Emile Durkheim- Concept of Social Fact

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A. (Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D.

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

Society is not a mere sum of individuals. Rather, the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics… The group thinks, feels, and acts quite differently from the way in which its members would were they isolated. If, then, we begin with the individual, we shall be able to understand nothing of what takes place in the group.

— Émile Durkheim,The Rules of Sociological Method (1895),

Durkheim attempted to differentiate sociology from philosophy and psychology.Sociology is empirical (unlike philosophy) Sociology deals with “social facts” (unlike psychology)

Emile Durkheim’s ground breaking article “What is Social Fact?” is one of the better known articulations of the “building blocks” of functionalist and structuralist sociology. The concept of “social facts” assumes importance in Durkheimian sociology. In fact, Durkheim has even defined sociology as a science of social facts. Social facts and events constitute the fundamental bases of his sociology thought.

Durkheim’s views about social facts are extensively dealt with in his second major

treatise namely, “The Rules of Sociological Method”. The subject matter for sociology, is the existence of what Durkheim calls social facts. A social fact, as defined in Rules, is “a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” The overall agenda for Durkheim is to explain the process by which individuals socially integrate into society, as well as to provide a model for understanding the relationship between people and their respective societies. Most basically, Durkheim develops a framework for analyzing the construction and constitution of social life.

According to Durkheim, social facts have an objective reality that sociologists can study in a way similar to how other scientists, such as physicists, study the physical world. An important corollary to the above definition is that social facts are also internal to individuals, and it is only through individuals that social facts are able to exist. In this sense, externality means interior to individuals other than the individual subject.

Meaning and Definition of the concept of “Social Fact”:

By a social fact, Durkheim is referring to facts, concepts, expectations that come not from individual responses and preferences, but that come from the social community which socializes each of its members.

Social fact is a term created by Emile Durkheim to indicate social patterns that are external to individuals. Things such as customs and social values exist outside individuals, whereas psychological drives and motivation exist inside individuals. Social facts, therefore, are not to be explained by biology or psychology, but instead by society.

According to Durkheim, Social facts consists of ‘ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him’

1. “A Social fact is a phase of behaviour which is subjective to the observer and which has a coercive nature.”

2. “A category of facts consisting of ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion by means of which they control him.”

Purpose of the “Theory of Social Facts”:

Durkheim was  a positivist and a believer in applying the methods of physical sciences to the study of social facts. His conception of sociology is based on a theory of social fact and his  aim is to demonstrate that there is a science called “sociology” which is an objective science verifying to the model of the other sciences and whose subject is the social fact

Characteristics of Social facts

Durkheim has emphatically stated that social facts must consist of the following characteristics.

Social facts must be regarded as “things”: Social facts must be treated as “things”, as empirical facts from the outside, they be must discovered as one discover physical facts. “Precisely because we have the illusion of knowing social realities, it is important that we realize that they are not immediately known to us. It is in this sense that Durkheim maintains that we must regard social facts as thing because things, he says, are all that is given, all that is offered to – or rather forced upon- our observation.”

Social facts are not reducible to individual facts: “Social facts are inexplicable in terms of and irreducible to either psychological or physiological analysis.” Distinguishing between psychological and social facts Durkheim says: “The former are elaborated in the individual consciousness and

then tend to externalize themselves; the latter are at first external to the individual, whom they tend to fashion in their image from without”. Thus, Durkheim’s orientation towards the study of society requires that economic and psychological reductionism be eschewed in the light of the “sui generis” quality of social facts.

Social Facts are External to the Individuals and Exercise a Constraint on them.

Durkheim has emphatically stated that society is a reality “sui generis” above and apart from the individuals.

Classes of social facts:

Every science is based on classification, and typology. Durkheim observes that a scientific method of classification must, above all, ‘facilitate scientific work by substituting as limited number of types for the indefinite multiplicity of individuals’ The basis of Durkheim’s classification is ‘simplicity’ by which he means ‘a complete absence of parts’.

In Rules, Durkheim gave two different classes of social facts

Social facts of a physiological, or operative, order.

