This module introduces you to some of the main themes in classical sociology. It is a huge subject. One way of approaching it is to see the emergence of sociology as a response to three revolutions: the intellectual revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries (‘The Enlightenment’), the industrial revolution that it helped to foster, and the French revolution of 1789, which sent shock waves through Europe. The intellectual revolution led people to ask whether it was possible to do a science of history and society as well as a science of nature; the industrial and French revolutions led people to say that some such science was necessary, because the forces they unleashed – new ideas about politics, (e.g. human rights, democracy, equality), new forms of organisation, (especially emerging nation-states), new types of social groups and new types of relationships between people, (e.g. class, colonial) – were deeply disruptive of the old European order. Just as science can be driven both by pure curiosity and by the desire to harness nature’s energies for human purposes, so sociology has its ‘pure’ scholars, its partisans and its reformists.
The four writers we will study – Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Du Bois, three European and one African-American – all combined these multiple qualities. They all offered both techniques of thinking that continue to have major influence. Their foundational concerns with questions of capitalism and modernity, class and social hierarchies, nationalism and racism, alongside their general attempt to grapple with the question of how societies change, remain central to the sociological approach. These four thinkers were all public figures, concerned with the political, economic and cultural problems of their day. This dedication to studying and commenting on society in an active and involved way, remains an aspiration central to many sociologists’ interest in the subject.