In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Sociology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Grand Figures
  • Organized Pre-Sociology
  • American Sociology to 1945
  • Britain
  • Chicago Sociology
  • France
  • Germany
  • Karl Mannheim and Gunnar Myrdal
  • Postwar United States
  • Quantitative Social Research
  • Social Psychology
  • Three Sociological Specialties: Rural Sociology, Criminology, and Medical Sociology
  • The Frankfurt School and European Contemporaries
  • Women in Sociology and Reform

Sociology History of Sociology
Stephen Turner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0140


The history of sociology is both a traditional area of sociology itself and a part of the history of the social sciences as studied by intellectual historians and historians of science. The earliest writings on the subject were completed by sociologists attempting to construct a canon and a history of the discipline reaching into the distant past. This style of history remained important in sociology for a very long period in American sociology and was part of the original remit of the flagship journal of what was then called the American Sociological Society in 1936. This changed after 1945 with the generation of Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons but persisted in Europe as academic sociology was refounded in specific national academic settings as a taught field and in the light of a new internationalism. Historians began writing in earnest about the subject in the 1960s and 1970s. There is a traditional divide between “disciplinary histories” written by members of the discipline and writings by professional historians. Although this line has blurred in recent years, there is a basic distinction between work that is historical in the sense of being based on archives and work that interprets books. Both are found here. Sociology has generally been less celebratory of its own history than psychology and lacks the rich autobiographical material that psychology has generated, but there is now a certain amount of online material, sometimes in the form of oral history interviews for university archives, that tells the stories of individual careers, and a small number of books that can serve as primary sources. Sociology also has a close relation to social reform, so the historian of sociology needs to understand the various reform movements and organizations that interacted with it. British developments paralleled American reform movements and require a similar approach. In Europe, there was also a social reform movement prior to Second World War, but it was eclipsed by the postwar welfare state and the ideological movements of the Left, which have a complex and largely unanalyzed relation to academic sociology. These relations are clearer in the context of the Frankfurt School, which was not a part of academic sociology originally but which later produced academic sociologists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and influenced many sociologists internationally. More recently, the discipline as well as the history of sociology itself has been influenced by the women’s movement. This bibliography attempts to provide the rudiments of a background to researchers and students with an interest in this rich history.

General Overviews

General overviews of the history of social thought leading to and including the era of scientific sociology were characteristic of the early decades of sociology. This genre is virtually nonexistent today. However, some of these early anthologies still have considerable value as guides to relatively obscure figures in the history of sociology and as evidence of the thinking of their authors, who are now of historical interest. The differences in the books reflect very different interpretations of the past and different eras of interpretation. Among the major overviews are Sorokin 1928, which makes shrewd observations that are still relevant today, and Ellwood 1938, a bestseller with a public audience that paralleled standard American texts in the history of philosophy and the history of political theory but was side-lined during the postwar period. Barnes and Becker 1938 is even more comprehensive. Parsons 1937 was an attempt to reorient the canon and succeeded in doing so. McDonald 1993 provides a feminist reinterpretation of the canon, bringing in many women. The most recent major attempt at comprehensive coverage is Levine 1995. Coser 1977 was a standard source in the 1970s, and the choices of subjects and interpretation reflect the era, but it remains valuable as an introduction to the thinkers in the canon of the time.

  • Barnes, Harry Elmer, and Howard Becker. 1938. Social thought from lore to science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a huge compendium of social thinkers with no subsequent parallel that is exceptionally cosmopolitan

  • Coser, Louis. 1977. Masters of sociological thought: Ideas in historical and social context. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

    Although this is a textbook, it was a dominant source for biographical interpretation in the 1960s and remains accessible and readable. Originally published in 1971.

  • Ellwood, Charles. 1938. A history of social philosophy. New York: Prentice Hall.

    A bestseller in its time, this book explicates thinkers from the Enlightenment to the early 20th century by placing their thought in context and in relation to others.

  • Levine, Donald. 1995. Visions of the sociological tradition. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A large, reflexive, and very up-to-date reconsideration of the tradition.

  • McDonald, Lynn. 1993. The early origins of the social sciences. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press.

    Beginning with the Greeks, this book is concerned with recognizing feminist issues and women social thinkers.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1937. The structure of social action. New York: Free Press.

    A flawed but influential classic, which promoted the canonical status of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim in its time.

  • Sorokin, Pitirim. 1928. Contemporary sociological theories. New York: Harper.

    Sorokin’s contemporaries are our classics. The book is full of shrewd comments on key ideas in sociology.

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