political life and transformed social institutions. The American Revolution of 1776 with the slogan “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” and the French revolution of 1789 with the ideology of liberty, equality and brotherhood were caused by the changed inspired by the Enlightenment ideas.
The Enlightenment, according to Zafirovski (2010), “represents a proto- or proxy-social science,” being the root of modern sociology and its sub-disciplines (economics as a theory, political science, anthropology, etc.) But Ritzer (1996) argues that the Enlightenment’s impact on sociology formation was more “indirect and negative than direct and positive”; and that the sociology arose mostly as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s influence. But in fact, the early European, especially French sociology was born as a combination of Enlightenment and counter- Enlightenment ideology. While the Enlightenment emphasizes an individual over group or society and states that the methodology of the natural sciences are fully applicable for studying social processes, the conservative reaction pays more attention to social groups, to society as a whole, and believes that social processes require specific methods of researching.
The Enlightenment extols the scientific rationalism over conservative religion, tradition, theocracy and theology along with metaphysics and other irrational beliefs. Comte and other early sociologists predicted an emergence of new rationalistic society, pursuing for human development and general welfare, which will replace traditional theological or metaphysical societies. Most of Enlightenment thinkers, based on theory of human rationalism, liberalism and social contracts, expected that the society will improve itself reaching the state of ideal society or utopia.
Let’s name the several key thinkers of the period of the Enlightenment and their major developments. Thomas Hobbes focused on the social order, being, to his point of view, the creation of people. So, Hobbes believed that only humans can change and improve the existing social order. Emphasizing the individual’s role and such treaties as rationality, self-interest and disposition to competitiveness, Hobbs can be considered as one of the fathers of ideas, forming the basis of contemporary democracy.
Jean Jacques Rousseau introduced the ideas of the state of nature, of the social contract, and of possibility of cooperation and social improvement (Zeitlin, 1990.) John Locke believed in equality of all the people and their rationality, which promotes cooperation and pursue for individual and social welfare. Mary Wollstonecraft also emphasized rationality and also gender equality, including equal opportunities for education and self-development.
Questioning the traditional social institutions and challenging authority, the Enlightenment thinkers were often criticized, prosecuted or even tortured. In late 18th century, a conservative reaction to the views of Enlighteners tried to shift focus to the importance of irrational social factors, such as emotions, traditions and rituals. But as the Enlighteners promoted scientific approaches and empirical evidence and, thus, introduced their own vision of interaction between individuals and society and their own theories, explaining social dynamics, these thinkers contributed to the formation of sociology as a science.
Early sociology as a discipline appeared in the middle of the 19th century; and its central idea was that social processes and the entire society “can be a subject of scientific examination” (Appelrouth & Desforedles, 2008) like physical, material world. So, modern sociology (founded by Comte) & theoretical economics (represented by Adam Smith, Karl Marx) were based on the heritage of the Enlightenment period and influenced by the innovative ideas of those period.
Auguste Comte introduced the term “sociology” or “social physics”, describing it as “a positive science based on observable social phenomena” (Fulcher and Scott, 2007, as cited in Knowles, 2008.) Comte made society as a whole a subject to his research, identifying social structures and social dynamics and believing that sociological study should be based on scientific approaches. He emphasized a role of language and religious beliefs and traditions as a clue that binds society together preventing chaos and violence. The idea of three developmental stages (theological, metaphysical and positivistic), passed by society, groups and even individuals, was a cornerstone of his theory.
The ideas of Comte had a great impact on other sociologists (Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer, etc.) Emile Durkheim was one of the key personalities in establishing sociology as a scientific discipline in Europe, outlining the domain of observable social facts as its main subject of studying (Knowles, 2008.) In uniting forces of any society, Durkheim distinguished ethnicity, work, religious traditions, and the family as the basic elements of “social solidarity”.
The Enlightenment was rather a new approach, a new attitude than a set of ideas and theories. We can found many of these approaches and attitudes in the works of later sociologists. For example, the tradition of taxonomies, used in anthropology, was taken from the Enlightenment thinkers. Emile Durkheim applied “the rationalistic model of Enlightenment” to his sociological theories (Tityakian, 2002, as cited in Zafirovski, 2010.)
As a conclusion, it’s necessary to say, that the history of sociology as a science can be traced back to the period of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers, with their rational and objective approach, empirical research and reasoning, formed the fundamentals for an innovative and progressive tradition of sociology. Contemporary democratic society has its roots in the “liberal ideas of independent inquiry, free discussion and academic self-government” (Bendix, 1970, as cited in Zafirovsky, 2010.)
Though the early sociologists were closer to counter-Enlightenment reaction than to Enlightenment views, this period is marked with the first attempt to apply objectivity in social research. Classical sociology “experienced its inception” during the époque of Enlightenment (Antonio, 1991, as cited in Zafirovsky, 2010.) Moreover, many approaches that were born in the period of Enlightenment, outlived in the modern society non-scientific approaches such as, for example, transcendental philosophy (Hinchman, 1984, as cited in Zafirovsky, 2010.)
So, the Enlightement can be considered a cradle of sociology as a science and a source of attitudes, objective, empirical and critical approaches and ideas that have been embedded in the further development of sociology and its subdisciplines.
Ritzer, G., 1996. Classical Sociological Theory. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Retrieved from http://people.uvawise.edu/pww8y/Supplement/TCSup/Ritzer%20ClasSociTh%201996/02Ritz%20ClasSociTh%20LaterYrsSociTh.pdf
Cross, S., 2011. Sociological theory and analysis. University of London. International Programmes. Retrieved from http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/sites/default/files/programme_resources/lse/lse_pdf/subject_guides/sc2163_ch1-3.pdf
Appelrouth, S., Desforedles, L., 2008. Classical and contemporary sociological theory : text and readings. Los Angeles, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2008
Zafirovski, M., 2010. The Enlightenment and Its Effects on Modern Society. Springer Science & Business Media, 25 Dec. 2010
Knowles, K., 2008. What is ‘modernity’ and why have sociologists been so interested in it? Retrieved from https://www.essex.ac.uk/sociology/documents/pdf/ug_journal/vol1/KeeleyKnowles_SC111_2008.pdf
Zeitlin, Irving M., 1990. Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought. Fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice Hall, 1990.
Historical Context of Sociological Theory. Retrieved from http://www.mu.ac.in/myweb_test/TYBA%20study%20material/Social%20Theory%20-%20IV.pdf
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