What does Durkheim mean when he urges us to “treat social facts as things”

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Last updated: March 28, 2019

Sociology, as with any other academic subject, needs a methodology to reach its conclusions. Sociologists over time have argued over which methodology is the correct one. The answer to that is that there is no single methodology that is correct. There are more disputes over theoretical approaches than empirical research.

Empirical research can be checked, whereas theoretical disputes are partly dependent on interpretation (Giddens, 1989). Methodology and theoretical controversies are a central part in the study of sociology.Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was one of the key figures in terms of his impact on the later development of sociology (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Durkheim wanted to show that the discipline of sociology was worthy of a place in the university system as a science.

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Durkheim was directly influenced by the work of the French author, Auguste Comte (1789 – 1857). Durkheim drew on parts of Comte’s work, but thought that much of his work was too speculative and vague (Giddens, 1989). Durkheim wanted the discipline of sociology to be recognized as a science.His famous first principle of sociology is that we must “treat social facts as things”. This essay will look in more detail at what exactly he meant by this. Before looking at what Durkheim meant by “treating social facts as things” this essay needs to explore what is classed as a social fact.

Durkheim stated that the word “social” was used freely and indiscriminately to refer to all aspects of human behavior. Consequently for Durkheim this was a problem as it was difficult to distinguish from subject matter concerned with biology and psychology.Durkheim says of the term “social”: ‘It is currently employed for practically all phenomena generally diffused within society, however small their social interest. But on that basis, there are, as it were, no human events that may not be called social. Each individual drinks, sleeps, eats, reasons; and it is to society’s interest that these functions be exercised in an orderly manner. If, then, all these facts are counted as “social” facts, sociology would have no subject matter exclusively its own, and its domain would be confused with that of biology and psychology. (Durkheim, 1938: 1) Durkheim studied facts that could be distinguished from the other sciences. He was therefore not concerned with the facts of individual consciousness studied by psychology or organic facts of individual bodies studied by biology (Fulcher and Scott, 2003).

Durkheim describes a certain group of phenomena that he is interested in. He characterizes social facts as ways of thinking, acting, or feeling that are collective, rather than individual, in origin (Fulcher and Scott, 2003).Durkheim discusses that there are certain ways of acting, feeling, and thinking within a certain role such as a brother, a husband, a citizen and so on. These ways of acting, feeling and thinking are expected, required, or imposed. They are not unique to individuals, but are learnt through education and are established in custom and law. When talking about the duties that Durkheim performs he says: ‘Even if they conform to my own sentiments and I feel their reality subjectively, such reality is still objective, for I did not create them; I merely inherited them through my education’ (Durkheim, 1938:1)Social facts are external to the individual. They exist inside the individual mind, but they originate from outside the mind of any particular individual.

They are passed through generations and individuals are able to influence them and contribute to their development. Social facts are therefore the collective products of a society as a whole or of particular social groups (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). When looking at Durkeims rule of treating social facts as things it is also necessary to understand what he meant by a ‘thing’.

When Durkheim modified his initial views he asked: ‘What precisely is a thing?….

Things include all objects of knowledge that cannot be conceived by purely mental activity, those that require for their conception data from outside the mind, from observations and experiments, those which are built up from the more external and immediately accessible characteristics to the less visible and more profound. ‘ (Durkheim, 1964a: xliii) Durkheim went on to write about how to ‘ treat the facts of a certain order as things’ (Durkheim, 1964a: xliii) He said that they cannot be placed in a certain category of reality, but rather a certain mental attitude towards them needs to be assumed.This mental attitude towards them needs to be completely ignorant of their nature so that their characteristic properties cannot be discovered (Durkheim, 1964a: xliii).

When Durkheim urges us to ‘treat social facts as things’ he is asking us to ‘abandon all preconceived ideas and to study things as they really are’ (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Durkheim says that in sciences when new phenomena becomes the subject matter, these phenomena are already represented in the mind. He said that: Before the first rudiments of physics and chemistry appeared, men already had some notions concerning physico-chemical phenomena which transcended mere perception’ (Durkheim, 1938: 14). Durkheim said that ‘thought and reflection are prior to science’ (Durkheim, 1938: 14), but these preconceptions must be abandoned for any science to be objective. In the study of sociology preconceived ideas can carry prejudice and ideology, both of which could cause distortion. Direct observations of phenomena were necessary to construct theories.

When observing social facts there must be ‘an attitude of mind that is as open as possible to the evidence of the senses’ (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Durkheim believed that it was possible to observe things independently of all concepts. Marx’s philosophy differed from this and recognized that ‘the things that exist in the world can be known only through concepts’ (Fulcher and Scott, 2003: 35) Durkheim wanted Sociology to be recognized as a science, therefore ‘it must pursue the analysis of social institutions with the same objectivity as scientists study nature’ (Giddens, 1989: 692).Durkheim argued that social life can be analyzed as rigorously as objects or events in nature. When Durkheim proposed that social phenomena should be treated like ‘things’, he was saying ‘we should regard ourselves as though we were objects in nature’ (Giddens, 1986: 11). Durkheim was trying to accentuate the similarities between sociology and a natural science. Giddens rejects this idea as it is stressing that social sciences involve the systematic study of an empirical subject matter.

Giddens argues that we cannot approach social facts in the same way as we approach objects and events in the natural world because: Societies only exist in so far as they are created and re-created in our own actions as human beings’ (Giddens, 1986: 11). Durkheim wanted to demonstrate his rule, so undertook his most famous study of suicide. ‘Suicide is the ultimate individual act’ (Lee and Newby, 1983: 222), but Durkheim wanted to demonstrate that there are external forces affecting suicide rates, and that ‘social factors have a fundamental influence on suicidal behavior’ (Giddens, 1989: 692). Durkheim wanted his study to show that characteristics that are thought to be internal in an individual mind are actually external in their origin and are learnt.

There were certain groups of people where suicide was more common, therefore proving that there were external forces. Durkheim’s study showed that suicide was more common among Protestants than Catholics, rates were also higher among bachelors and the widowed than they were amongst the married. So what explains this phenomenon? Durkheim argues: ‘Some reality which is external and superior to the suicidal individuals themselves each of whom, after all, perishes in the act of self-destruction’ (Lee and Newby, 1983:223).When Durkheim defines what suicide is he actually contradicts what he set out to prove.

Durkheim wanted to offer an ‘objective’ definition, which did not depend on the consciousness or intentions of the individual. His contradictory definition is: ‘All cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result’ (Lee and Newby, 1983: 225). This is showing that Durkheim ran into the problem of the ‘mental’ nature of social phenomena and also that we cannot establish what the suicide ‘knows’ once the event has happened.Durkheim’s rule of ‘treating social facts as things’ has been criticized by many sociologists and has stimulated great opposition. The misunderstanding of Durkheim’s meanings has caused some of this opposition. Although there has been opposition, Durkheims standpoint has been very pervasive in sociology (Giddens, 1986).

Durkheim wanted sociology to be recognized as a science and his rule that we must ‘treat social facts as things’ was to say that we look at sociological facts in the same objective way as scientists study nature.Durkheim said that social facts are external to the individual and they exercise constraint over individual behavior. One of Durkheim’s most famous studies concerned with the analysis of suicide was used to demonstrate the external forces in an individuals action. There were many objections raised against aspects of the study, ‘but it remains a classic work whose relevance to sociology today is by no means exhausted’ (Giddens, 1989: 692).

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