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Auguste Compte (1798–1857), the French philosopher who coined the term “sociology,” defined it as the systematic study of society, and the accumulated knowledge resulting from it, that would help to guide and improve social development. He advanced a “law of three stages”—not about “savagery–barbarism–civilization” but about three stages in the development of human knowledge: theological, metaphysical, and scientific.
Had sociology stayed true to it origins, it would be more central to the study of world history than it now is. Like most bold statements, that one needs to be immediately qualified. It is rarely possible to pinpoint, chronologically or geographically, the absolute beginnings of a broad intellectual tradition. Geographically, it has to be recognized that there were, and are, many different national sociological traditions, and concerns with history—let alone world history—have not been central to all of them. Chronologically, a key insight in comparative history and sociology—the analogy between the interconnected institutions of a society and the interconnected parts of a living organism—can be traced back as far as Aristotle’s Politics. Sociologists are also fond of tracing their ancestry back to Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah of about 1380 (1958); often described as a “philosophy of history,” it is also one of the earliest discussions of the possibility of a social science and of long-term social change in world history, and it introduced concepts of undoubted sociological significance, such as social cohesion.
Precursors of Sociology
The emancipation of sociology from the shackles of political and moral philosophy that it shared with so many other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences is usually seen as beginning in the French and Scottish Enlightenments and gaining momentum through evolutionary thinking in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through a study of history since classical times, in his De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), first published in 1748 (1949), Montesquieu distinguished between three forms of government—republics, monarchies and despotisms—less on the basis of who exercised power and still less on their respective moral qualities, and more according to how it was exercised and why each form arose to fit societies of different kinds. Other precursors of a historically orientated sociology include Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). Ferguson stressed the interdependence of people with each other in societies, and in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) he traced humanity’s progression from “savagery” to the “refinement” of “civil society” (the idea of “civil society” returned to great prominence in the late twentieth century, especially in connection with the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe). Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progres de l’esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, 1955 ) similarly traced the entire progress of human society through a series of ten stages from “savagery”— when humans were little better than the animals—to a vision of an egalitarian and enlightened future. Ferguson and Condorcet’s visions of uninterrupted human progress set a pattern for many nineteenth-century theories of social evolution, in which human societies traveled from savagery through barbarism to civilization.
Auguste Comte—The Law of Three Stages
Montesquieu, Ferguson, and Condorcet were only “precursors” of sociology, however, in at least a literal sense, since the word sociology had not yet been invented. The dubious honor of coining the term belongs to Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Perhaps more clearly than anyone before (unless it were Ibn Khaldun), Comte was concerned with the possibility of a social science, the systematic study of society and the accumulated knowledge resulting from it that would help to guide and improve social development. He called this science “sociology.” At that time the modern division of the social sciences into many institutionally distinct disciplines—anthropology, archaeology, economics, political science, psychology, as well as sociology per se—had not yet come about, so it must be understood that by sociology Comte meant the social sciences at large, including the study of world history. He advanced a “law of three stages,” but it was not about savagery–barbarism– civilization; it was rather about three stages in the development of human knowledge. At each stage a different general principle predominated in the ways in which human beings sought explanations of the natural and social world that they inhabited. During a long theological stage, explanations were offered in terms of gods and spirits. There had followed a metaphysical stage, when explanations were offered in terms of abstractions such as “reason”; this transitional phase was fairly clearly modeled on Renaissance and Enlightenment thought in Europe. Finally, the modern world was witnessing the emergence of a positive or scientific stage; in the early nineteenth century the word positif was nearly a synonym in French for “scientific.” Comte used it to signify the rejection of the speculative philosophy of the past, which had so often advanced propositions in forms incapable of being tested against observable facts. But Comte, the founder of philosophical positivism, was by no means a positivist in the sense that was later caricatured as “crude positivism.” He did not believe that scientific knowledge could be based on observation alone; observation had to be guided by theoretical ideas, but theories had to be modifiable in the light of observation. The corpus of knowledge grew through the interplay of the two mental operations directed at theoretical synthesis and at the observation of empirical particulars. The law of three stages was linked to Comte’s notion of a “hierarchy of the sciences.” Looking at the history of the main areas of knowledge, he contended that the positive or scientific stage had been reached first in mathematics (which at that date was mistakenly believed to be an empirical discipline), then by astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology; topmost in the hierarchy and last in development came the new discipline of sociology. The areas of knowledge higher in the hierarchy could not be reduced to the lower but represented a higher level of synthesis, the attainment of the scientific stage at lower levels being preconditions for the emergence of the higher. Astronomy had in Comte’s view entered the scientific stage in antiquity; physics and chemistry had been placed on a scientific footing much more recently; the biological sciences were undergoing rapid development in his own lifetime. Each advance up the hierarchy of the sciences represented an increase not only in humankind’s understanding of, but also in its control over, first physical, then organic, and finally social forces. In industrial society, when sociology had attained the scientific stage, social affairs would be studied and then regulated scientifically. Comte encapsulated this idea in his slogan savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour pouvoir (know in order to foresee, foresee in order to be able [to act]). These central ideas of Comte’s—despite there being a fairly high proportion of nonsense in his voluminous writings—contain a valid kernel that is still relevant to understanding world history.
