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Social Change and the Development of Sociology

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The gradual development of scientific thought in Europe was one important foundation of sociology. But something more was involved: revolutionary change in European society itself. The increasing importance of science is but one dimension of the modernization of Europe. Social change, of course, is continuous but European societies experienced particularly rapid transformations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the midst of intense social change that often reached crisis proportions, people were less likely to take society for granted. Indeed, as the social ground shook under their feet, they focused more and more onsociety, which stimulated the emergence of the sociological perspective.

Three dimensions of social change occurred in that era, each truly revolutionary in its own right. First, various technological innovations in eighteenth-century Europe led to the appearance of factories, initially in England. This new way of producing material goods soon gave rise to an industrial economy. Second, factories located within cities drew millions of people from the countryside, where agriculture had been the traditional livelihood. As a result, the growth of industry was accompanied by the explosive growth of cities. Third, the development of the economy and the growth of cities were linked to changes in political ideas.

While sociology is thus European in its origins, the new discipline did not take hold everywhere in Europe during the nineteenth century. On the contrary, the development of sociology was stimulated by most in precisely those societies that had experienced the greatest social changes during the preceding centuries. In France, Germany, and England - where social transformations had been truly revolutionary - sociology was flowering by the end of the nineteenth century. Conversely, in societies touched less by these momentous events - including Portugal, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe -- there was little development of sociological awareness.

Many of the crucial ideas within the discipline of sociology also owed their development to rapid social change, largely because many, if not most, early sociologists found the drastic social changes deeply disturbing. Auguste Comte, a social conservative, feared that people were being overpowered by change and were losing the support of traditional social institutions, including the family and religion, as well as the local community. Strongly disagreeing with «modernists», who claimed that society was simply an expression of individual self-interest Comte believed that traditional social bonds were basic units of society.

In sum, the birth of sociology, its scientific method of study, and its emphasis on social patterns rather than on the individual are all related to the historical changes.

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