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Durkheim & Social Facts

Emile Durkheim is widely considered the founder of modern sociology and remains one of sociology's most influential thinkers. Durkheim's methodology set the foundation for modern methodological approaches and his concept of "social facts" has enjoyed a new popularity in academia in its latest incarnation as culture. This article traces the intellectual influence of Montesquieu, Comte, and Spencer on Durkheim's development of social facts and outlines Durkheim's definition of social facts from "The Rules of the Sociological Method." The article then examines how Durkheim applied his own concepts of sociological method and social facts in his studies of division of labor and suicide. Finally, the article gives a brief overview of criticisms of Durkheim and Durkheim's lasting influence.



Sociological Theory > Durkheim & Social Facts



French social theorist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is broadly regarded as one of the founders of modern sociology. Durkheim's work focused on establishing sociology on a firm foundation of scientific methodology and the incorporation of this new social science into academia (Pickering, 1999). Durkheim, a son of a rabbi, was born in French province of Lorraine. He attended the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and studied philosophy despite his desire to pursue a social science. Unable to receive an appointment in Paris, he moved to Germany for a year to continue his studies until he received an appointment at University of Bordeaux. There Durkheim established the first European department of sociology, founded and edited the first sociological journal, and authored many of most influential early studies in sociology. At the heart of Durkheim's work was the desire to establish a scientific methodology that could objectively observe and analyze the social instead of the individual. In order to do this, it was necessary to have social things that were separate and distinguishable from individuals. To this end, Durkheim crafted the concept of "social facts." A social fact is a social practice, rule, duty, or sanction that exists outside of the individual. Durkheim believed the study of social facts could uncover universal social laws. These laws could then be used to judge a society's well-being (Morrison, 2006). What Durkheim did was give sociologists a field of things to study that he thought essential to separating sociology from the disciplines of psychology and biology (Schmidt, 1995). With social facts as subject matter to observe and analyze, sociology as social science was positioned to become an established discipline in academia and an instrument to uncovering the ills of society.

Montesquieu & Social Phenomena

Durkheim identified Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755) as the intellectual who foreshadowed the unity of social science. It was Montesquieu, in Durkheim's opinion, who identified the relationships between social phenomena. Social phenomena, such as religion, law, morality, trade, and administration, seem to differ in nature but are in fact interrelated and elements of a whole. It was Durkheim's belief that these phenomena existed separately from the individual and could only be understood in reference to each other. Durkheim changed Montesquieu's term to social facts and reiterated his position concisely that social facts can only be understood through other social facts. Durkheim wrote that though Montesquieu did not pursue the conclusion to these principles, he did pave the way for his successors in instituting sociology (Durkheim, 1960).

Comte & Positivism

Durkheim was greatly influenced by the work of Auguste Comte (1798-1857). It was Comte's project to set sociology (a term Comte coined) on the firm foundation of mathematical certainty and a positive scientific methodology (positivism). By doing this, Comte hoped to establish sociology as an academic discipline. Positivism is a system Comte developed to understand society. Comte believed that society evolved through three stages: theological, metaphysical, and positive. The positive stage is characterized by individuals who gather knowledge through observation and affirm this observation through the positive (scientific) method. Comte believed this process would allow individuals to identify problems in the world and thus govern themselves (Comte, 1988). Though Comte's influence would be significant, he was unable to establish sociology in academia. In at least two areas Durkheim's work can be seen as a continuation of Comte's project. First, Durkheim outlined some of the fundamental ideas of a social science and its methodological approach. Second, it was Durkheim who successfully introduced sociology into academia.

Though Durkheim is greatly influenced by Comte's positivism and Durkheim's social facts have become a defining attribute of positivism, Durkheim understood the limitations of the positivist approach. According to Miller (1996), Durkheim believed scientific method "under the guise of positivism" only spreads "mystery everywhere." For Durkheim, a philosophical understanding of the nature of society was essential. Scientific method without theory only clouded knowledge. The work of social science is to use scientific method to reveal the underlying laws of society (Miller, 1996). Understanding--and ultimately, knowledge--does not arise from observation and scientific method, but rather from the underlying laws in the world. Though Durkheim did not directly address the matter beyond this point, it can be assumed that an understanding of underlying laws remained the terrain of a philosophical approach.

Spencer & Progress

Comte's immediate successor was Herbert Spencer (18201903). Spencer adapted the ideas of Darwin and suggested a social order based on an evolutionary progress and survival of the fittest (Francis, 2007). Durkheim believed that Spencer was less interested in social facts and more focused on a philosophical approach that verified his evolutionary take on the social realm. Durkheim was careful in taking exception to Spenser's approach. If scientific evolution determined politics, economics, aesthetic, and morals, then sociological explanation could too easily stray from observation and analysis and slip into ideology. Additionally, Spencer explained the formation of a society through its utilitarian relationships. Institutions created society through a cooperative utility that best reconciled interests and brought about greater happiness. For Spencer, progress and utility were inseparable. Durkheim thought Spencer had explained the utility of social things but failed to address the origin (Durkheim, 1982). Yet there was something to Spenser's philosophical approach. The progressive evolution of human society could be seen in the knowledge that survives each generation and joins that of the generation that follows. The social things that this progress left for the following generation appeared to be very similar to Durkheim's social facts. Additionally, Durkheim believed Spencer linked societies to the universe and the obscure forces that lay beneath the surface of the conscience collective. Durkheim was so enamored with Spencer's description of social evolution that he called progress the social fact par excellence (Durkheim, 1903).

Durkheim's Social Facts

Social facts are primarily social practices, rules, institutions, or sanctions. In The Rules of the Sociological Method (1982), Durkheim defines social facts in great detail. Social facts are:

* Different from psychological and biological facts;

* A law or custom external to the individual;

* Deontological in that they require and obligation or duty;

* Coercive;

* Of varying levels;

* General;

* Isolated using statistics;

* Parts of a whole.

Social facts are not psychological or biological facts. They exist separate from the individual. In society, every individual eats, drinks, sleeps, and reasons, and society has an interest in these functions that occur regularly. However, these functions are individual and biological, not social. If they were social, there would be no need for a separate discipline called sociology since psychology and biology could provide all explanations required. The individual body belongs to the domain of biology. The individual mind belongs to the domain of psychology. Social facts exist beyond both of these domains and cannot be explained by biology or psychology. This was an important issue to Durkheim, who was driven to complete Comte's project and establish sociology as its own academic discipline.

Social facts are laws and customs that are external to and precede the individual. They include how we are raised, educated, employed, and buried. They are linked together in the manner Montesquieu delineated and inherited from generations that came before the individual in the respect Spencer outlined. Social facts are not only prior to individuals, but individuals are born into them and enact them (McCormack, 1996). Durkheim leaves little room for individuals creating social facts,...

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