The development of sociology was born out of two revolutions: the French Revolution of 1789, and the Industrial revolution. Both of these events destroyed all previous social norms and created a new social organization: the modern industrial society. In particular, the French Revolution destroyed not only the political and social foundations of France, but almost every country in Europe and the North Americas. Ideas of liberty and equality were put into practice, setting the stage for a completely new social and political order. These changes also represented the victory for the downtrodden in France, and the beginnings of societies in other countries based on the individual and individualism. A new class of people, emboldened by what happened in France, appeared on the political stages of Europe and North America and were not afraid to fight for their rights as citizens and human beings.
The concept of modernity came about when classical theorists needed to understand the meaning and significance of the Twin Revolutions and the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and political democracy on rural societies. The term ‘modernity’ was coined to capture these changes in progress by contrasting the “modern” with the “traditional.” Modernity was meant to be more than a concept. Modernity referred to a world constructed anew through the active and conscious intervention of individuals. In modern societies, the world is experienced as a human construction, an experience that gives rise to a new sense of freedom and to a basic anxiety about the openness of the future.
Modernity consists of three elements: traditional, institutional, and cultural. Traditional modernity means that there is a historical consciousness, a sense of breaking with the past, and a post-traditional consciousness of what is going on in the world. Institutional modernity is concerned with capitalism, industrialism, urbanism, and the democratic nation-state. Cultural modernity entails new beliefs about science, economics, and education. It involves a criticism of religion and separation of religion from politics and education.
A new social science was created in the wake of these events and was given the name ‘sociology’ by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher and he is thought of as the founder of modern sociology. Sociology is not only about intellect, but is connected with developments in the social world and changes in society. One reason why sociology is different than the other social sciences is that it attempts to describe different sets of social forces that develop in a society at different times and places, with different actors and results. As societies change, it is the nature of these changes that sociologists attempt to explain, and it is the changes themselves that lead to different explanations of these changes.
For example, Marx’s political-economic theory is an explanation of nineteenth century capitalism as it developed in Britain. His theory could not have been developed fifty years earlier because the trends and forces that he described and explained were only beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century. Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy and rationalization could not have emerged much sooner than it did, because the bureaucratic structures and the forces of rationalization had not developed all that much before Weber’s time. And Durkheim’s analysis of the changing division of labor could take place only once some of the economic and social trends of modern, industrial societies became apparent. The same is true today: as society changes and becomes more modern, new sociological theories and approaches are developed in an attempt to understand and explain these changes.
Marx, Weber, and Durkheim had different views on modernity. For Marx, modernity is capitalism and he felt that the ideal of true democracy is one of the great lies of capitalism. He thought that the only ideas that came out of a capitalist society was alienation, class conflict, and revolution. He also thought that capitalism will be eventually destroyed by revolution. For him, history is a human construction and that history is made by those who have the political and material means to do so. Humans participate in their own oppression through false conscious, any belief, idea, or ideology that interferes with an exploited and oppressed person or group being able to perceive the objective nature and source of their oppression.
Weber construes modernity as rationalization, bureaucratization, and the “Iron Cage.” For him, the history of modernization was increased rationalization. There would be a search for the most efficient techniques and stresses that everything is reevaluated. Everything humans depend on would be controlled by large capitalist bureaucratic organizations.
Durkheim saw modernity as moral order, anomie and the decline of social solidarity. In his analysis of modernity, there is a breakdown of social values, the breaking down of traditional social order. Anomie is a transitional problem, lacking moral regulation. Increased egotism is also a problem. All three of these classic theorists had a very critical view of modern capitalism and society.