From Emile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method, (Ed.
by Steven Lukes; trans. by W.D. Halls). New York: Free Press, 1982, pp.
What is a Social Fact?
Before beginning the search for the method appropriate to the study of
social facts it is important to know what are the facts termed 'social'.
The question is all the more necessary because the term is used without
much precision. It is commonly used to designate almost all the phenomena
that occur within society, however little social interest of some generality
they present. Yet under this heading there is, so to speak, no human occurrence
that cannot be called social. Every individual drinks, sleeps, eats, or
employs his reason, and society has every interest in seeing that these
functions are regularly exercised. If therefore these facts were social
ones, sociology would possess no subject matter peculiarly its own, and
its domain would be confused with that of biology and psychology.
However, in reality there is in every society a clearly determined group
of phenomena separable, because of their distinct characteristics, from
those that form the subject matter of other sciences of nature.
When I perform my duties as a brother, a husband or a citizen and carry
out the commitments I have entered into, I fulfil obligations which are
defined in law and custom and which are external to myself and my actions.
Even when they conform to my own sentiments and when I feel their reality
within me, that reality does not cease to be objective, for it is not I
who have prescribed these duties; I have received them through education.
Moreover, how often does it happen that we are ignorant of the details
of the obligations that we must assume, and that, to know them, we must
consult the legal code and its authorised interpreters! Similarly the believer
has discovered from birth, ready fashioned, the beliefs and practices of
his religious life; if they existed before he did, it follows that they
exist outside him. The system of signs that I employ to express my thoughts,
the monetary system I use to pay my debts, the credit instruments I utilise
in my commercial relationships, the practices I follow in my profession,
etc., all function independently of the use I make of them. Considering
in turn each member of society, the foregoing remarks can be repeated for
each single one of them. Thus there are ways of acting, thinking and feeling
which possess the remarkable property of existing outside the consciousness
of the individual.
Not only are these types of behaviour and thinking external to the individual,
but they are endued with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which,
whether he wishes it or not, they impose themselves upon him. Undoubtedly
when I conform to them of my own free will, this coercion is not felt or
felt hardly at all, since it is unnecessary. None the less it is intrinsically
a characteristic of these facts; the proof of this is that it asserts itself
as soon as I try to resist. If I attempt to violate the rules of law they
react against me so as to forestall my action, if there is still time.
Alternatively, they annul it or make my action conform to the norm if it
is already accomplished but capable of being reversed; or they cause me
to pay the penalty for it if it is irreparable. If purely moral rules are
at stake, the public conscience restricts any act which infringes them
by the surveillance it exercises over the conduct of citizens and by the
special punishments it has at its disposal. In other cases the constraint
is less violent; nevertheless, it does not cease to exist. If I do not
conform to ordinary conventions, if in my mode of dress I pay no heed to
what is customary in my country and in my social class, the laughter I
provoke, the social distance at which I am kept, produce, although in a
more mitigated form, the same results as any real penalty. In other cases,
although it may be indirect, constraint is no less effective. I am not
forced to speak French with my compatriots, nor to use the legal currency,
but it is impossible for me to do otherwise. If I tried to escape the necessity,
my attempt would fail miserably. As an industrialist nothing prevents me
from working with the processes and methods of the previous century, but
if I do I will most certainly ruin myself. Even when in fact I can struggle
free from these rules and successfully break them, it is never without
being forced to fight against them. Even if in the end they are overcome,
they make their constraining power sufficiently felt in the resistance
that they afford. There is no innovator, even a fortunate one, whose ventures
do not encounter opposition of this kind.
Here, then, is 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. Consequently, since they consist of representations
and actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical
phenomena, which have no existence save in and through the individual consciousness.
Thus they constitute a new species and to them must be exclusively assigned
the term social. It is appropriate, since it is clear that, not having
the individual as their substratum, they can have none other than society,
either political society in its entirety or one of the partial groups that
it includes - religious denominations, political and literary schools,
occupational corporations, etc. Moreover, it is for such as these alone
that the term is fitting, for the word 'social' has the sole meaning of
designating those phenomena which fall into none of the categories of facts
already constituted and labelled. They are consequently the proper field
of sociology. It is true that this word 'constraint', in terms of which
we define them, is in danger of infuriating those who zealously uphold
out-and-out individualism. Since they maintain that the individual is completely
autonomous, it seems to them that he is diminished every time he is made
aware that he is not dependent on himself alone. Yet since it is indisputable
today that most of our ideas and tendencies are not developed by ourselves,
but come to us from outside, they can only penetrate us by imposing themselves
upon us. This is all that our definition implies. Moreover, we know that
all social constraints do not necessarily exclude the individual personality.
