Sociology has its roots in historical movements that began centuries ago. Many believe the first social movement to have an influence on the ideas behind sociology occurred as far back as the 1500’s. This is when the Protestant Reformation was taking place throughout Europe. There were many changes taking place and most importantly, the ideas that people had about social organization were beginning to change. As you may already know, Protestants were “protesting” against the power of the Catholic Church. At this time, the church was the most powerful institution in society. It influenced the knowledge and beliefs that permeated society. If anyone challenged this knowledge, they often faced serious punishment or even death.. Based on the teachings of the church, people saw society as a manifestation of God’s will. If a man was born to a life of poverty, it was believed that he was destined by God to do so. If a natural disaster occurred or an outbreak of disease spread across the land, it was because of a supernatural force and often explained as God’s wrath on sinful people. But after the Reformation occurred, people in society had more freedom to explore other explanations for why tragedy and suffering occurred in society. Yet, as the excerpt from the hymn below illustrates, many of our cultural beliefs about poverty still remained in our society for some time. This verse, by the way, is usually omitted from most hymnals today.
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all….
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate”
(“All Things Bright and Beautiful” By Cecil Alexander 1848)
Changing Ideas and Institutions
The Protestant Reformation paved the way for many changes to occur throughout the Western world. These changes were slow in the making, but social change usually is. In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber (pronounced “Veber”) pointed out that groups of Protestants, particularly Calvinists, sought to find salvation through hard work in the secular world rather than devoting good works solely to the Church. Through their hard labor and their refusal to spend the money they earned frivolously, these groups of Protestants reinvested their money in the community. According to Weber, these early patterns of behaviors paved the way for the development of a new economic system, capitalism.
These progressive changes in social organization brought about changes in other social institutions as well. The economic growth mentioned in Weber’s Thesis paved the way for the growth of cities and also helped contribute to changes in the political atmosphere throughout Europe and in the Americas as well. During the Age of Reason, social thinkers and philosophers sought to understand the universe objectively through logic and rationality. Social conditions such as poverty and pestilence were no longer considered to be the manifestation of God’s wrath but rather caused by man himself. Social thinkers also pointed out the importance of freedom of self expression, self interest and individual rights. Many believe the ideas that came out of this era influenced the American and French Revolutions of the late 1700’s.
Sociology and Empiricism
The changing ideas taking shape throughout Europe had a profound impact on the foundation of sociology. Out of these ideas a whole new system of knowledge was established, science. Science is based on a theory of knowledge which was established during the Age of Reason known as empiricism. The fundamental idea behind empiricism is that the world around us is best understood through our experiences. This idea has been around for centuries but has more often been associated with British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who pointed out that we are all born with a “tabula rasa” or blank slate. The idea behind empiricism is that our only way to obtain knowledge is through our sensory experiences. We are not born with innate knowledge or mental concepts. Instead, knowledge for all humans comes from our experience with the world around us.
Another important social movement that occurred in Europe in the late 1700’s and in America in the early 1800’s was the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to advances in science and technology, the nature of work was transformed. Families moved into the cities at a rapid pace to work in factories where machines helped mass produce goods to be distributed throughout the region. We refer to this as a Revolution because all of society’s institutions faced major changes. The family, for instance, moved from rural areas where work was more than likely in the agricultural sectorinvolved farming, to urban areas where the extended family was no longer present. Many found city life to be chaotic and impersonal compared to their life in rural villages where everyone knew one another. Education, mass transportation, urbanization, secularization and democratization are just a few of the sweeping changes that took place because of the Industrial Revolution.
All of the changes mentioned above are believed to have ushered in a new era in society. Sociologists were interested in how society would transition from a traditional society to a modern society. How would society remain stable when all of its institutions had been changed or revolutionized? Traditional bonds that held members of society were fading and many feared that individuals would feel lost or alienated from one another. Many social thinkers at this time sought to understand the causes of these changes as well as how society would be affected by them.