What does durkheim mean when he claims that social facts are sui generis

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was one of the founding fathers of sociology as a vital and highly regarded academic discipline. According to Durkheim, social facts are sui generis, and must be studied distinct from biological and psychological phenomenon. In order to understand what he meant by his claims that social facts are sui generis or self existent, it is first vital to define what a social fact is and understand the approach that Durkheim undertook when creating his sociological methodologies and interpretations. Therefore, after a brief explanation of social facts and examination of Durkheim and his sociological practices, this essay will attempt to provide a valid explanation as to what Durkheim meant when he claims that social facts are self existent.

Social facts are specifically defined by Durkheim as “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.”  Social facts are characterised by two aspects. Firstly, they are external to the individual and secondly they must implement a control over the individual such as the existence of some predetermined legal penalty or by their reaction to those forms of individual belief and action which individuals perceive as threatening. No social fact can exist outside a well defined social organisation and the presence of social facts is easily determined by how widespread they are within the social group, while also existing independently of any particular forms they might assume. Social facts are made up of demonstration and action; therefore, social facts are clearly distinguished from organic and psychical phenomena, which have no existence, except through individual consciousness

It is logical to conclude that if a social fact is external to the individual it will exist before and after the individual is gone and will continue to be produced by the social group, therefore, Durkheim’s claim that social facts are sui generis is a logical deduction as it exists with absolutely no reliance on the individual even though it can be argued that its existence was founded of human need and form part of our consciousness. Durkheim established that social facts could be “objectively measured, quantified and subjected to statistical analysis”  and observed through the actions of the collective social group. In his book The Rules of Sociological Method, published in 1895, Durkheim outlined his primary methodological principle which essentially stated “consider social facts as things.”

Social types of behaviour and thinking external to the individual are endued with a compelling and coercive power by which they become habitual and imposed upon the individual. The constraints are demonstrated most when the action is rebelled against and there is a reaction against the individual which will prevent further contravention of the approved social attitude. Each action has a reaction and most attempts to act independently of social factors are unlikely to be accomplished and the consequence may in fact invalidate the very action taken or impose a penalty if the result is irreparable. Not only does the wider social group restrict any act which contravenes convention through various observation methods over the conduct of group members, they are reinforced by the legal punishments that are established and vehemently enforced.

Durkheim believed that the main aspect of social facts is an analysis of the beliefs, predispositions and traditions of the social group considered collectively. The social group’s methods of acting or thinking acquire, by habit a consistency which, assists in dissociating them and extricating them from the events which demonstrate them. These two types of social facts frequently manifest more clearly when they are separated from each other. “Thus they assume a shape, a tangible form peculiar to them and constitute a reality sui generis vastly distinct from the individual facts which manifest that reality.”  These acts prove the existence of a social reality in addition to an individual reality thus reinforcing the need for sociological sciences in addition to biological and psychological studies.

Raising children is an example Durkheim used to explain how the self existent property of social facts imposes and remain at the heart of actions that often turn into habitual activities. “From his earliest years we oblige him to eat, drink and sleep at regular hours, and to observe cleanliness, calm and obedience…If this constraint in time ceases to be felt it is because it gradually gives rise to habits, to inner tendencies which render it superfluous; but they supplant the constraint only because they are derived from it.”  Language is another social fact which clearly exemplifies Durkheim’s claim, as it is an aspect of life that is eternal to the individual and has constraint upon communication within the social group. For example, if one wishes to communicate to another and explain an object the words he has at his disposal are limited. Foreign languages will not assist in giving the description because the recipient of the description will not understand what is being said. Therefore, the speaker must use language that has been created and produced by his social group in order to successfully communicate with another member.

Social facts, for Durkheim, are self existent objects, not merely ideas; therefore, they have a notion of reality and can be observed. If considered as objects then social facts can then be studied in the same way that natural science can be analysed using fixed analytical methodologies and procedures. Durkheim clearly meant that social facts are to be regarded as patterns of behaviour that are capable of exercising some coercive power upon individuals. They are guides and controls of conduct that are external to the individual in the form of group norms, mores and folkways.  Through development and education these rules become internalised in the consciousness of the individual and become internal moral obligations towards social rules. Durkheim made it explicit that when observing social facts it is critical to remain objective and in order to clearly analyse social facts a clear definition is required and defined by its external characteristics. Durkheim is renowned for his belief that society as a whole exhibited a need for a collective conscience or common core of values and beliefs as well as distinguishing social facts to be the basis upon which the science of sociology is established.

Bibliography

  • GIDDEN, A. (1993) Sociology 2nd Edition Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • LUKES, S. (1982) The Rules of the Sociological Method (A Translation by W.D. Halls) New York: Free Press.
  • THOMPSON, P., RICHARDSON, J. ET AL. (1996) Sociology in Focus Ormskirk: Causeway Press Ltd.
  • The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) and Excerpt from Robert Alun Jones. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Pp. 60-81 found at http://www.relst.uiuc.edu/durkheim/summaries/rules.html#pgfId=2754.

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