Key Figures in Sociology

Jane Addams

Feminist pragmatist, social settlement leader, and Nobel Laureate, Jane Addams (1860-1935) was a charismatic world leader with an innovative intellectual legacy in sociology and one of the most important sociologists in the world. From 1890 to 1935, she led dozens of women in sociology, although after 1920 most of these women were forced out of […]

Simone de Beauvoir

The French existentialist philosopher, writer, and social essayist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) is most widely known for her pioneering work Le Deuxieme Sexe (1949) or The Second Sex. Her expose of woman as ”Other” and her calling attention to the feminine condition of oppression as historically linked to motherhood are considered her major contributions to […]

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German literary critic and philosopher whose work draws on historical materialism and Jewish mysticism. ”The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” is perhaps Benjamin’s most famous essay, and has become a central text for art history and cultural studies. Benjamin argues that our ability to reproduce art […]

Pierre Bourdieu

Born in August 1930, Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) followed an adventurous life trajectory from rural southern-western France (at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains) to a fruitful educational career and his enrolment at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure as a philosophy major. Against the spirit of his time, overwhelmingly characterized by Sartrean existentialism, early Bourdieu focused […]

Michel de Certeau

Born in 1925 in Chambery, France, Michel de Certeau obtained degrees in classics and philosophy at the universities of Grenoble, Lyon, and Paris. Joining the Society of Jesus in 1950, he was ordained in 1956. He completed a doctorate on the mystical writings of Jean-Joseph Surin at the Sorbonne in 1960 and taught in Paris […]

Auguste Comte

As Saint-Simon’s secretary from 1817 to 1824, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) drew heavily from his mentor’s ideas but Comte was a strong, independent thinker who passionately pursued his own grand agenda. His 1822 Plan de travaux scientifiques necessaires pour reorganiser la societe outlined how the moral, intellectual, and social landscape of Europe should be changed. Comte […]

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930-2005) was an Algerian-born philosopher remembered for his development of deconstruction, an approach to thinking that seeks to carefully analyze signifying objects in terms of the differences that are constitutive of those objects. Typically, this deconstructive approach proceeds through a close analysis of the ambivalent and marginal terms that help secure the bounded […]

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a sociologist and historian, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Though he wanted to attend Harvard after high school, the lack of funds and the advice of a few of his teachers dissuaded him, so, instead, he attended Fisk, where he received his BA in 1888. He received a […]

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), often referred to as the founder of Sociology, was born April 15, 1858, in France. Appointed to the first professorship of Sociology in the world, he worked tirelessly over three decades as a lecturer and writer to establish Sociology as a distinct discipline with its own unique theoretical and methodological foundation. After […]

Friedrich Engels

Without Karl Marx, of course, few people today would know the name of Friedrich Engels (1820-95); but without Engels we might have heard much less from Karl Marx. Engels was born into a wealthy, devout, Protestant family in the industrial town of Barmen (now Wuppertal), in the Rhineland region of what is now Germany. The […]

Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) was born into a large, prominent, academic family in Landshut, Bavaria. His father was a distinguished professor of jurisprudence, and three of Ludwig’s four brothers went on to noteworthy careers in mathematics, law, and archeology. Some social theorists and sociologists are familiar with Feuerbach’s writings on religion, but most sociologists know Feuerbach […]

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-84) was a French philosopher whose work has greatly influenced sociologists, particularly in the areas of crime and deviance, gender and sexuality, health and illness, organizational theory, and social welfare. Foucault was born in Poitiers, France. He received his Doctorate’s lettres in 1960 for Folie et de raison: Histoire de la folie a’l’age […]

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1930) pioneering focus on unconscious motives arising from infant experiences offers a distinctive approach to understanding human motives. His focus on how the super-ego internalizes societal demands offered a way of understanding how social norms affect individuals. His approach has had an enduring influence in sociology, shaping important research especially in gender, family, […]

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was leader of the Italian Communist Party and Italy’s leading Marxist theorist. While jailed by fascism (1927-37) he filled 29 notebooks with fragmentary comments on many subjects. Gramsci was provoked by Bukharin’s Historical Materialism: A Popular Textbook of Marxist Sociology (1921), which stated that historical materialism was a sociology, thus departing from […]

Alfred Kinsey

Alfred Kinsey (1892-1956) was not by training a sociologist, but a biologist (specializing in the taxonomy of gall wasps) at Indiana University, Bloomington. Believing there was a need for a course about marriage and sexual behavior, in 1938 he was concerned to find little data on which to base such study. According to one small […]

Marshall McLuhan

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) was born in Edmonton and passed away in Toronto on the cusp of the 1980s. He took his doctorate in English literature at Cambridge. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto from 1946 until his death. McLuhan’s name is associated with the imagined ”Toronto School” of communications that includes Harold Innis […]

Karl Mannheim

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was born in Budapest, Hungary, but developed his academic career in Germany (in Heidelberg and Frankfurt) and England (at the London School of Economics). He was the earliest proponent of the sociology of knowledge, a branch of theory concerned with the influence of social context on our way of perceiving, interpreting, and […]

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), philosopher and social theorist, was a leading member of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and, with Jean-Paul Sartre, inspired 1960s student radicalism. Marcuse formulated a distinctive critical theory of society which combined Hegelian-Marxism with insights drawn from his many masterful studies of modern and twentieth-century philosophy and social theory. Among these […]

Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau’s (1802-76) 25 volumes of short novels illustrating the principles of political economy outsold the works of her contemporary, Charles Dickens; Martineau’s travel chronicles of nineteenth-century American society and its cultural beliefs are comparative historical accounts that have been likened to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; she authored sociology’s first systematic treatment of methodology six […]

George Herbert Mead

Despite being a professor of philosophy, sociologists have come to appreciate George H. Mead’s (1863-1931) ideas far more than philosophers have. Today, he is recognized not only as one of the most important early sociological figures in the USA, but also in the entire world. Mead analyzes three ideas of significance to sociologists: (1) the […]