Monday, October 9, 2017

Emile Durkheim: “What is a Social Fact?” - notes

1.      What are social facts?  Can’t be everything that is generally present throughout society because then there’d be no special object for sociological study – we’d study the same as everyone else.
2.       There IS a separate category of phenomena that can be distinguished from those studied by other sciences
acting like a brother, husband, citizen
fulfilling contracts
using currency
external to the individual
ready-made at birth
function independently of my own use of them (e.g., I can’t change language)
coercive power
3.       “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” (44a.6)
NOT biological.  Representations & actions. 
4.       What is the society of the social?  Whole thing, groups, religious denominations.  Almost anything one can be a member of or be “one of.”
This idea will probably bother hardcore individualists but it is generally accepted that “most of our ideas and tendencies” come from without (44b.3).
5.       Another type of social fact : social currents
Not so much associated with social organization but still “objective,” “external,” and “coercive.”
Group and crowd phenomena.
different experience from if we did it ourselves
feels funny afterwards – was that ours?
and this stuff is just like when we get together to “do” public opinion, politics, art, literature
6.       Socialization
“all education is a continuous effort to impose on the child ways of seeing, feeling, and acting which he could not have arrived at spontaneously” (45a.6)
“the very pressure of the social milieu which tends to fashion him in its own image” (45b4)
7.       Universality is not the criteria.  But collective aspects are.

Crystalization – The Continuum of Social Facts
8.       Some social facts get crystallized out in the form of aphorisms, moral rules, laws, etc. (cf. to “social constructions” “institutions”). 
9.       Other social facts don’t quite have this concreteness but methodogical tricks can help us to separate them out.  D calls these “social currents” and lists the collective sentiments that are behind things like changes in a marriage or suicide rate.  Using statistics we can ascertain that there must be something “out there” behind the numbers.
10.    Can we say that things are only social if they are general (nearly universal)?  Well, sort of (46b.5).  But these things are general because they are collective not vice versa.
11.    “but it is general because it is collective (that is, more or less obligatory), and certainly not collective because general” (46b5)
12.    The stuff we learn from socialization has a special authority because it is collective and ancient.
13.    “If all hearts beat in unison…because an identical force propels them…Each is carried along by all” (46b9).

So, in sum

14.    social fact is external to individual and has coercive power that can be seen via sanctions and resistance
15.    there are also others defined by wide diffusion and whose “existence is independent of the individual forms it assumes in its diffusion” (47a3)  (Generality + Externality)
16.    Another category is “ways of existing” – where the roads go, the channels of communication, the ways people build houses, the fashions that are available.  But he says, these really are just ways of acting.
17.    Social facts are distributed along a continuum ranging from extremely concrete structures to amorphous public opinion (47b8).


“A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations” (What is a Social Fact?, 48a.3).

Read more about Emile Durkheim