Durkheim/Social Facts

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Stacey Seddon

10 January 2011

Social Theory (SOCI 101)

Module Coordinator: Paul Jones

Essay Question: Why is the concept of social facts so significant for Durkheim’s work? Illustrate your answer with reference to at least one of his studies.

This essay will look at social facts and the significance of them to Durkheim’s work, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) a French sociologist wrote a series of controversial monographs, showing the methods and subject matter of the new science of sociology. Some of his major works include The Division of Labour in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) and Suicide (1897), this essay will take a closer look at Durkheim’s work on Suicide, and his concept of social facts being so significant in his studies.

For Durkheim the science of sociology was to be characterized by observation not abstract theory, he was interested in the study of social facts rather than psychological facts, providing both causal and functional explanations. The principles he applied can be found in his work Suicide (1897), here Durkheim demonstrates how such a personal act is ultimately determined by society, the suicide rate is therefore a social fact (Marshall, 1998). Social facts for Durkheim are as important as other sciences deal with natural facts, he was to approach this in the same way other sciences deal with natural facts, in that they are external and constraining, facts are external to our thoughts and constrain the course of human behaviour, even though we may not be fully aware of their doing so (Hughes, et.al. 1995). We as human beings may not particularly feel constrained in our everyday lives; Durkheim argues that despite this, such feelings are sometimes illusory, “we do not feel constrained insofar as what we do coincides with what we are standardly required to do”( Hughes, et.al.1995. pg,161)

Durkheim is saying that; in society we all as participants may not be fully aware of the rules and regulations that are being imposed on us, individuals go about their everyday lives, unconscious to the constraints being placed upon them, it is only when we do something out of what is seen as the “norm” we may face hostility or even harsher treatment. We are all faced with standard obligations, ones which are the products of our collective lives, we did not invent them, but arose out of the patterns of our individual relations, although we encounter these obligations individually, they apply to anyone occupying the relevant social position, we may not feel constrained, but will become aware of them if we try to defy them (Hughes, et.al. 1995).

Social facts are to be considered as “things” they are not physical but mental facts, they are facts of our collective life. We as individuals may be aware of the standard obligations which apply to us, take for example being a member of a family, we are all aware of what we are supposed to do, but looking at how the family has grown up as a part of social organisation, and the different ways it evolves over time, the impacts it has on society as a whole, without sociological research we would remain ignorant of these matters, the same way we are ignorant as to why we as individuals do the things we do (Hughes, et.al. 1995). Sociology for Durkheim was the scientific study of a reality sui generis; a defined group of phenomena, Durkheim reserved the term social facts, i.e. “a category of facts which present very special characteristics, they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him” [www.durkheim.uchicago.edu.com.10/01/2011]. These facts could not be confused with biological phenomena or the province of psychology; they existed outside the individual conscience. It was to define the proper method for their study that Durkheim wrote The Rules of Sociological Method...
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