Society and Modernity
By Ankur Aggarwal
A new, modern society was created from the Age of Enlightenment. Sociology began to emerge at the end of the 18th century as a response to this transformation, as philosophers and thinkers attempted to understand the nature of modernity and its effects on society. Inevitably, some simply bemoaned the erosion of traditional forms of social cohesion, such as the family ties and community spirit found within small, rural societies, and the shared values and beliefs offered by a common religion. But others recognized that there were new social forces at work, bringing about social change with a potential for both social order and disorder.
In keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment, these early social thinkers sought to make their study of society objective, and create a scientific discipline that was distinct from philosophy, history, and politics. The natural sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, and biology) were well established, and the time was ripe for the study of humans and their behaviour.
Because of the nature of the Industrial Revolution and the capitalism that it fostered, the first of the new “social sciences” to emerge was economics, pioneered by Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, better known as The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. However, at the same time, the foundations of sociology were also being laid, by philosophers and theorists such as Adam Ferguson and Henri de Saint-Simon, and in the early part of the following century by Auguste Comte, whose scientific approach to the study of society firmly established sociology as a distinct discipline.
Following in Comte’s footsteps came three ground-breaking sociologists, whose different approaches to the analysis and interpretation of social behaviour set the agenda for the subject of sociology in the 20th century and beyond: Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Each identified a different aspect of modernity as the major factor in creating social order, disorder, and change. Marx, a materialist philosopher and economist, focused on the growth of capitalism and the subsequent class struggle; Durkheim on the division of labour brought about by industrialization; and Weber on the secularization and rationalization of modern society. All three have had an enthusiastic following, influencing sociology’s major schools of thought to the present day.
"Human nature is… unbelievably malleable… responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural traditions." Margaret Mead