Yet since the examples just cited (legal and moral rules, religious
dogmas, financial systems, etc.) consist wholly of beliefs and practices
already well established, in view of what has been said it might be maintained
that no social fact can exist except where there is a well defined social
organisation. But there are other facts which do not present themselves
in this already crystallised form but which also possess the same objectivity
and ascendancy over the individual. These are what are called social 'currents'.
Thus in a public gathering the great waves of enthusiasm, indignation and
pity that are produced have their seat in no one individual consciousness.
They come to each one of us from outside and can sweep us along in spite
of ourselves. If perhaps I abandon myself to them I may not be conscious
of the pressure that they are exerting upon me, but that pressure makes
its presence felt immediately I attempt to struggle against them. If an
individual tries to pit himself against one of these collective manifestations,
the sentiments that he is rejecting will be turned against him. Now if
this external coercive power asserts itself so acutely in cases of resistance,
it must be because it exists in the other instances cited above without
our being conscious of it. Hence we are the victims of an illusion which
leads us to believe we have ourselves produced what has been imposed upon
us externally. But if the willingness with which we let ourselves be carried
along disguises the pressure we have undergone, it does not eradicate it.
Thus air does not cease to have weight, although we no longer feel that
weight. Even when we have individually and spontaneously shared in the
common emotion, the impression we have experienced is utterly different
from what we would have felt if we had been alone. Once the assembly has
broken up and these social influences have ceased to act upon us, and we
are once more on our own, the emotions we have felt seem an alien phenomenon,
one in which we no longer recognise ourselves. It is then we perceive that
we have undergone the emotions much more than generated them. These emotions
may even perhaps fill us with horror, so much do they go against the grain.
Thus individuals who are normally perfectly harmless may, when gathered
together in a crowd, let themselves be drawn into acts of atrocity. And
what we assert about these transitory outbreaks likewise applies to those
more lasting movements of opinion which relate to religious, political,
literary and artistic matters, etc., and which are constantly being produced
around us, whether throughout society or in a more limited sphere.
Moreover, this definition of a social fact can be verified by examining
an experience that is characteristic. It is sufficient to observe how children
are brought up. If one views the facts as they are and indeed as they have
always been, it is patently obvious that all education consists of a continual
effort to impose upon the child ways of seeing, thinking and acting which
he himself would not have arrived at spontaneously. From his earliest years
we oblige him to eat, drink and sleep at regular hours, and to observe
cleanliness, calm and obedience; later we force him to learn how to be
mindful of others, to respect customs and conventions, and to work, etc.
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.
It is true that, in Spencer's view, a rational education should shun such
means and allow the child complete freedom to do what he will. Yet as this
educational theory has never been put into practice among any known people,
it can only be the personal expression of a desideratum and not a fact
which can be established in contradiction to the other facts given above.
What renders these latter facts particularly illuminating is that education
sets out precisely with the object of creating a social being. Thus there
can be seen, as in an abbreviated form, how the social being has been fashioned
historically. The pressure to which the child is subjected unremittingly
is the same pressure of the social environment which seeks to shape him
in its own image, and in which parents and teachers are only the representatives
Thus it is not the fact that they are general which can serve to characterise
sociological phenomena. Thoughts to be found in the consciousness of each
individual and movements which are repeated by all individuals are not
for this reason social facts. If some have been content with using this
characteristic in order to define them it is because they have been confused,
wrongly, with what might be termed their individual incarnations. What
constitutes social facts are the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the
group taken collectively. But the forms that these collective states may
assume when they are 'refracted' through individuals are things of a different
kind. What irrefutably demonstrates this duality of kind is that these
two categories of facts frequently are manifested dissociated from each
other. Indeed some of these ways of acting or thinking acquire, by dint
of repetition, a sort of consistency which, so to speak, separates them
out, isolating them from the particular events which reflect them. 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. Collective custom does not exist only in a state of immanence
in the successive actions which it determines, but, by a privilege without
example in the biological kingdom, expresses itself once and for all in
a formula repeated by word of mouth, transmitted by education and even
enshrined in the written word. Such are the origins and nature of legal
and moral rules, aphorisms and popular sayings, articles of faith in which
religious or political sects epitomise their beliefs, and standards of
taste drawn up by literary schools, etc. None of these modes of acting
and thinking are to be found wholly in the application made of them by
individuals, since they can even exist without being applied at the time.
