Emile Durkheim’s “The Rules of Sociological Method” posits the existence of various ‘social facts’ which, according to him, should be the scope of all sociological study and discourse. Durkheim’s discourse defines social facts as, …a category of facts with very distinctive characteristics: it 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. (Durkheim 3)
Thus the three main features of social facts are surfaced; as being external to the individual, emanating from a general and higher level than the individual and that these coerce or force an individual to act in accordance to them for the purpose of control.
These facts, according to Durkheim, must be considered things, which he defines as realities that may be observed and classified. These things are posited to exist on the level of society, completely outside the realm of the individual and are used to control a person’s thoughts, actions and feeling from being otherwise.
Should a person refuse to submit to this coercion, he would find himself the object of negative reactions ranging from ridicule, isolation or even concrete punishment or sanction. The implications of this definition initially cast sociology’s field of study as all-encompassing, referring to all realities and processes of human life and behavior, thus Durkheim seeks to clarify and establish the meaning of the descriptor ‘social’ as opposed to other adjectives such as ‘biological’, psychological’ and ‘philosophical’.
Each individual drinks, sleeps, eats, reasons; and it is society’s interest that these functions be exercised in an orderly manner.
If then, all these facts are counted as “social” facts, sociology would have no subject matter exclusively its own, and its domain would be confused with biology and psychology. (Durkheim 1) As mentioned above, Durkheim perceives the social fact as the scope of sociological study, and uses other fields of study to show what sociology should underscore.
Biological facts and study deal with characteristics of the physical body of a person and are therefore not social, since the need to follow these facts (such as sleeping, eating and breathing) emanate from the physiological needs of an organism to survive. Psychological study deals with thought processes and phenomena that occur within an individual’s consciousness. Durkheim posits that ‘social’ facts emanate not from one person’s consciousness nor from a person’s physiological needs, but from the level of society itself, “…
this term [social] fits them quite well, for it is clear that, since their source is not the individual, their substratum can be no other than society. ” (Durkheim 3) Another implication of his definition is that social facts exist only with the presence of social institutions which enforce them and create them. For Durkheim, it is imperative to clarify that in most cases a social institution exists with the social fact, but it must not be thought that for a social fact to exist, a social institution must be present to have created it.
Rather, the reverse of the causation is in place. Social facts create social institutions which enforce and perpetuate them, but there are also other social facts which do not require the presence of an institution to sanction them. Durkheim defines such deinstitutionalized social facts as ‘social currents’, “They come to each one of us from without and carry us away in spite of ourselves. ” (4) He uses the example of crowd euphoria and feeling to illustrate these. Social facts are further classified into the ‘normal’ and the ‘pathological’.
Durkheim classifies social facts under these two categories in order to illustrate the coercive nature of social facts and how society has been shaped to perpetuate and enforce them. Normal social facts refer to “those which conform to given standards” while pathological social facts refer to “those which ‘ought’ to be different” (Durkheim 47). Normal social facts are those most widely occurring in the society in question and function in such a way that their presence maintains social order and accepted social life.
Durkheim further posited that for a social fact to be considered normal, it would contribute to the health of a society, as mentioned earlier, it maintains accepted social processes, it promotes and is naturally coherent with accepted social norms. The vague nature of this definition and its subjectivity was borne from Durkheim’s goal of trying to contextualize and take into consideration the diversity of social life across different cultures and societies.
This implies the existence of facts that are produced to control people to act in accordance to accepted norms and values, and the existence of facts whose purpose is to illustrate what is a deviation from the previously-mentioned accepted norms and values. The characteristic of social facts that posits a force that coerces people to adhere to them is what required Durkheim to make this categorization. He defined social facts as things, as realities, and thus he would seek to define the normal and the abnormal things and realities that are placed under the domain of what are considered ‘social’.
If social facts exist outside the individual and are imposed upon him, what of the phenomenon that occur which are deviations from the norm, how are these to be explained as sociological when they do not adhere to society? Pathological social facts are therefore things or realities that occur in less cases than the normal social facts to show that these things are what are considered ‘abnormal’ or have some form of ‘morbidity’ that characterizes them as deviations.
Durkheim compared this analogy with physiological studies, which first deal with a healthy, ‘normal’ human body and then would study the ‘abnormalities’ of the body, the possible symptoms and causes of sickness or ‘morbidity’. As the physiologist studies diseases within the human body, so does a sociologist study the pathological or ‘morbid’ phenomenon that occurs outside the individual’s consciousness. Another argument that Durkheim presents in defining the normal social fact is that ‘normal’ phenomena are often present not because of social norms and values but because of logical necessity.
