10 Influential Sociologists of the 20th Century


Sociology–the scientific study of human social behavior–is a relatively new discipline. The first social survey–that is, the collection of responses from individuals–can be traced back to the 11th century, but sociology didn’t rise to the auspices of “science” until the end of the 19th century. It flourished in the 20th century, and hundreds of sociologists have done research and published articles, books, and studies that have furthered the human race’s understanding of our own social interactions, organizations, and development–including issues of social class, culture, religion, and gender. Here are 10 influential sociologists of the 20th century, listed in birth order:

#1: Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)

The first professor of sociology in France, Emile Durkheim is known as one of the three “fathers of sociology,” and he is credited with helping sociology be seen as actual science–which we think makes him pretty influential. He first made a splash with 1893’s “The Division of Labor in Society,” which refuted Karl Marx’s critique of industrialization. [Karl Marx is also one of the three founding fathers of sociology, but since he was born and died in the 19th century, he didn’t make this list.] Durkheim’s seminal work was introduced in his 1895 publication, “Suicide,” which pioneered the separation of social science from psychology (hence the acceptance of sociology as “legitimate science”). The work presented his research on the connection between social integration and suicide rates; in short, he theorized that individuals with low social interaction are more likely to commit suicide.

#2: Max Weber (1862-1920)

Along with Durkheim and Marx, Max Weber is cited as the third founding architect of sociology. Weber’s primary battle cry was the role of religion–not economics, a theory endorsed by Marx–as the catalyst of social change. His understanding of peoples’ actions emphasized the meaning or purpose behind them, and he’s famous for his theory of “Protestant Ethic,” which states that the cultural influences of the Protestant religion brought about the rise of capitalism. After the First World War, he was one of the founders of the liberal German Democratic Party.

#3: Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962)

C. Wright Mills is perhaps most famous for coining the phrase “power elite,” a term he used to describe the people who ran a government or organization because of their wealth and social status. This theory is usually seen as opposed to the goals of democracy, which aim for the government to be directed by the will of the masses–that is, of the entirety of the population, not just those with the money and power to achieve the political ends that benefit themselves first and foremost. Mills’ work focused on these alliances between the elites as well as the political engagement of intellectuals in the post-World War II society.

#4: Daniel Bell (1919-2011)

Daniel Bell is the primary thought leader in the field of post-industrialism, a concept that defines a society that has developed to a point where the service sector generates more wealth than the manufacturing sector. In such a society, the economy refocuses on providing services (like legal, science, IT, business, etc.) instead of goods; knowledge becomes a form of capital; the production of new ideas becomes the primary way to grow the economy (instead of increasing the amount of goods produced by increasing manual labor); and society becomes more capable of supporting a thriving creative culture thanks to nuanced changes in education. Bell popularized the concept in his 1973 book, “The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society.”

#5: Erving Goffman (1922-1982)

Named by fellow sociologists as one of the most influential of the 20th century, Erving Goffman developed the theory of dramaturgy, which addresses the social construction of self. He believed that we are all actors playing our respective roles in everyday life, as outlined in his seminal 1959 book, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Goffman theorized that our concept of self is dependent on time, place, and audience–in other words, we work to fit ourselves to cultural norms and values in order to gain acceptance. His work on the concepts of stigma, spoiled identity, and impression management are also cited often.

#6: Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Named by Times Higher Education as the most cited humanities author in 2007, Michel Foucault is known for his work in philosophy and criticism as well as sociology. Foucault is sometimes listed primarily as a philosopher, rather than a sociologist, but his contributions to the theory around the relationship of power and knowledge place him squarely in the “influential sociologists” category. He popularized the idea that institutions can use a combination of power and knowledge as a form of social control; for example, in the 18th century, unsavory members of society–the poor, sick, homeless, disagreeable–were described as “mad” and stigmatized. In this way, the powerful succeeded in defining knowledge.

