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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 8, 2001
Latest update: March 11, 2001

On Durkheim and Social Facts

A tentative Definiton of Social Fact

On Thursday, March 8, 2001, Samantha Smith wrote:

Hi! Jeanne, I'm glad you are feeling a little better. I really missed you and class today. Pat, I believe that was her name, [jeanne's comment: No, I suspect that was Marie Butler. ] today was very enlightening. The discussion in class today was on Durkheim's theory of "Social Fact". I had a hard time understanding his meaning on social fact. I'm going to write what I got out of the reading and also from the lecture today.

Social facts are not individual; it's a group of individual roles.

jeanne's comment: I think I see what you're getting at here, Samantha. Social facts are not just simply individual facts that we can point to like facts in statistical studies. Social facts are collections of normative expectations for patterns of behavior that the social group has come to collectively accept, and for which variations carry constraints. In other words, if you show up in tight sequined pants and a sequined tank top for class, you will draw attention to yourself, some people will avoid you, others will have something to say about your choice of clothing and what it means, and you will feel the general constraint to dress more appropriately for school. Some of this in the current school shooting debate would be considered "teasing," calling "not cool," because the normative expectations are violated. Unfortunately, this informal method of enforcing normative constraints through the peer group is often out-of-awareness and rarely controlled for the potential hurt it inflicts upon the one being constrained.

The example we used in class were families and the different types of roles each person had to play to make up a family.

Adults = Parents loving
Youth = Children obedience
respect - parent to child
and child to parent

The main cause of social facts is social currents which means collective manifestation. My understanding was all individual roles only work together when used as a group.

jeanne's comment: Hmmm . . . Let's see. I think that what you were discussing is the concept of normative role expectations. By normative, we mean that through socialization we come to expect certain behaviors as "normal." Whenever someone does something other than what is expected "normally," we respond emotionally (or with affect) to that unusual response. A good example would be someone coming to class in sequined pants and a tank top. There would be an emotional reaction to that, even if no one specifically said anything about it. This "affect" or emotional response carries a lot of other emotions with it. The person dressed "inappropriately" might "feel" the emotional reaction and take it much more negatively than it might have been intended. This is how "affect" enters into many of our interpersonal relations.

Now when you say, "these roles only work as a group," I think you must be referring to the fact that the social facts to which Durkheim refers are really the generalized normative expectations that go with the complex of roles society has come to expect. For example, in the family, it is normatively expected that parents love their children. But many children are abandoned and unloved. The social expectation is normative, but the actual facts may differ. This is where interdependence comes in. The individual and his or her response to both the normative expectation and to the actual facts creates a unique response to the whole situation. Durkheim recognizes that "loving your children" is not a pure choice for the individual. The normative social facts dictate that we should love our children. When we read stories of abandoned infants, we tend to have negative reactions to the parents who did not love their child. That affect is communicated by the media, by general conversation, and we are all constrained thereby to "love our children."

Your class discussion seems to have included the normative expectation of respect for each other also. This would be a good point at which to review Fellman's theory on adversarialism, and the Culture Club article on how we look at violations of normative expectations. See also the comments on the Culture Club. And see What Is A Social Fact?

Jeanne, can you please help me to understand social facts and social currents if this is not the right meaning......
Samantha Smith
jeanne's comment: I think you did understand quite a bit about social facts, Samantha. I hope that some of these comments and the references here will help clarify the meaning for future discussions.

love and peace, jeanne

Durkheims' social facts and the Santee School Shooting

On Sunday, March 11, 2001, Santos Espinoza wrote:

Hello Jeanne, after reading Durkheim's "what is a social fact?" I want to comment from the first paragraph and relate it to the school shootings taking place across our nation. It seems that everyone wants to know what's wrong with these kids' head. What bilogical deficiencies they suffer from. We think the problem always has to do with what's inside a child's head and we never look at the outside, the sociological deficiencies. As Durkheim stated, "sociology or the study of social relations affect human growth and relationships". Psychological or biological problems are not always the cause that lead these kids to shoot their peers, there are also social related problems. It would be beneficial if the so called experts take into account that social relations are key factors for adolescents' healthy development.

On Sunday, March 11, 2001, jeanne responded:

Good point, Santos. The psychological, biological, and social realities are interdependent. And often, we neglect to look at anything but the psychological. I would like all of you to connect this perspective with theory. If you haven't already done so, read the Culture Club, on the different perceptions Chinese and Americans held on a campus shooting. You might also want to check out Henry and Milovanovic's emphasis on interdependence.

love and peace, jeanne