The most influential ‘sociologist’ of the late 19th century was the German philosopher and economist, Karl Marx. Devising communism, Marx saw historical societal advancement in terms
of conflict between classes. Devising Dialectical Materialism, the final stage of this conflict would be ‘collectivism’ on a grand scale, with all institutions ruled by the state for the people, with classes devolving into a classless society, based on the economics of production.
Marx’s success came posthumously with the Russian Revolution of 1917. But Marx had failed to appreciate human nature. Arguing that before the final stage, a period of dictatorship would be required, he failed to see how corruption would guarantee that dictatorship would never relinquish power. Marx’s sociological experiment finally collapsed with the smashing of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
These early sociologists were not to be easily forgiven for their political experiments, and a less political figure rose to save sociology in the form of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who became influential at the turn of the 20th century.
Within Comte’s sociological theorizing, he had tentatively tried to prove that all society was inter-related. Durkheim extended this approach, arguing that society was an organism in its own right, brought together by a ‘collective consciousness’ which bound society by a moral force. Establishing sociology as a scientific discipline that could diagnose social ills, he attempted to demonstrate the workings of what he called ‘social facts’. Here, he argued that social forces of coercion worked on the individual to formulate his actions, feelings and methods of thinking from ‘outside’ the individual. To show such forces in action, he carried out a statistical study of suicide, showing how incidences of suicide were affected by the type of society the suicidal belonged to.
In the early years of the 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber gained a high degree of respectability. Due to Comte and Durkheim, society was increasingly being seen as an inter-related system, and Weber was able to use this ethic to rationalize, after the fact, what really happened during the capitalization and industrialization of the west.
Weber was particularly interested in how people behaved, and how their behaviour went on to affect the wider society. In previous society, such behaviour had been affected by religious belief, and the understanding of religion was to feature highly in the systems of sociology Weber devised. Marx, for instance, had seen religion as dogmatic, and the product of specific economic forces. Weber reversed this, arguing that, rather than being dogmatic, religion was progressive and led to social change.
He was particularly interested in Protestantism. Devising the idea of the Protestant ethic based on creditable activity and thrift, he saw this as the basis of capitalism, affecting industrialists and workers alike, giving them a ‘calling’ for societal advancement. In one way this can be seen as correct, for unlike most religions, Protestantism was born out of protest and the need for social change, so it was clearly a power for reform. But it is hard to accept the ethic of thrift in today’s capitalists, who are increasingly seen as fuelled by greed and extravagance.
Weber did much work in two other areas of interest. In the first, he can be classed as the father of today’s ‘chattering classes’. He had a great need for understanding individual actions within society. An alienated individual carries out an anti-social act. To Weber, rather than merely punishing the individual, he wanted to know why he did it. Thus was born the idea of deep analysis of actions, which in one way can be seen as the intellectual beginnings of the liberal approach used in sociology today.
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