social facts as things

social facts as things

‘a category of facts’ with distinctive characteristics, ‘consisting of ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion by means of which they control him’ (DURKHEIM, The Rules of Sociological Method, 1895). Durkheim formulated his sociology as resting ‘wholly on the basic principle that social facts must be studied as things’. Durkheim recognized that ‘there is no principle for which he had received more criticism’ but argued that ‘none is more fundamental’ (DURKHEIM, 1897).

Sociologists remain divided between those who stress the externality and the independence of social facts from individuals, and those who emphasize that individuals participate fully in the construction of their own social lives (see also METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM, STRUCTURE AND AGENCY). Durkheim's aim, however, was not so much to deny all possibility of individual construction of aspects of social reality as to maintain that social facts were in large measure external to particular individuals, and thus could be studied relatively objectively, e.g. as external 'social currents’, such as patterns of law or variations between societies in rates of SUICIDE. Where Durkheim perhaps erred was in sometimes suggesting that this meant that sociologists could simply disregard the subjective ideas of individual actors. Instead it is dear that social phenomena such as suicide can only be studied effectively if the variable meanings individuals attach to social actions are fully investigated. As well as this, the artificial and constructed nature of many sociological data must also be noted (e.g. see MEASUREMENT BY FIAT). Thus, the proposal to treat 'social facts as things’ (Durkheim's conception of a social reality sui generis), although undoubtedly of use in avoiding outright subjectivism and individualism in social analysis is usually regarded as providing a misleading rendering of the ‘facticity’ of social phenomena.

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