Whence the Social Sciences ? – 4: Sociology

Long time, yes, but I have not reneged on my promise to write something every week. Rather, writing has taken place in a different place. You can take a look at the appendix in this to find a more balanced argument regarding Utilitarianism in Economics, if you are inclined to actually to know something as esoteric. I was torn between writing this post or the factors for the rise of capitalism from my latest, exquisite reading, and finally settled down to write this, after keeping it in the pipeline for more than two weeks. Also, you will soon find Microeconomics notes appearing in ‘different place’, after reading all what Economics is not, thought it was time to read what it actually is. Warning, though, basic calculus required, the textbook I’m using is somewhat math-intensive. Macroeconomics, while probably more interesting for the stock market savant, will have to wait. Now, back.

Sociology has had an interesting life. Like the tussle between Capitalism and Socialism/Communism in the sibling discipline, sociology too has had its differences, notably between the liberal schools of the French and English and the German Romantics. (one thing though: the schools in economics agreed over the fact that unconstrained industrialization was the only way up, with the fight being as to who controls the means of production, i.e, the factories, whereas in sociology the divide was more fundamental, like what should sociology study)

The French and the English thinkers, notably Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim, were highly influenced by the Enlightenment, and sought to bring in scientific method into sociology. The Germans, notably Georg Simmel and Max Weber, strove to put the pre-eminence of Man in the study of sociology, i.e, society must be studied as a collection of individuals in relation to others. The west Europeans considered society to be an entity that existed independently from humans, and which followed it’s own logic. The dialectic between these lines of thought has definitely left sociology a much richer subject.

Coming to the liberals, they sought to use the scientific method to discover the laws that govern the functioning of society, which was considered to be an extra-human entity, imposing it’s will onto us poor humans. By this, they hopes, they could ‘enlighten’ the masses about the fact that ‘Resistance is Futile‘, to quote a famous quote. Comte made it very clear that spirit of enquiry and free will are illusions and once people learn the laws of society, they will necessarily get rid of such notions, since trying to go against the laws of society would be equivalent to banging one’s head against a brick wall. Needless to say, the others were not as militant in their views. Spencer used Darwinian notions of evolution (slightly before Darwin propounded them) to assert that society was the ‘survival of the fittest’. This theory was a great hit in the United States, where Spencer became the patron saint of the cult of ‘anything goes in love, war and business’, who readily identified with what seemed to perfectly describe their society in the 19th century.
Durkheim stated that society was sui generis, and society could not be said to consist of individuals. However, sociology benefited by the stress on empiricism that the scientific method brought in, especially by Durkheim (who is considered the founder of modern sociology).

The Germans, influenced as much by Romanticism as by the Enlightenment, tended to stress on the individual more than the society, and how people influenced and were influenced by the set of all people. Though they developed generalizations as well, they were not all encompassing, everything-explaining theories, but were more of the form of a characterisation of the certain types of people or structures of groups of people that were encountered. Weber’s methodology was very influential, and his influence continues to this day. The main contribution of these people was to stop the megalomania of people like Comte from seeping into what was supposed to be a objective scientific enquiry and set certain limits as to what sociology was meant to be.

Overall, if the Enlightenment removed Earth from the centre of the Universe, the sociology almost succeeded in putting Man in its centre.

2 thoughts on “Whence the Social Sciences ? – 4: Sociology”

  1. as is probably obvious, me is alive :D

    wordpress, well, i really like snap previews, sine i put so many
    links, will be useful. also supports LaTeX. I can add nice nice math
    eqns and scare everyone :)

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