Comte’s influence was especially marked on the work of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who combined it with newly prevalent evolutionary ideas to produce an ambitious comparative-historical taxonomy of the forms of human society. His influence was in turn strongly felt in the development of sociology in the United States (for example, through William Graham Sumner, 1840–1910) and (with Comte) in the work of Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). In the student textbooks, Durkheim, Karl Marx (1818–83), and Max Weber (1864–1920) are now often depicted as the three founders of the modern discipline of sociology (a curiously unsociological view that diminishes the extent to which they all stood on the shoulders of giants). Yet all three continued their precursors’ central concern with understanding the long-term development of human society, so it is paradoxical that in the science they are supposed to have founded this concern became steadily less important as the twentieth century ran its course. The decades after the World War II saw the spread of what has variously been called “developmental agnosticism” (Wittfogel 1957), “hodiecentrism” (Goudsblom 1977) and the retreat of sociologists into the present (Elias 1987). This tendency may in part be the outcome of the sociological profession’s wish to measure its achievements against the utilitarian yardstick of usefulness in rectifying the ills of contemporary society. It also had deeper intellectual roots.
The Retreat into the Present
The fact that in the Victorian age, and for some decades in the early twentieth century, there was a widespread and uncritical assumption that the new “civilized” industrial societies were superior to other ways of life—especially those that Europeans encountered in their colonies and Americans in the course of their westward expansion—led to an equally uncritical and comprehensive rejection by sociologists (and even more strongly by anthropologists) not just of the idea of progress, but of all study of processes and stages of long-term social development. The genocides of the Nazi era served as the most awful warning of the dangers of regarding categories of human beings as superior and inferior; Sir Karl Popper (1945, 1957) and Robert Nisbet (1969) forged intellectual links between political tyranny and the pursuit of “inexorable laws of historical destiny,” which helped for a while to make developmental perspectives almost taboo for may sociologists.
The retreat into the present, however, had begun earlier. The rise after the World War I of the approach within anthropology known as “functionalism,” associated especially with Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, had a strong but markedly delayed impact on sociology. Functionalism involved studying societies as systems of well-meshing “parts” at a given point in time. It was at the peak of functionalism’s influence in sociology during the two decades after the World War II that Talcott Parsons (1902–79) dominated American sociology, and American sociology dominated the world. In anthropology, functionalism had begun as a methodological rule of thumb in field work: it was a reaction against the tendency of Victorian evolutionary anthropologists to resort to “conjectural history” in seeking to explain the customs of preliterate societies, when for the most part any firm evidence about the past of such societies was lacking. Seeking synchronic relationships between patterns that could actually be observed in the field made better sense for anthropologists than speculating about their origins in past time. Why the same ahistorical approach should have had such appeal to sociologists studying societies blessed with abundant written records of their own past development gives more pause for thought. Although functionalism was in retreat in sociology by the late 1960s, developmental agnosticism was then reinforced through the influence of French structuralism, which had drawn its original inspiration from the shift in linguistics from diachronic to synchronic investigations led by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). The same cast of mind can be seen in the so-called poststructuralist Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and its shadow falls even on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), two leading French intellectuals who have attracted numerous followers in sociology across the world. Foucault presents a particularly relevant paradox: he appears on the surface to be studying processes of historical change, but on closer scrutiny he can be seen to depict the dominance of static “discourses” that are mysteriously supplanted through unexplained historical ruptures into new dominant discourses.
