Sociology has a short but illustrious history. Of course centuries ago, people such as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates thought and argued about social behaviour. But most of their discussion was in the form of rhetorical speech and debate. They posed questions and answered them on the basis of their personal reasoning and with little reference to the world around them. They did not, in other words, make systematic observations to test their speculations against lived reality. They were essentially social philosophers, concerned with how things ought to be, not how things were and why they happened to be so. The field of sociology emerged in the nineteenth century when European social philosophers began to employ scientific methods of observation for the first time - they started to base their observations on statistics, on historical research and on their own observations of the phenomena they wished to explain.
Three social transformations in particular lead the way for the birth of sociology:
1) The French Revolution
2) The Industrial Revolution
3) The rise of the Natural Sciences
In the late 18th century the concept of the citizen was extended beyond the elite, and in the aftermath of the French Revolution many people began to question the legitimacy of those in authority over them. Furthermore, the events of the French Revolution introduced a new principle into history by demanding that political action be taken to redress mass poverty and deprivation.
The Industrial Revolution brought about massive population growth, urbanization and transformation in ways of living. Societies that had long been rural and stable became industrialized, urbanized and chaotic. Peasants were freed from the control of overlords and the church but were forced to live in congested conditions where poverty and squalor were commonplace. They were absorbed into factories were work was difficult, monotonous and exploitative. Marx and Engels observed the transformation in the lives of the industrial working classes and developed a theory of capitalist development which still resonates today. Indeed, Marx would not have been the least surprised at the crisis-ridden state of contemporary capitalism. It’s all there in his theories developed over 150 years ago!
Natural sciences at the same time were highly respected because they were providing ways to explain and to control aspects of the physical world. Some social philosophers looked on natural science as a model for how they might go about understanding the social world. They sought a systematic explanation or “laws of the social order” to seek to define and proscribe human behaviour. For example, Herbert Spencer compared human society to the living organism. Each part of society contributes to the whole and none can function effectively in the absence of the others. Each part of society – family, education, religion, government, industry- performs its own function and in so doing contribute to the well being of society as a whole. Spencer concluded that society is self regulating (just like nature) and that adjustments to change would be made through natural selection. No interventions need to be made on the part of those who are socially excluded. A modern variant of this theory is neo-liberalism, which has been tested and challenged by the unraveling of international financial capitalism in the recent past.
The Promise of Sociology
The sociological imagination is the capacity to make the connection between the patterns of our own lives and the course of history. In our everyday lives we don’t always make the connection between the individual and society, between the self and the wider world. But changes which occur in our individual lives are shaped by changes in the wider world. This is what sociology teaches us. When technology is revolutionized people often lose their jobs; when nations go to war, children are orphaned; when the banks fail, people lose their life savings. The point as C.Wright Mills so eloquently stated is that neither the life of the individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. This insight lies at the core of the sociological imagination and was acutely observable in the words of President Obama in his Inauguration speech.
The aim of sociology is to illustrate the crucial linkages between the life experience of any given individual, and his or her social circumstances. Social circumstances change over time so we can think of them as history in-the-making. Social circumstances-- such as where you live, what work you do, and the groups to which you belong—all shape life experiences. In turn, how we experience our social world may lead us, over time, to seek changes in how that social world is organised. This is the promise of sociology.
The History of Sociology at Maynooth University:
The Roman Catholic church was at the forefront of the development of Irish sociology. It was at Maynooth in 1973 that the first Professor of 'Catholic Action' rather than sociology was established. Father Peter McKevitt who took up that professorship is usually credited as the first modern Irish sociologist."
Read more about the History of Irish sociology
There are a myriad of ways in which the sociological perspective can be brought to bear in everyday life and in the wider world.
Research is one important vehicle for developing sociological insights and analysis.
Staff are working together in a number of research clusters including:
- Critical Political Thought, Activism, and Alternative Futures
- Globalisation, Identities and Cultural Practices
- Historical and Comparative Sociology Cluster
- Political Economy, Work and Working Lives
- Urban/ Suburban Studies
Further information is available here.
Sociology makes most sense when it moves out of academia and into the real world. Sociology offers a range of insights into the human condition and is an important means towards self and collective empowerment. We can use sociology to develop a richer engagement with the wider world.
The Sociology Department seeks to engage directly with the transformations in contemporary Irish society. It carries out research that combines theoretical concerns and critique with sustained empirical research, and that seeks to speak to major issues of public concern. We enjoy a reputation as one of the most publicly visible Departments on the island, because of the strong commitment among staff members to public and community engagement.
In addition, members of the Department are closely linked with a number of key policy making institutions which provides another forum within which to disseminate our knowledge. For details of staff public and civic engagement, talks and media appearances see the Maynooth University President's Report for various years.
Department staff write for a variety of blogs including:
Members of the Department of Sociology frequently appear in the media to provide commentary and interpretation of the issues of the day. We also contribute to programmes and documentaries.
On July 11th, 2013 Prof. Mary Corcoran gave a public lecture for the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) at the National Concert Hall on the topic of the 'Arts and public intellectuals'.
A podcast of the lecture is available below:
The key distinguishing feature of the Politics degree offered by the Department of Sociology at Maynooth is its focus on active citizenship. This includes, but goes beyond, the traditional study of parties and elections to include a much broader variety of aspects of politics (including public opinion, community activism, the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), new social movements, trade unions etc.) and exploring the tensions between formal democracy, political power and social inequality. The course is aimed towards those interested in the process of politics and active citizenship - creative involvement in political life whether at a community, national or global level.
In first year of the programme, you will go on field trips enabling you to experience with a range of political activity, from formal organisations to public protest. The second-year “Active citizenship and participation” core module includes a placement element geared towards active engagement in some area of everyday political life. Your dissertation will also often involve you in a degree of practical work, and may well grow out of your placement.
These elements are an invaluable way of gaining practical experience and developing your own direction for political involvement as well as possible future careers. For mature students with prior experience, they offer the chance to reflect in a more systematic way on their own everyday practice, and to bring research and theoretical skills to bear on the area.
The best way to find out about the scope and breadth of the discipline is to read what sociologists have to say. Here you will find a number of links to publications written by our staff.
1) The Irish Sociological Chronicles
The Irish Sociological Chronicles series, of which there are seven volumes in print, brings sociology out into the world. The first edition of the Irish Sociological Chronicles was published in 1998, and the most recent edition in 2010. This span of time does not map precisely on to the trajectory of Ireland’s recent economic boom (arguably it started in 1993, or in 1994 when the term ‘Celtic Tiger’ was coined). Nevertheless, the overarching narrative contained within these seven volumes over a fifteen-year period, contributed by 83 different authors, sketches a sustained sociological interpretation of this unique period in contemporary Irish history.
The series provides a space in which sociologists reflect in an engaging way on current matters that capture their imagination, and which we hope will capture the imagination of you the reader. Academic writing is often condemned as turgid and somewhat removed from the social reality of everyday life. These volumes provide a welcome antidote to that tradition. All of the contributions assembled here are topical, accessible and written in a style which does not condescend to the reader. They speak to people about real places, events and occurrences that have touched all our lives. As well as making an important intellectual intervention, the books are also a visual treat. The viewpoints of the various contributors are complimented by those of contemporary artists and photographers. A series of arresting images which are interspersed throughout the books offer a visual commentary on contemporary society.
Staff in the Department of Sociology produce a wide range of publications from authored and edited books, to journal articles, book chapters, media articles and blogs.
You can see what individual staff have published on the people pages and many will have links to electronic versions of the articles which are stored in the eprints archive in the library.
In March 2015 we profiled a book by each member of staff on our homepage. See here.