Essay on the Theory of Social Facts

Main Intentions of the “Theory of Social Facts”:

Durkheim was in part a positivist and a believer in applying the methods of physical science to the study of social facts. Durkheimian conception of sociology is based on a theory of social fact. Durkheim’s aim is to demonstrate that there is a science called “sociology” which is an objective science conforming to the model of the other sciences and whose subject is the social fact.

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Meaning of the Concept of “Social Fact”:

1. “A Social fact is a phase of behaviour [thinking, feeling or acting] which is subjective to the observer and which has a coercive nature.

2. Social facts represent “a category of facts” with distinctive characteristics, “consisting of ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion by means of which they control him.

The Two Requirements of Durkheimian Sociology:

According to Raymond Aron, the requirement of Durkheimian sociology is twofold:

(i) The subject of sociology must be specific, it must be distinguished from the subjects of all the other sciences; and

(ii) This subject must be such that it is to be observed and explained in a manner similar to the way in which facts are observed and explained in other sciences.

When we begin to analyse the subject of study of sociology, that is, “social facts” in the light of these two requirements, we will come to know about the two important characteristics of social facts. The twofold requirements mentioned above throw light on the two important characteristics of social facts. ,

Two Main Characteristics of Social Facts:

Durkheim has emphatically stated that social facts must consist of the following two characteris­tics.

(A) Social facts must be regarded as “things”, and

(B) Social facts are “external” and “exercise constraint” on individuals.

(A) Social Facts must be regarded as “Things”:

According to Durkheim, social facts must be treated as “things”, as empirical facts from the outside; we must discover them as we discover physical facts. “Precisely because we have the illusion of knowing social realities, it is important that we realise that they are not immediately known to us.

It is in this sense that Durkheim maintains that we must regard social facts as things because things, he says, are all that is given, all that is offered to – or rather forced upon – our observation.” Durkheim also warns that we have to “get rid ourselves of the preconceptions and prejudices which incapaciate us when we try to know social facts scientifically.”

Social facts are not reducible to individual facts:

Durkheim thus writes: “Social facts are inexplicable in terms of and irreducible to either psychological or physiological analysis.” Distin­guishing between psychological and social facts Durkheim says: “The former are elaborated in the individual consciousness and then tend to externalise themselves; the latter are at first external to the individual, whom they tend to fashion in their image from without.”

Thus, Durkheim’s orientation towards the study of society requires that economic and psychological reductionism be eschewed in the light of the “sui generis” quality of social facts.

(B) Social Facts are External to the Individuals and Exercise a Constraint on Them:

This characteristic feature involves two elements:

(a) social facts are external to the individuals, and

(b) social facts exercise a constraint on them.

(a) Social Facts are External to the Individuals:

Durkheim has emphatically stated that society is a reality “sui generis” above and apart from the individuals. He provides four evidences in defence of this assertion. H.E. Barnes has listed those four evidences and they are mentioned below.

(i) Heterogeneity of individual and collective states of mind:

Durkheim says that there is a difference in the states of mind of an individual and a group. Ex. In times of national danger the intensity of the collective feeling of patriotism is much greater than that of any individual feeling. Further, society’s willingness to sacrifice individuals is much greater than the willingness of individu­als to sacrifice themselves.

(ii) Difference in individual attitudes and behaviour which results from the group situation:

Individual, for example thinks, feels, and acts in a different fashion when in a crowd. This means that a new reality is created by the association of individuals and this reality reacts upon the sentiments and behaviour of the individuals. It can even change them.

(iii) Uniformities of social statistics:

Many types of social facts like crimes, marriages, suicides, etc., show a surprising degree of numerical consistency from year to year. This consistency cannot be explained from personal motives or characteristics. According to Durkheim, this could be explained only in terms of “certain real social currents which form a part of the individual’s environment.

(iv) The fourth evidence is based on analogy and on the philosophical theory of emergence:

Just as the phenomenon of life cannot be explained by the physiochemical properties of the molecules which form the cell, but by a particular association of molecules, so also we must assume that society is not reducible to the properties of individual minds. On the contrary, society constitutes a reality sui generis which emerges out of the interaction of individual minds.

(b) Social Facts Exercise Constraints on the Individuals:

According to Durkheim, social facts have a constraining effect on individuals. Social facts so condition human beings that it makes them behave in a particular manner. Durkheim gives a series of examples such as moral laws, legal rules, penal system and the crowd behaviour in support of this view.


(1) In a crowd situation an individual feels constrained to behave in a particular manner. Laughter, for example, is communicated to all. Such a phenomenon is social because, its basis, its subject is the group as a whole and not the society.

(2) Similarly, fashion is social in nature. Everyone dresses in a certain manner in a given year because everyone else does so. It is not an individual who is the cause of fashion; it is society itself which expresses itself in these ways.

(3) The institutions of education, law, beliefs also have the characteristics of being given to every­one from without and of being imperative for all.

Critical Comments:

(i) According to L.A. Coser, Durkheim’s theory of social facts completely ignores the importance of the individual and places too much premium on society.

(ii) Durkheim’s attempts to analyse and study “social facts as things” is criticised by H.E. Barnes. He says that Durkheim has not made it clear anywhere as to what he means by the term “things” in the context of social facts. The term can mean many things to many people.

(iii) Durkheim recommended indirect experiment that is, the comparative method as the only appropriate method suited to study social phenomena. He made comparative sociology not a branch of sociology, but sociology itself.

(iv) Gabriel Tarde criticises that it is difficult to imagine and appreciate Durkheimian analysis of society bereft of individuals.

In spite of these criticisms, Durkheim’s theory of social facts has its own importance in Durkheimian sociology. “Durkheim’s general interest in social order and social constraint led him directly to a study, not only of affluence and labour, but of suicide and religion. His theory of social fact further inspired him to lay the foundation for the “functional approach.”


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