By the end of the twentieth century, there was a definite revival of historical concerns among sociologists, although historical sociology was now generally seen as one among many minority interests or subdisciplines— rather than the central preoccupation that it was for many of the discipline’s founders. An interest in world history, or in very long-term processes of social change, is however the province of a minority of a minority, among sociologists as among historians. (Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between historically minded sociologists and sociologically minded historians.) A useful distinction can be drawn between two types of historical sociology. The first may be called simply the sociology of the past, in which sociological concepts and theories are used to investigate groups of people living in some specific period in the past. This kind of research does not differ fundamentally from research into groups of people living in the present: it is merely that documents form a larger part of the evidence than they would generally do in research into the present, for the very practical reason that dead people cannot fill in questionnaires or respond to interviewers. As against this sociology of the past, other sociologists seek to discern and explain longer-term structured processes of development.
The distinction is not hard and fast. For example, Norbert Elias’s The Court Society (2006)—among his works the most widely admired by historians— deals with a relatively closely defined place and period (France and its royal court in the century before the French Revolution), but his underlying concern is with more general processes of development. Still less is the distinction one of academic worth. Many of the finest examples of historical sociology are instances of the sociology of the past. To put it perhaps oversimply, their impulse is comparative rather than developmental.
The scale on which comparison is pursued or invited varies enormously. At one end of the scale, two widely admired books may be mentioned: Kai T. Erikson’s Wayward Puritans (1966) and Leonore Davidoff’s The Best Circles (1973), studies respectively of deviance in colonial New England and of behavior in nineteenth-century London high society. They are excellent examples of the sociology of the past. Their value, however, is not dependent on the fact that they are studies of the past: they are in effect contributions to the understanding of deviant behavior and of endogamous status groups irrespective of time. The arrow of time may also be reversed for comparative purposes: a present-day study may prove stimulating when studying the past. For example, Stan Cohen’s modern classic, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972)—a study of battles between rival groups of motorcyclists and motor-scooter riders in Britain and of the public reaction to them—might usefully be read by historians laboring at the large body of research on witch crazes in the past.
Other examples of the sociology of the past, but on a more macrosociological scale, are studies like Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966) and Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions (1979). They explicitly set out to study comparable episodes at different periods in different societies. Taking a small number of episodes, they attempt to generalize to similar situations, past, present, and future. Yet they do not advance any theory of social development over the longer term.
The minority of the minority are those sociologists whose interest centers on the construction of modes of long-term developmental processes. They include notably Immanuel Wallerstein, whose The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989) is in effect a massive attempt at an historical disproof of David Ricardo’s apparently timeless “law of comparative advantage.” Wallerstein presents what is in effect a very long-term illustration of the principle of “pathdependency,” showing how initially small inequalities in ties of interdependence between societies and economies have been magnified over time to produce huge differences today between what are euphemistically called the “North” and the “South.” Another example is that of Norbert Elias, whose massive The Civilizing Process (2000 ) advances a theory of state formation based on a study of western Europe during the second millennium CE and links that to changes in the psychological makeup (or habitus) undergone by individuals as they become gradually more subject in the course of generations to the social constraint imposed by the monopolization of violence by the state apparatus. Charles Tilly’s work also centered on state formation processes. Abram de Swaan’s In Care of the State (1988) shows how the development of compulsory education, income maintenance, and public health policies followed a similar sequence over five hundred years in Britain, Germany, France, the United States, and the Netherlands, because a process of the collectivization of risk overrode very different ideological assumptions in the various counties. Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power (1986, 1993) traces the changing relationship between economic, ideological, military, and political bases of power over the entire course of human history. Another large-scale intellectual project is that of Randall Collins, whose work, usually represented as “sociological theory,” in fact replicates in scope that of Max Weber; representative books are Weberian Sociological Theory (1986), The Sociology of Philosophies (1998), and Violence: A Microsociological Theory (2008). Finally, it should be recognized that Marxist scholars kept alive the sociological interest in long-term processes of change when they were least fashionable. Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974a) and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974b) are classics of that tradition.
Perhaps in response to the hodiecentric mood that prevailed in their discipline for several decades—historical sociologists have shown considerable methodological self-awareness. Notable contributions in this area are Charles Tilly’s Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (1984); the extensive debate about the relevance of rational choice theory in historical sociology (Coleman and Fararo 1992); that about the entire “scientific” basis of historical sociology provoked by Goldthorpe (1991,1994; cf. Hart 1994, Mann 1994). William Seward’s Logics of History (2005) and the collections of essays edited by Adams, Clemens, and Orloff (2005).
At what appears and may prove to be a turning point in world history—marked by the financial collapse of 2008—a concern with long-term processes may be returning to the center of sociological concerns. In particular, the widely predicted decline in American world hegemony looks certain to provoke studies—such as The American Civilising Process (Mennell 2007)—of the United States in long-term perspective.
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