An early pioneering sociologist in the 1800s was Harriet Martineau. According to the textbook (Schaefer, 2017), part of her contribution to the field came from translating the works of sociologist Auguste Comte from French to English. However, she also contributed her own insights. She was one of the first to develop sociological methods. She provided insight into the social customs of both the United States and Britain. She wrote about a wide-ranging variety of topics including religion, politics, immigration, children, social class, gender, race, economics, law, trade, and health. She was an important activist at the time, fighting for religious tolerance, women’s employment and other rights, and the emancipation of slaves.
An important early 20th century sociologist was Jane Addams, who became famous for founding Hull House in Chicago. According to the textbook, there were similarities between Harriet Martineau and Jane Addams. Jane Addams also advocated that sociologists should not just observe, but reform society. She combined research in sociology, social work, and political activism, with the goal to create a more equal society. She fought for integration in public schools, a juvenile court system in which children could be treated more leniently than adults, and formation of a women’s trade union, again demonstrating concern for the conditions of women’s employment.
The contributions of both women are relevant in the modern world. Sociological methods have been expanded upon and improved upon since the time of Harriet Martineau, but she provided the basic foundation. Topics relevant to sociology continue to include politics, law, religion, women, children, and racial issues; and modern society continues to need to decrease inequality and expand opportunities for all. Many of these same issues have either never been entirely resolved, or have returned to relevance after apparent resolution. It may be unfortunate that later sociologists decided to divorce sociological science from social activism. Although the provision of objective opinions supported by evidence provides a patina of science to sociological studies, there then needs to be translation of sociological research into information in a form usable by social activists. This may be more difficult if the academic researcher is separated from social problems in the field. Social activism can inform sociology and vice versa, so if they are not performed by the same people, then there needs to be close communication between them.
In Edmund S. Morgan’s “Columbus’ Confusion About the New World,” Morgan discusses Columbus’ discoveries of the New World, and how it ultimately lead to a civilization’s downfall. Though Columbus brought along his weapons of Christianity and civilization, two items he viewed as gifts for the natives, his actions and gifts presented more harm than good to the natives, ultimately destroying their culture and ways of life, and thus revealing the greed of modern civilization.
The New World presented a plethora of discoveries to be made for Columbus and his crew. Tempted by the promise of gold, silver, jewels and spices of the Indies, Columbus hoped to bring back these treasures to Spain. Under a commission from the king and queen of Spain, Columbus set out, bringing his weapons of Christianity and civilization to acquire the supposedly plentiful gold and spices.
And so Columbus traveled to the New World to civilize the barbarians. Those who did not conform to civilization or refused to accept Christianity were transformed into slaves: a device of civilization. He found the Canary Islands and encountered the naked barbarians, wearing gold nose plugs. To Columbus, he had found the Indies and people that he believed he could easily gain control of. Columbus took advantage of the Arawak people’s gentleness and innocence, and also set about capturing the Caribs and sending them to slavery in Spain. For the Arawaks, however, he took advantage of their generosity, demanding their gold. The greed of Columbus consumed he and his men, as they soon found out there were only finite amounts of the gold, and established a system of forced labor and exploitation.
Ultimately, the Spaniard’s process of “civilization” came at a hefty price for the natives. It is estimated that their numbers dwindled from 100,000 to only a couple of hundred in mere years. They were tortured, burned, fed to the dogs, and some even committed suicide. Though a sad story in itself, the author’s purpose in sharing this story is to illustrate the fact that, though we feel sadness for the gentle Arawak people, it can be argued that, had they lived today, we would have treated them the same way in our quest for modernity.
What happened to the Arawak people, the people of the golden age, continues to happen today. Though we believe that we, as modern, empathetic humans, would have let the peaceful Arawaks be, modern society would have not allowed it, particularly with the temptations of gold and wealth that they promised. Ironically, Columbus sought to bring Christianity to the Arawak people, who had no knowledge of such things. And yet, they practiced an even more wholesome, pure, and monastic way of life than the supposed civilized Christians practiced in their brutal processes of civilization.
Such ways of life provoke us today, still. We question those who are innocent, even accuse them of having ulterior motives. The reality is, however, that without the influence of Christianity or civilization, they had already achieved what is seen as an outcome of Christianity. Columbus’ intrusion towards these people represents the false sense of superiority that we, as modern, civilized people, possess. All too often, greed rears its ugly head in many, not so noticeable ways. We attempt to convert those who do not fall under the category of ‘normal,’ we question what we think is ‘wrong,’ and we are offended by those who are innocent. The story of Columbus and his men is not isolated to this time period, but extends all throughout history, albeit in different forms.
In summary, Columbus and his men sought to civilize the people of the New World and convert them to Christianity. However, the people they encountered, ironically enough, had achieved more monastic and pure virtues without Christianity, than those who attempted to civilize them. Such is the case throughout history, as man’s greed is the impetus behind modern civilization.
- Schaefer, R.T. (2017). Sociology: A Brief Introduction (12th ed.). New York NY: McGraw-Hill.