This set of social facts includes a society’s legal code, religious beliefs, concept of beauty, monetary system, ways of dressing, or its language. In these cases it is easy to see how society imposes itself onto the individual from the outside. It also contains currents of opinion, or social phenomena that express themselves through individual cases. These phenomena can be studied with the use of statistics, which accumulate individual cases into an aggregate and express a certain state of the collective mind.

Social facts is of a morphological, or structural, order.

It is often concerned with the demographic and material conditions of life and includes the number, nature, and relation of the composing parts of a society, their geographical distribution, the extent and nature of their channels of communication, the shape and style of their buildings, and so forth.

In the end, Durkheim dismisses the distinction altogether, claiming that the second class of social facts are simply more crystallized forms of the first class of social facts, making the term ‘social fact’ a very flexible concept that comprises basically any and all social phenomena.

Durkheim arrives at this conclusion by studying clans, which are social aggregates which cannot be reduced to a narrower one. Durkheim proposed to classify societies according to the degree of organization they present taking as a basis the perfectly simple society.

Social facts are external and coercive:

External consists of ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him.”

Coercion may not be felt unless social facts are resisted. Successful socialization may lead to a lack of perceived coercion because social facts are internalized.

Social facts may be material or nonmaterial:

Material: technology, housing arrangements, population distribution, etc.

Nonmaterial: norms, values, roles (ways of acting, thinking and feeling), systems (language, currency, professional practices)

Rules for Observing Social Facts

Consider social facts as things. Before having any scientific idea about any social phenomena, one must develop commonsensical notions about these phenomena. This is because reflection comes before science. It is very difficult to discard these notions, because social things are actualized only through men. They are a product of human activity. Yet, one must separate social phenomena from the conscious things which they represent. Only then will scientific objectivity be possible.

All preconceptions must be systematically avoided . But this rule is entirely negative. It does not teach the sociologist to avoid the dominance of popular notions and to turn his attention towards facts. For this reason, Durkheim advocates a formal definition of a social fact based on certain external characteristics. All phenomena, which fit into this definition, must be included.

Set of rules for studying social facts.

The first rule is to treat social facts as things. What Durkheim means by this is that social facts have an existence independent of the knowing subject and that they impose themselves on the observer. Social facts can be recognized by the sign that they resist the action of individual will upon them; as products of the collectivists, changing social facts require laborious effort.

Another rule for studying social facts is that the sociologist must clearly delimit and define the group of phenomena being researched. This structures the research and provides the object of study a condition of verifiability. The sociologist must also strive to be as objective towards the facts they are working on as possible and remove any subjective bias or attachment to what they are investigating. Sociologist must systematically discard any and all preconceptions and closely examine the facts.

Durkheim applied these rules to empirical evidence he drew primarily from statistics, ethnography, and history. Durkheim treated this data in a rational way, which is to say that he applied the law of causality to it. At this, Durkheim introduced an important rationalist component to his sociological method, namely the idea that by using his rules, which work to eliminate subjective bias, human behaviour can be explained through observable cause and effect relationships. Accordingly, he used a comparative-historical approach, to eliminate extraneous causes and find commonalities between different societies and their social facts. In so doing, he strove to find universally applicable general laws.

Evaluation of the Theory of Emile Durkheim:

Durkheim says that there is a difference in the states of mind of an individual and a group. Difference in individual attitudes and behaviour which results from the group situation. This means that a new reality is created by the association of individuals and this reality reacts upon the sentiments and behaviour of the individual.

Many types of social facts show a surprising degree of numerical consistency from year to year. This consistency cannot be explained from personal motives.

Social facts have constraining effect on individual. Social facts so condition human beings that it makes them behave in a particular manner. In a crowd situation an individual feels constrained to behave in a particular manner. Social facts are belief systems, customs and institutions. They are chosen by individuals and cannot be changed at will. A social fact continues to exist because it is useful to society.

Theory of Social Facts completely ignores the importance of the individual and places too much premium on society. It gives the perception of the individual grossly conditioned by social realities that form the boundaries of accepted behaviour.

Durkheim’s attempts to analyse and study “Social facts as things” but Durkheim has not made it clear anywhere as to what he means by the term “things” in the context of social facts. The term has a vague connotation. It could mean a lot many other things to other people, doubting the validity of the theory.



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