Contributions of Comte and Spencer to Sociology – Essay

Auguste Comte [1798 -1857] – the Founding Father of Sociology:

Auguste Comte, the French Philosopher, is traditionally considered the “Father of Sociology”. Comte who invented the term “Sociology” was the first man to distinguish the subject-matter of sociology from all the other sciences.

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He worked out in a series of books, a general approach to the study of society. Comte is regarded as the “Father of sociology” not because of any significant contributions to the science as such, but because of the great influence he had upon it. It would be more appropriate to regard him as a philosopher of science rather than as a sociologist.

Comte introduced the word “sociology” for the first time in his famous work “Positive Phi­losophy” at about 1839. The term “Sociology” is derived from the Latin word Socius, meaning companion or associate, and the Greek word logos, meaning study or science.

Thus, the etymologi­cal meaning of sociology is the science of society. He defined sociology as the science of social phenomena “subject to natural and invariable laws, the discovery of which is the object of investiga­tion.”

Comte devoted his main efforts to an inquiry into the nature of human knowledge and tried to classify all knowledge and to analyse the methods of achieving it. He concentrated his efforts to determine the nature of human society and the laws and principles underlying its growth and devel­opment. He also laboured to establish the methods to be employed in studying social phenomena.

Comte believed that the sciences follow one another in a definite and logical order and that all inquiry goes through certain stages (namely, the theological, the metaphysical and the ‘positive or scientific or empirical).

Finally, they arrive at the last or scientific stage or as he called the positive stage. In the positive stage, objective observation is substituted for speculation. Social phenomena like physical phenomena, he maintained, can be studied objectively by making use of the positive method.

He thought that it was time for inquiries into social problems and social phenomena to enter into this last stage. So, he recommended that the study of society be called the science of society, i.e. ‘sociology

Comte proposed sociology to be studied in two main parts: (i) the social statics and (ii) the social dynamics. These two concepts represent a basic division in the subject-matter of sociology. The social statics deals with the major institutions of society such as family, economy or polity.

Sociology is conceived of as the study of inter-relations between such institutions. In the words of Comte, “the statically study of sociology consists the investigations of laws of action and reaction of different parts of the social system”. He argued that the parts of a society cannot be studied sepa­rately, “as if they had an independent existence”.

If Statics examines how the parts of societies are interrelated, social dynamics focuses on whole societies as the unit of analysis and reveals how they developed and changed through time. “We must remember that the laws of social dynamics are most recognisable when they relate to the largest societies”, he said.

Comte was convinced that all societies moved through certain fixed stages of development and that progressed towards ever increasing perfection. He felt that the comparative study of societies as “wholes” was major subject for sociological analysis.

Contributions of Comte to the Development of Sociology as a Science:

1. Comte gave to ‘sociology’ its name and laid its foundation so that it could develop into an independent and a separate science.

2. Comte’s insistence on positive approach, objectivity and scientific attitude contributed to the progress of social sciences in general.

3. Comte, through his “Law of Three Stages” clearly established the close association between intellectual evolution and social progress.

4. Comte’s classification of sciences drives home the fact that sociology depends heavily on the achievements of other sciences. The ‘interdisciplinary approach’ of the modern times is in tune with the Comtean view.

5. Comte gave maximum importance to the scientific method. He criticised the attitude of the armchair social philosophers and stressed the need to follow the method of science.

6. Comte divided the study of sociology into two broad areas:”social statics” and “social dynam­ics”. Present day sociologists have retained them in the form of’ social structure and function” and ”social change and progress’.

7. Comte had argued that sociology was not just a “pure” science, but an “applied” science also. He believed that sociology should help to solve the problems of society. This insistence on the practical aspect of sociology led to the development of various applied fields of sociology such as “social work”, “social welfare”, etc.

8. Comte also contributed to the development of theoretical sociology.

9. Comte upheld the ‘moral order’ in the society. The importance which he attached to morality highly impressed, the later writers such as Arnold Toynbee and Pitirim A. Sorokin.

10. Comte’s famous books (i)’Positive Philosophy’ [in 6 volumes] and, (ii) “Positive Polity’ [in 4 volumes] are a memorable contributions to the development of sociological literature.

Herbert Spencer 1820-1903:

An English scholar, Herbert Spencer, known as one of the most brilliant intellects of modern times, contributed a great deal to the establishment of sociology as a systematic discipline.

His three volumes of “Principles of Sociology”, published in 1877 were the first systematic study devoted mainly to the sociological analysis. He was much more precise than Comte in specifying the topics or special fields of sociology.

According to Spencer, the fields of sociology are: the family, politics, religion, social control and industry or work. He also mentioned the sociological study of associations, communities, the division of labour, social differentiation, and stratification, the sociology of knowledge and of sci­ence, and the study of arts and aesthetics.

Spencer stressed the obligation of sociology to deal with the inter-relations between the differ­ent elements of society, to give an account of how the parts influence the whole and are in turn reacted upon. He insisted that sociology should take the whole society as its unit for analysis. He maintained that the parts of society were not arranged unsystematically. The parts bore some con­stant relation and this made society as such a meaningful ‘entity’, a fit subject for scientific impurity.

Spencer’s another contribution is his famous organic analogy, in which society is compared with the human organism. Spencer was influenced by the theory of organic evolution of his contem­porary, Charles Darwin. Even L.F. Ward, Sumner and Giddings were highly influenced by the or- ganismic theory of society advocated by Spencer.

Contributions of Spencer to the Development of Sociology:

1. Spencer very strongly supported the views of Comte who insisted on the need to establish a separate science of society.

2. Spencer stressed upon the interdependence of different parts of society. Spencer argued, the various parts of society, such as the state and the economy, are also interdependent and work to ensure the stability and survival of the entire system.

3. Spencer through his “theory of Organic Analogy” contributed to the development of the tradi­tion of comparative studies in sociology. Though this theory has its own limitations it influ­enced Ward, Sumner, Giddings and other later writers.

4. Spencer emphasised the “laws of evolution” and tried to universalise them. According to L.A. Coser, the laws of evolution popularised by Spencer could be taken as his contribution to the philosophy of sociology rather than to the science of sociology.

5. Spencer’s theories had a special appeal for two reasons: (i) they satisfied the desire for unifying knowledge; and (ii) they stressed the need for the “principle of free enterprise” [or "laissez-faire principle”]. Spencer was a supporter of the principle of “individualism”. The policy of free thinking advocated by him supported the cause of the development of the new science of sociology.

6. Spencer’s works such as -“Social Statics”, “First Principle”, “The Study of Sociology”, “Prin­ciples of Ethics”, “Principles of Sociology”, “The Man Versus The State” have been a great contribution to the enrichment of sociological literature.


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