#7: Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929)

A prominent German figure and an internationally respected intellectual, Jurgen Habermas has focused his work on the areas of critical theory and pragmatism. His theory of communicative rationality states that successful communication inherently leads to human rationality. It follows that if we come together in the public sphere and identify how people understand or misunderstand each other, we can reduce social conflict.

#8: Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

Building on the work of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and others, Pierre Bourdieu established what he called the “cultural deprivation theory,” which states that people tend to think higher class cultures are better than lower class cultures. As a result, members of the higher classes believe that members of the lower classes are to blame for their childrens’ shortcomings in learning and advancement. It follows that the higher classes’ assumptions of superiority are self-propelling prophecies; to declare oneself better is an act of social positioning, not necessarily truth. The ruling classes, Bourdieu said, have the power to impose meaning, to instate their own cultural choices as “correct,” to declare their culture as worthy of being sought. But he cautioned that people should not assume higher classes are necessarily better; Bourdieu blamed the education system, not the values of the working class, for the gaps in the academic achievements of children (a theory that has gained traction, even after Bourdieu’s death). His most famous work is 1979’s “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.”

#9: Anthony Giddens (b. 1938)

Anthony Giddens is a prominent thinker in the field of sociology, having published at least 34 books since 1971. His contributions to sociology as a discipline have been threefold: In the ‘70s, he helped redefine the field itself through a reinterpretation of classic works on society. In the ‘80s, Giddens developed his theory of structuration–one of his biggest contributions to date and a pillar of modern sociological theory. The theory addresses a long-standing debate in social science over whether structure (recurring patterns) or agency (free choice) is the primary shaper of human behavior; Giddens theorizes that neither is prime, but that they work in conjunction and must be studied as such. Third, in the ‘90s Giddens began publishing work on his theories of modernity (the historical period marked by the move from feudalism toward capitalism and industrialization) and its relationship to globalization and politics; he suggests a Third Way that reconciles the policies of the political left and the political right in order to form a system of ethical socialism–a balance of capitalism and socialism.

#10: Gary Alan Fine (b. 1950)

An admirer of Erving Goffman and a truly contemporary sociologist himself, Gary Alan Fine has made a number of contributions to the discipline in the area of social culture. His ethnographies have touched on topics of visual artists, high school debaters, restaurant establishment culture, and fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons–all expressive cultural outlets shaped by our social system. Fine’s work focuses on how these groups give meaning to our shared experience. In addition, his work on collective experience and memory has helped clarify how reputations, rumors, and urban legends operate within our society. He’s published eight books in the past 20 years, including 2012’s “Tiny Publics: A Theory of Group Culture and Action.”

Online Sociology Degrees and Programs

Ashford University BA in Sociology Ashford University › Ashford U is accredited by WASC Senior College and University Commission, 985 Atlantic Ave, Ste 100, Alameda, California 94501, (510) 748-9001, wascsenior.org. Ashford University is a popular choice among students seeking to obtain their degree through distance learning. Ashford has several programs in sociology available, including the Social Science and Applied Behavioral bachelor of arts programs.
Click to Request More Information
Grand Canyon University MS in Sociology - Education Grand Canyon University › Grand Canyon University is a private, Christian school that is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. It has a main campus in Phoenix, Arizona and an online division as well as with programs like the BS in Sociology and MS in General Psychology offered. These programs can help you quickly launch your career.
Click to Request More Information
Saint Leo University BA in Sociology Saint Leo University › Saint Leo University has accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Saint Leo has had over 100 years of operation to craft excellent academic programs and apply this to their eCampus with programs like a BA in Sociology.
Click to Request More Information
Loyola University Chicago MA in Sociology PhD in Sociology Loyola University Chicago › "The general M.A. program in Sociology is designed to equip students with a broad foundation in general sociology and a particular focus in a more specialized field of relevance to the student’s career interests in teaching, research, governmental work, or public service. The Ph.D. program in Sociology is designed to produce independent scholars able to research, teach or serve in a variety of settings."
Click to Request More Information

See all schools that offer Sociology degrees...

Find a Sociology Program