Social Fact


 


Social Fact


In Durkheim’s sociology, a social fact is a social phenomenon that has a coercive effect upon the individual. Thus, although, social facts may originally be the product of human action, they have developed an autonomy from their creators (i.e. human beings) to confront humans as something external  to them. They have an objectivity close to that of natural objects and physical laws. For Durkheim (1895) the goal sociology is the study of social facts. Durkheimian sociology considers social fact both as an object and approach of studying society.   

Therefore, social fact may be defined as any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint.

Background:


The concept of social fact has intricate connection with Auguste Comte’s ‘positive philosophy.’ For him there is a hierarchy of sciences (see the figure).



 He was confident enough to argue that scientific knowledge of society is possible. It could be accumulated and used to improve the human existence so that society could be run rationally without religion or superstition getting in the way of progress.

For Durkheim the scientific study will be the study of social facts. His celebrated work on Suicide (1890) exemplifies the positivistic approach in studying society.

As positivist Comte believed that the scientific study of society should be confined to collecting information about phenomena that can be objectively observed and classified. Comte argued that sociologists should not be concerned with the internal meanings, motives, feeling and emotions of individuals. Since these mental states exist only in the person’s consciousness, they cannot be observed and so they cannot be measured in any objective way.

Durkheim agreed that sociologies should confine themselves to studying social facts. He argued ‘the first and most fundamental ruls is “consider social facts as things” (Durkheim 1895). This means that the belief systems, customs and institutions of society – the facts of the social world – should be considered as things in the same way as the objects ane events of the natural world.

However, Durkheim did not believe that social facts consisted only of those things that could be directly observed or measured. To Durkheim, social facts included such phenomena as the belief systems, customs and institutions of society. Belief systems are not directly measurable or observable, since, they exist in consciousness of humans. Nevertheless, Durkheim saw them as existing over and above individual consciousness. Individuals did not choose them and they could not be changed at will.

Durkheim believed that society is not simply a collection of individuals acting independently in terms of their particular psychology or mental state. Instead, collective beliefs, values and laws direct member of society – by social facts that have an existence of their own. Social facts therefore make individuals behave in particular ways.
This is a brief introduction to the concept of social fact (bilingual, meant for my college students)



Further reading:

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