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Emile Durkheim

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: March 5, 2001

"What Is a Social Fact?"

Review and Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Teaching Theory Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, September 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

This review is based on Readings in Social Theory, edited by James Faraganis, pp. 63-68, Chapter 2. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2000. ISBN 0-07-230060-4. Hardcopy.

  1. "What Is A Social Fact?"
  2. (Hardcopy:op. cit., p. 63 - 68)
    "What Is a Social Fact? Online.
    Online Source: Dead Sociologists Society.

    In Rules of Sociological MethodDurkheim has begun to define the field or discipline of sociology, by recognizing that there are specific approaches and understandings that belong to sociology or the study of social relationships, as different from biology and psychology, which also affect human growth and relationships.

    By a social fact, Durkheim is referring to facts, concepts, expectations that come not from individual responses and perferences, but that come from the social community which socializes each of its members. Although we might embrace the normative community behavior and share its values, we are constrained by its very existence. "When I fulfill my obligations as brother, husband, or citizen, when I execute my contracts, I perform duties which are defined externally to myself and my acts, in law and in custom." (At Farganis, p. 63, col.1.)

    Durkheim describes the constraint as "the public conscience exerciis{ing] a check on every act which offends it by means of the surveillance it exercises over the conduct of its citizens, and the appropriate penalties at its disposal." (At Farganis, p. 63, col. 2.)

    Notice how this language seems to fit with the descriptions we have discussed of dominant discourse. Durkheim brought consideraable understanding to the concept that our agency, in matters of social fact, is severely limited by the structural context in which we find ourselves. He recognized the cost of non-conformance, and the ability of the social group to enforce its normative expectations. There's a good summary of this: "Here, then, is a category of facts [social facts] with very distinctive characteristics: it consists of wqys of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coerccion, by reason of which they control him." [At Farganis, p.64, col.1.]