Smith explores the controversy over whether sociology qualifies as an authentic science.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Sociology has been variously defined as the science of society, the science of social order, and so forth. In sociology, perhaps more than in any other discipline, there have been persistent and rancorous debates about how we should understand the meaning of “science.” (See my discussion of this problem here.) Is sociology a science in the same sense that we apply this honorific title to physics and other exact sciences? Can sociologists discover invariable laws that govern social relationships and institutions? Or is sociology merely a science in the weaker sense of a systematic pursuit of knowledge that will enhance our understanding of social phenomena without attempting to explain them in terms of deterministic laws?

Since the mid‐​nineteenth century there have also been serious disagreements over the subject matter, scope, and method of sociology. Some theorists have presented sociology as a comprehensive discipline that subsumes economics, social psychology, and all other social sciences. Moreover, modern sociologists have drawn a seemingly endless string of distinctions between different types of sociology, such as general, analytic, formal, pure, applied, empirical, theoretical, and historical.

Such issues have spawned a vast literature in which some critics have challenged the status of sociology as an authentic science, with its own subject matter and reliable methods of verification. For example, in Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts (Princeton, 1972, p. 380), the late Stephen Toulmin, a leading philosopher of science, characterized the social sciences (with the possible exception of economics) as “would‐​be disciplines” that lack “common standards for deciding what constitutes a genuine problem, a valid explanation, or a sound theory,” and other elements of a real science.

Before proceeding, I wish to distinguish between two kinds of sociologists. I call the first group informal sociologists and the second group formal sociologists. (The latter category has nothing to do with the “formal sociology” practiced by Georg Simmel and others in his tradition.)

By “informal sociologist,” I mean those historians, philosophers, and other intellectuals who have discussed and analyzed social relationships and institutions without regarding themselves as engaged in a specialized form of inquiry with its own distinctive methodology. In this informal sense, Thucydides, Tacitus, Polybius and other ancient historians may be called sociologists, since they dealt with the nature of social interaction and institutions rather than confining themselves to individual biographies. Furthermore, we find a good deal of informal sociology in classic works on philosophy and history, including Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Augustine’s City of God, More’s Utopia, Machiavelli’s Discourses On Livy, Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth, Montaigne’s Essays, Harrington’s Oceana, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Paine’s Rights of Man, and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. This is a short list; a complete list would include many additional titles in history, political theory, economics, moral philosophy, and religion.

Alexis de Tocqueville is perhaps the best example of an informal sociologist, in my sense of the term. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville combined his keen powers of observation and analysis to generate brilliant sociological insights that have rarely if ever been equaled by modern academic sociologists – and all this without knowing that he was engaged in a special “science” with its own standards of verification. Like Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s play (The Bourgeois Gentleman), who discovered that for forty years he had been “speaking in prose without knowing it,” we might say that Tocqueville wrote sociology without knowing it. But if Tocqueville were alive today, he would probably say that he was practicing an art, not a science.

A “formal sociologist” might best be depicted as a person who describes himself as a “sociologist” or who is conventionally described as such by others. Thus, when we hear names like Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, William Graham Sumner, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Nisbet, the label most likely to leap to mind is “sociologist” – though other labels, such as “philosopher” and “historian,” may not be far behind.

My description of the “formal sociologist” is not intended to mimic Bertrand Russell’s facetious definition of “philosophy” as that which is studied in the philosophy departments of our colleges and universities. In saying that a formal sociologist is one who is normally identified as such, I am attempting to deal with the tricky problem of origins. In name, sociology is a relatively recent discipline; the word “sociology” did not appear until 1839, when it was coined by Auguste Comte. So what’s in a name? Quite a bit in this case, for there would be no reason to bestow a new name on a cognitive discipline unless the person doing so wished to endow that discipline with a considerable degree of intellectual autonomy, in the course of distinguishing it from other disciplines, such as economics. And this was precisely Comte’s intention: In addition to providing a name, Comte also wrote extensively on the nature of sociology, its historical evolution, its methodology, its preconditions and future prospects, and its indispensable role in bringing about social reforms.

This is not to say that Comte was the first to conceive of a “science of society.” That project had been bandied about during the eighteenth century by Condorcet and other philosophes; and Comte’s mentor, Saint‐​Simon, used the labels “social physics” and “positive philosophy” to describe basically the same idea. What earned Comte a place in history was his effort to formalize this previously ill‐​defined notion and to present “sociology” as the master social science that represents the pinnacle of man’s intellectual development.

As noted above, informal sociology has been part of the western intellectual landscape since the days of ancient Greece. Classical liberals during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced a considerable amount of informal sociology, as we see in their discussions of liberty, power, and government. Common themes in this libertarian sociological tradition included the tendency of power to corrupt; the social conditions that generate revolutions; the social and political factors that undermine free republics; the influence of intellectual freedom on social unity; the respective roles of reason and religion in maintaining liberty; the relationship between foreign commerce and peace; the social effects of the division of labor; the effects of “luxury” on a free people; institutional checks on the centralization and abuse of power; the social conditions of progress; the relationship between education and freedom; the nature and causes of wealth; the impact of self‐​interested behavior on social order; and the spontaneous development of social institutions. With some exceptions (most notably Herbert Spencer), the most valuable and enduring sociological insights about individual freedom were made by practitioners of informal rather than formal sociology.

Montesquieu – whose eccentric book, Spirit of the Laws (1748), is often praised as a seminal work in the history of sociology – is a case in point. Montesquieu opens his masterpiece with a brief discussion titled “On Laws in General” in which he maintains that “all beings have their laws.” Natural laws, broadly conceived, express “the necessary relations deriving from the nature of things,” and they apply as much to the relationships among “intelligent beings” as they do to the physical world. But shortly after announcing what might appear to be a positivistic quest for social laws that govern human beings with the same constancy that Newton’s law of gravitation governs the world of matter, Montesquieu adds some commonsensical qualifications that would later elude practitioners of positivistic sociology. He notes that the laws applicable to man as a rational and moral agent are not the same kind of “invariable laws” that govern man as a physical being. Man is a fallible being with limited knowledge, a being under the sway of strong emotions and impulses that will sometimes cause him to act contrary to what he knows to be right. In the final analysis, man “must guide himself.”

One of the most compelling defenses of viewing sociology as an authentic science appears in Herbert Spencer’s book The Study of Sociology (1873), a classic in its field. As the distinguished anthropologist Robert J. Carneiro wrote in Herbert Spencer as an Anthropologist (.pdf):

The Study of Sociology proved to be one of Spencer’s most successful and influential books. In an incisive and readable style, Spencer marshaled the arguments for a social science in front of the literate English‐​speaking public, contending that human society was part of nature and could be studied and explained scientifically. Even the political economist J.E. Cairnes, an opponent of Spencer’s on many issues, was forced to admit: “Never before has the conception of a social science been put forth with equal distinctness and clearness; and never has its claim to rank as a recognized branch of scientific investigation been placed upon surer grounds, or asserted with more just emphasis.”

In subsequent parts of this series I shall explore some of Spencer’s arguments and other matters relating to the possibility of establishing “laws” in sociology and economics. Similar issues in the realm of history will be discussed in a separate series, when I get around to writing that ambitious project.