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Social fact

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Title: Social fact  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Émile Durkheim, Collective consciousness, Suicide (book), History of sociology, Economism
Collection: Émile Durkheim, Social Concepts, Sociological Terminology, Sociology Index
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Social fact

In sociology, social facts are the values, cultural norms, and social structures which transcend the individual and are capable of exercising a social constraint.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim defined the term and argued that the discipline of Sociology should be understood as the empirical study of social facts. For Durkheim, social facts "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".[1]


  • Durkheim's social fact 1
  • Mauss's total social fact 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Sources 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Durkheim's social fact

In [1]

Durkheim defined the social fact in the following way:

"A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint;
which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations".[1]

Examples of social facts for Durkheim were social institutions such as kinship and marriage, currency, language, religion, political organization and all the other institutions of society that require that we take them into account in our everyday interactions with other members of our societies. Deviating from the norms of such institutions makes the individual unacceptable or misfit in the group.

Among the most noted of Durkheim's work was his discovery of the "social fact" of suicide rates. By carefully examining police suicide statistics in different districts, Durkheim was able to demonstrate that the suicide rate of Catholic communities is lower than that of Protestant communities. He ascribed this to a social (as opposed to individual) cause.[2] This was considered groundbreaking and remains influential even today.

Durkheim's discovery of social facts was seen as significant because it promised to make it possible to study the behavior of entire societies, rather than just of particular individuals. Some contemporary, interpretivist, sociologists like Max Atkinson and Jack Douglas refer to Durkheim's studies for two quite different purposes, however:

  • As graphic demonstrations of how careful the social researcher must be to ensure that data gathered for analysis is accurate. Durkheim's reported suicide rates were, it is now clear, largely an artifact of the way in which particular deaths were classified as "suicide" or "non-suicide" by different communities. What he had actually discovered then was not different suicide rates at all—it was different ways of thinking about suicide.
  • As an entry point into the study of social meaning, and the way in which apparently identical individual acts often cannot be classified empirically. Social acts (even such an apparently private and individual act as suicide), in this modern view, are always seen (and classified) by social actors. Discovering the social facts about such acts, it follows, is generally neither possible nor desirable, but discovering the way in which individuals perceive and classify particular acts is what offers insight. A further complication is introduced by asking about the status of our "discovery" of these perceptions and classifications. After all, don't such "discoveries" also reflect socially embedded practices of classification? But if the alleged discoveries of perceptions of social facts aren't therefore dubious, it is hard to see why the original claims about the social facts are.

Mauss's total social fact


  • What is a Social Fact? From Émile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method, (Edited by Steven Lukes; translated by W.D. Halls). New York: Free Press, 1982, pp. 50–59.

External links

  • Shaffer, L.S. (2006). Durkheim’s aphorism, the Justification Hypothesis, and the nature of social facts. Sociological Viewpoints, fall issue, 57-70. Full text

Further reading

  • Edgar, Andrew. (1999). "Cultural Anthropology". in Edgar, Andrew and Sedgwick, Peter R. (eds.). Key Concepts in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-11404-2
  • Edgar, Andrew. (2002). "Mauss, Marcel (1872–1950)". in Edgar, Andrew and Sedgwick, Peter R. (eds.). Cultural Theory: the Key Thinkers. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-23281-4
  • Mauss, Marcel. (1966). The gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Cohen & West.


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^ Durkheim, E. Suicide. 1897.
  3. ^ Edgar (1999), 64
  4. ^ Edgar (2002), 157
  5. ^ Mauss (1966), 76–77


See also

"These phenomena are at once legal, economic, religious, aesthetic, morphological and so on. They are legal in that they concern individual and collective rights, organized and diffuse morality; they may be entirely obligatory, or subject simply to praise or disapproval. They are at once political and domestic, being of interest both to classes and to clans and families. They are religious; they concern true religion, animism, magic and diffuse religious mentality. They are economic, for the notions of value, utility, interest, luxury, wealth, acquisition, accumulation, consumption and liberal and sumptuous expenditure are all present..."
— Marcel Mauss[5]

The term was popularized by Marcel Mauss in his classic The Gift:


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