Originally published in World of Sociology, published by Gale Group in 2000.
British sociology developed in the nineteenth century as a scientific extension of seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy. The focus in British sociology is not on an overpowering social system or structure, but on the nature of individual human beings and the effect of their actions on society. The ideas of British Enlightenment philosophers and nineteenth century sociologists shaped fundamental social institutions and culture in both Britain and America.
The origins of British sociology stem from the Enlightenment and the social and historical context of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Society was changing tremendously in Europe at this time. Exploration and commerce were bringing wealth to Europe, and people moved from the country into towns. Traditional forms of government and sovereignty were changing. The advancement of science and reason challenged the dominant role of religion in society. Surrounded by massive social change and newly enamored of reason, philosophers argued that by studying humans and the world in which they lived, they could modify themselves and that world toward perfection.
Philosophers did not limit their efforts to the physical world, but used reason to pursue a secular ethic for society through an understanding of human nature and morality. Donald Levine argues that the writings of philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century regarding human nature provided the foundation for British sociology. Hobbes believed that human nature directed the social world, and that human desires to gain power and avoid death were part of this nature.
Hobbes’ belief that society could be explained in terms of the nature of the individuals that exist within it influenced British social thought for the next two centuries. Levine writes that later in the seventeenth century, the Earl of Shaftesbury stated that humans have a natural tendency to associate with other people. Philosophers John Locke and Bernard Mandeville also explained society in terms of the nature of individuals, arguing that selfish behavior could have positive consequences for society.
The idea that humans pursuing their own interests could benefit society led to the development of utilitarian theory in the eighteenth century by philosophers Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. Levine states that Hutcheson argued that the most moral actions were those that were the most utilitarian, or accomplished the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, and that Hume argued that humans naturally revere the things that are most useful to society.
According to Levine, Smith contended that humans have a number of innate propensities that lead to actions that benefit all of society. The tendency to trade leads to markets, and the tendency to save leads to capital, both of which increase the wealth across society. The human tendencies to admire people in positions of authority and respect rules lead to shared norms and stability for society. Smith argued that because humans pursuing their own interests ultimately benefit society, governments should not interfere in their pursuit of those interests.
The idea that society is shaped and stabilized by the nature of humans and their actions was still prevalent in the nineteenth century when social philosophy became more scientific and developed into the formal discipline of sociology. Using the model of physics, these sociologists attempted to scientifically discover the laws of social world. Levine notes that the British focus on the individual led them to analyze society in an “atomic” manner, studying the society in terms of the “elements,” or individuals, that constitute it.
One of the first British examples of social science was philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s attempt in the early nineteenth century to create a mathematical model of human action. According to Levine, Bentham’s model calculated the pain and pleasure resulting from an act for both the actor and all persons affected. This was a measurement of the utility of an act, or the extent to which it benefits the greatest amount of people.
John Stuart Mill, son of philosopher James Mill and founder of the Utilitarian Society in Britain in 1823, followed Bentham’s utilitarian method, but expanded it to account for more than pain and pleasure. Levine noted that Mill also incorporated utilitarianism into the actual practice of social science, arguing that it should be used practically to increase the happiness of the individuals in society.
Herbert Spencer, a former engineer who became a sociologist in his forties during the late eighteenth century, contributed to sociology the concept of social evolution. George Ritzer maintains that Spencer believed that humans adapt to their circumstances and that humans were evolving from a military stage to an industrial stage. In the military stage, political institutions were repressive and humans were egoistic and often at war. In the industrial stage, industry and commerce required voluntary associations and humans became more altruistic, forming charitable societies and enacting laws to protect citizens.
Thomas Malthus, a nineteenth century British political economist, had an approach similar to Spencer’s. He evaluated the possible trajectory of society in terms of the actions of individuals. His focus, however, was on the impact of overpopulation and overconsumption of natural resources on living conditions.
These theories impacted British and American society. The utilitarian belief that humans pursuing their own interests benefited society and Spencer’s belief that society should be left to evolve influenced the development of the capitalist free market. British and American governments are founded on what many of these thinkers believed was the individual right to pursue his or her interests without interference. The American political system has checks and balances to ensure minimal interference in the activities of individuals.
According to Ritzer, Phillip Abrams contended that the work of these thinkers also led to a tendency in British society, called amelioration, to attempt to solve social problems by reforming individuals. Whereas the French focused on the power of social institutions and consequently tried to overthrow the government in the French Revolution, the British focused on reforming individuals because the prevailing social thought did not espouse the primacy of social structures.