He argues that normal facts differ across species, but these facts are present mostly because the species has to adapt to its environment and are necessary (Durkheim 60) Rejecting other definitions of normal facts, Durkheim posited that normal facts are relative to the specific species in question during a specific time in its evolutional phase. Normal facts are therefore not permanent nor are they universal. He emphasizes this because of his previous statements that because of the normalcy and frequency of these facts they are attributed to be superior in nature.
Durkheim decides what constitutes ‘normal’ social facts by evaluating the causal conditions that govern a certain fact. If, at a certain point in the society’s development, the social fact is acceptable, then the fact is normal. An example would be the practice of a girl asking a boy to engage in a social, romantic relationship with her. In these modern times, this is considered a normal fact because of the rise of female empowerment and liberalism.
However, if this social fact was to be classified during the Renaissance period, it would have been classified as abnormal, because women did not enjoy empowerment or the same power they enjoy today. A social fact’s nature is intrinsic to society’s norms and causal functions that create it at a certain point in time, and not with the wideness of occurrence or moral acceptability. Durkheim takes into account how social facts may change their nature as normal and pathological over time, especially through the process of evolution,
“After having established by observation that a particular fact is general, he will go back to the conditions which determined this generality in the past and will then investigate whether these conditions are still given in the present or if, on contrary they have changed. ” (Durkheim 61) Contention between the two types of social fact and the rough definition that Durkheim posited may be seen in the presence of crime within a society. Crime, at first glance would be characterized as a pathological social fact, as it would feature morbidity and abnormality. This is a common perception that all criminologists would adhere to.
However, crime is posited by Durkheim as a normal social fact. Durkheim showed that crime is present in all societies but in different forms, as normal and pathological facts differ across societies and evolutionary phases (65). He further stated that even in societies where crime rate is high and incidences rampant, a change may occur depending on the future state of the society which will lessen the rate of normalcy of crime (66). Crime for Durkheim is separate and different from criminal behavior and criminal acts, since these are able to be explained on levels other than on the societal.
Thus Durkheim posited that the act of doing a criminal deed is not what is normal, but the presence of crime within society which is normal (67). The presence of deviations from the norm may be seen in all societies, but since the act in itself is brought about by psychological reasons and other factors that may be apparent on the individual level, criminal behavior may be part sociological and part psychological. Crime is posited to be variant and subjective across cultures and societies, and is always present no matter how rigid the norms in a society are.
Crime is defined in a society based on the norms and values it holds in importance. Durkheim’s ‘collective conscience’ that governs society is what is held responsible for defining the criminal act. Again, in an effort to take into account the diversity of societies, Durkheim posits crime as subjective and dependent on social norms, with the level of tolerance of the society in question dictating what is considered crime and what is considered aberrant or curious behavior worthy or mere ridicule and oddity.
Crime is always present in any society no matter how ordered and rigid it is, but with the higher control present in a society, the level of the sophistication of crime and the intricacy and effort used in committing a criminal act increases as well, in relation to the difficulty in crime commission. Statistics may then be inferred by the student to be one concrete manifestation of a social fact because of its nature of describing trends and social phenomenon, but Durkheim posited otherwise.
He posited that statistics is used to represent the ‘collective mind’ which is the sum of the individual cases that adhere to social facts, whether normal or pathological. Statistics is used to isolate these specific trends. Though individual cases no doubt have other mitigating biological and psychological factors for occurring, statistics provides a way to neutralize or eliminate the individualistic factors that may constitute the cases as not within the realm of sociology. Durkheim justifies the normalcy of crime in a given society by citing that there is not society where crime is not present.
Criminal acts are always regarded with negative sentiments in any society (Durkheim 66). However, Durkheim showed that the presence of crime affirms the normal social facts, that it enforces the normal by existing as a source of punishment for its own commission. In a society that has the strictest and most rigid structure of rules and normal fact that must be adhered to at all times, crime is not entirely eliminated but actually more apparent, more frowned-upon and more heavily sanctioned.
Thus, the presence of crime is considered normal and the commission of criminal acts is pathological. With all this said about the social fact, the idea of a ‘social system’ would create some contentions. Social facts are thought to emanate from the societal level through a collective consciousness, where the individual is forced to conform and adhere to. A social system would imply that the relationship between individuals and society would not be so linear and one-sided. A social system would imply that as society exerts a force on the individual, so does an individual upon society.
Durkheim’s ‘collective consciousness’ would then be debunked as an illusion which is perpetuated in society. A systems framework for sociological study would then take into consideration the effect of individuals in society as social institutions and structures that are composed of individuals. Durkheim’s theory on social fact would then be debunked as emanating from an illusion and would lose its objectivity and its characteristic of being grounded on reality.
Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press, 1938.
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