Sociology and Change

Sociology as a discipline did not just happen. It is the result of rapid social change that swept Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As we explain in our introductory texts, sociology developed in those regions of Northern and Western Europe (especially France, Germany, and England) where change was most intense. What were these changes? We can start with the Industrial Revolution, which transformed work and pulled people from rural villages into big cities where jobs were available in factories. The urban revolution, then, was the second dimension of change, a process Ferdinand Toennies described as the gradual replacement of gemeinschaft (traditional, local community) with gesellschaft (modern, cosmopolitan society). There was also intellectual and political change, with the rigid medieval world steadily replaced by a more fluid and individual-centered society (reflected in the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith). As the world trembled under the feet of people in the nineteenth century, our disciplines founders (including Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber) developed the field of sociology.

Sociology and ChangeSociology is both the consequence and the cause of change. Just as change sparked the development of sociology, so does sociological thought provoke more change.

This is not to say that all sociologists agree on exactly what changes are most desirable. It is also the case that some sociologists are more activist than others. But simply doing sociology is to become involved in change. This is true because becoming aware of the structure of society—a consciousness we call the sociological imagination—is a powerful tool that allows us to ask not only “What is going on here?” but also “Should things be as they are?”

John J. Macionis John J. Macionis