Sunday, April 13, 2014

Emile Durkheim / What is a Social Fact? – summary and review

Emile Durkheim's ground breaking article "What is a Social Fact?" is one of the better known articulations of the "building blocks" of functionalist and structuralist sociology. Durkheim defines social facts as predominantly "things", that is real agents, that should be at the focal point of the study of society. For Durkheim social facts are everything of social or cultural nature which work to determine an individual's life. Social facts can be social norms, values, conventions, rules and other social structures.

Social facts according to Durkheim exist outside and regardless of the individual which only works to sustain them by yielding to their power on him (similar to Durkheim's Totemic Principle). This means that social facts are external to us, and they are acquired through society of coerced by it. Deviation from social facts can result in various types of sanctions. They function as "sui generis" generals, meaning ideas that are independent of their actual private cases.

At the basis of the thesis Durkheim set forth in "What is a Social Fact?" lies the perception of the individual grossly conditioned by social realities that form the boundaries of accepted behavior.

Social facts are quite simply the things that you like brushing your teeth, voting, shopping, going to church, paying taxes, yielding to pedestrians and so on and so forth. None of these things are done on your account, they are done because they are social facts that must be abided and therefore have real power over you. The way we manage our lives according to Durkheim is "What is a Social Fact?" is always related to the workings of elaborate networks of social facts.

Durkheim gives the example of suicide rates, found to be higher with protestant communities compares with catholic ones. The fact that denomination had to do with suicide was proof for Durkheim to the function of social facts because it demonstrated how even taking your own life dependant on society rather than individual choice.   

Additional article summaries by Emile Durkheim:

Anomie according to Durkheim 

Suggested reading on and by Durkheim: