Practice Question – Write Short note on Social Facts. (USPC 2007). Examine the nature of Social Facts as understood by Durkheim. (UPSC 2002)

Approach – Introduction. Subject-matter of Sociology by Durkheim, Write about basics like types, characteristics and common social facts, Relevance and criticism of Social facts. Conclusion. 



A social fact is an idea, force, or “thing” that influences the ways individuals act and the kinds of attitudes people hold. As a social subject, these facts are not particular to a single individual but are rather “supra-individual,” meaning they are held in the minds of multiple people and culminate in the “collective conscience.” Emile Durkheim  is credited with coining
the term social fact, and he defines the term by saying: A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.



In defining the subject matter of sociology two tasks are involved (a) defining the total field of study and (b) defining the sort of ‘thing’ which will be found in this field. In his book, The Rules of Sociological Method, published in 1895, Durkheim is concerned with the second task and calls social facts the subject matter of sociology. Durkheim defines social facts as “ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion by reason of which they control him”.

Durkheim based his scientific vision of sociology on the fundamental principle, i.e., the objective reality of social facts. Social fact is that way of acting, thinking or feeling etc., which is more or less general in a given society. Durkheim treated social facts as things. They are real and exist independent of the individual’s will or desire. They are external to individuals and are capable of exerting constraint upon them. In other words they are coercive in nature. Further social facts exist in their own right. They are independent of individual manifestations. The true nature of social facts lies in the collective or associational characteristics inherent in society. Legal codes and customs, moral rules, religious beliefs and practices, language etc. are all social facts.



The main characteristics of social facts are (i) externality, (ii) constraint, (iii) independence, and (iv) generality.

Social facts, according to Durkheim, exist outside individual consciences. Their existence is external to the individuals. For example, domestic or civic or contractual obligations are defined externally to the individual in laws and customs. Religious beliefs and practices exist outside and prior to the individual. An individual takes birth in a society and leaves it after
birth death, however social facts are already given in society and remain in existence irrespective of birth or death of an individual. For example language continues to function independently of any single individual.

The other characteristic of social fact is that it exercises a constraint on individuals. Social fact is recognized because it forces itself on the individual. For example, the institutions of law, education, beliefs etc. are already given to everyone from without. They are commanding and obligatory for all. There is constraint, when in a crowd, a feeling or thinking imposes itself on everyone. Such a phenomenon is typically social because its basis, its subject is the group as a whole and not one individual in particular.

A social fact is that which has more or less a general occurrence in a society. Also it is independent of the personal features of individuals or universal attributes of human nature. Examples are the beliefs, feelings and practices of the group taken collectively. In sum, the social fact is specific. It is born of the association of individuals. It represents a collective content of social group or society. It differs in kind from what occurs in individual consciousness. Social facts can be subjected to categorisation and classification. Above all social facts form the subject matter of the science of sociology.



Durkheim identified two different types of social fact; material and non-material. Durkheim saw material social facts as stemming from institutions such as religion, the governments, and law institutions. These are the physical structures within society that exert influence on individuals within society. The nonmaterial social facts come from areas that form our moral codes, beliefs and values which do not have a physical presence. Durkheim’s view was that sociologists should study these social facts in an attempt to find the cause and also the functions of them; whether they are used to pass on values to children to maintain social order, or as a form of control for the institutions.



First, every individual is born into an ongoing society, which already has a definite organisation or structure. There are values, norms, beliefs and practices which the individual finds readymade at birth and which he learns through the process of socialisation. Since these social phenomena exist prior to the individual and have an objective reality, they are external to the individual. 

The second criterion by which social facts are defined is the moral ‘constraint’ they exercise on the individual. When the individual attempts to resist social facts they assert themselves. The assertion may range from a mild ridicule to social isolation and moral and legal sanction. However, in most circumstances individuals conform to social facts and therefore do not consciously feel their constraining character. This conformity is not so much due to the fear of sanctions being applied as the acceptance of the legitimacy of the social facts



Durkheim classified social facts into Normal and Pathological social facts. Normal social facts are the most widely distributed and useful social facts assisting in the maintenance of society and social life. Pathological social facts are those that might associate with social problems and ills of various types. Normal social fact confirms to the given standards. But normality varies from society to society and also within a society. It is important that a social fact which is normal may not be normative. For example, Sati Pratha is not regarded as a normal social fact in castes other than Rajput’s. Durkheim says that crime is present in every society with some structural changes. It is a good example of pathological social fact. We consider crime as pathological. But Durkheim argues that though we may refer to crime as immoral because it flouts values we believe in from a scientific viewpoint it would be incorrect to call it abnormal.

Firstly, because crime is present not only in the majority of societies of one particular type but in all societies of all type. Secondly, if there were not occasional deviances or flouting’s of norms, there would be no change in human behaviour and equally important, no opportunities through which a society can either reaffirm the existing norms or else re-assess such behaviour and modify the norm itself. According to Durkheim when the rate of crime exceeds what is more or less constant for a given social type, then it becomes pathological facts. Similarly using the same criteria, Suicide is normal social fact. Durkheim claimed that a healthy society can be recognized because the sociologist will find similar conditions in other societies in similar stages. If a society departs from what is normally found it is probably pathological. The distinction between normal and the pathological plays an important role in Durkheim’s thought.



Durkheim used many examples to demonstrate his theory of social facts, including: 

  • MarriageSocial groups tend to have the same ideas toward marriage, such as the appropriate age to get married and what a ceremony should look like. Attitudes that violate those social facts, such as bigamy or polygamy in the Western world, are regarded with disgust. 
  • Language: People living in the same area tend to speak the same language. In fact, they can develop and pass on their own dialect and idioms. Years later, those norms can identify someone as being part of a particular region. 
  • Religion: Social facts shape how we view religion. Different areas have different religious strongholds, with faith being a regular part of life, and other religions are considered foreign and strange. 


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