By Emile Durkheim
In this book, Durkheim explains his approach to sociology, describing his emphasis on "social facts" rather than subjective meaning. "A social fact is identifiable through the power of external coercion which it exerts or is capable of exerting upon individuals" (p.56). "A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint," he says, and adds: "which is general over the whole of a given society, whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations" (p.59).
Like other phenomena, Durkheim says, "social phenomena are things and should be treated as such. ... they are the sole datum afforded by the sociologist" (p.69). And the sociologist must be, if anything, driven by such data: "The conventional character of a practice or an institution should never be assumed in advance" (p.70). Indeed, since "social facts tend to form outside the consciousness of individuals" (p.72), to study them, we must:
- "Systematically discard all preconceptions" (p.72)
- Include in the subject matter of research only "a group of phenomena defined beforehand by certain common external characteristics and all phenomena which correspond to this definition must be so included" (p.75)
- "investigate any order of social facts ... from a viewpoint where they present themselves in isolation from their individual manifestations" (pp.82-83)
When conducting such studies, it's sometimes hard to differentiate the normal from the pathological, Durkheim says (Ch.3). He suggests the following rules:
- "A social fact is normal for a given social type, viewed at a given phase of its development, when it occurs in the average society of that species, considered at the corresponding phase of its evolution."
- "The results of the preceding method can be verified by demonstrating that the general character of the phenomenon is related to the general conditions of collective life in the social type under consideration."
- "This verification is necessary with this fact relates to a social species which has not yet gone through its complete evolution" (p.97)
In Chapter 4, Durkheim goes on to consider rules for the constitution of social types—what he calls social morphology (p.111). He sees societies as forming from combinations of simpler societies (p.112), and in this chapter, he recaps the argument from The Division of Labor in Society, claiming that simple, nonsegmented societies (made up of hordes) evolved into more complex ones (pp.112-117). Durkheim locates social facts firmly within these social types and groups: "The determining cause of a social fact must be sought among antecedent social facts and not among the states of the individual consciousness" (p.134).
Overall, the book is a fascinating read. It lays out the assumptions that guide Durkheim's research. Many of these assumptions have been called into question in subsequent sociological work, but since Durkheim does us the service of describing them explicitly, we can understand his reasoning even if we don't hold to it. If you're interested in sociological method—or Durkheim—take a look.