Undoubtedly this state of dissociation does not always present itself
with equal distinctiveness. It is sufficient for dissociation to exist
unquestionably in the numerous important instances cited, for us to prove
that the social fact exists separately from its individual effects. Moreover,
even when the dissociation is not immediately observable, it can often
be made so with the help of certain methodological devices. Indeed it is
essential to embark on such procedures if one wishes to refine out the
social fact from any amalgam and so observe it in its pure state. Thus
certain currents of opinion, whose intensity varies according to the time
and country in which they occur, impel us, for example, towards marriage
or suicide, towards higher or lower birth-rates, etc. Such currents are
plainly social facts. At first sight they seem inseparable from the forms
they assume in individual cases. But statistics afford us a means of isolating
them. They are indeed not inaccurately represented by rates of births,
marriages and suicides, that is, by the result obtained after dividing
the average annual total of marriages, births, and voluntary homicides
by the number of persons of an age to marry, produce children, or commit
suicide.  Since each one of these statistics includes without distinction
all individual cases, the individual circumstances which may have played
some part in producing the phenomenon cancel each other out and consequently
do not contribute to determining the nature of the phenomenon. What it
expresses is a certain state of the collective mind.
That is what social phenomena are when stripped of all extraneous elements.
As regards their private manifestations, these do indeed having something
social about them, since in part they reproduce the collective model. But
to a large extent each one depends also upon the psychical and organic
constitution of the individual, and on the particular circumstances in
which he is placed. Therefore they are not phenomena which are in the strict
sense sociological. They depend on both domains at the same time, and could
be termed socio-psychical. They are of interest to the sociologist without
constituting the immediate content of sociology. The same characteristic
is to be found in the organisms of those mixed phenomena of nature studied
in the combined sciences such as biochemistry.
It may be objected that a phenomenon can only be collective if it is
common to all the members of society, or at the very least to a majority,
and consequently, if it is general. This is doubtless the case, but if
it is general it is because it is collective (that is, more or less obligatory);
but it is very far from being collective because it is general. It is a
condition of the group repeated in individuals because it imposes itself
upon them. It is in each part because it is in the whole, but far from
being in the whole because it is in the parts. This is supremely evident
in those beliefs and practices which are handed down to us ready fashioned
by previous generations. We accept and adopt them because, since they are
the work of the collectivity and one that is centuries old, they are invested
with a special authority that our education has taught us to recognise
and respect. It is worthy of note that the vast majority of social phenomena
come to us in this way. But even when the social fact is partly due to
our direct co-operation, it is no different in nature. An outburst of collective
emotion in a gathering does not merely express the sum total of what individual
feelings share in common, but is something of a very different order, as
we have demonstrated. It is a product of shared existence, of actions and
reactions called into play between the consciousnesses of individuals.
If it is echoed in each one of them it is precisely by virtue of the special
energy derived from its collective origins. If all hearts beat in unison,
this is not as a consequence of a spontaneous, preestablished harmony;
it is because one and the same force is propelling them in the same direction.
Each one is borne along by the rest.
We have therefore succeeded in delineating for ourselves the exact field
of sociology. It embraces one single, well defined group of phenomena.
A social fact is identifiable through the power of external coercion which
it exerts or is capable of exerting upon individuals. The presence of this
power is in turn recognisable because of the existence of some pre-determined
sanction, or through the resistance that the fact opposes to any individual
action that may threaten it. However, it can also be defined by ascertaining
how widespread it is within the group, provided that, as noted above, one
is careful to add a second essential characteristic; this is, that it exists
independently of the particular forms that it may assume in the process
of spreading itself within the group. In certain cases this latter criterion
can even be more easily applied than the former one. The presence of constraint
is easily ascertainable when it is manifested externally through some direct
reaction of society, as in the case of law, morality, beliefs, customs
and even fashions. But when constraint is merely indirect, as with that
exerted by an economic organization, it is not always so clearly discernible.
Generality combined with objectivity may then be easier to establish. Moreover,
this second definition is simply another formulation of the first one:
if a mode of behaviour existing outside the consciousnesses of individuals
becomes general, it can only do so by exerting pressure upon them. 
However, one may well ask whether this definition is complete. Indeed
the facts which have provided us with its basis are all ways of functioning:
they are 'physiological' in nature. But there are also collective ways
of being, namely, social facts of an 'anatomical' or morphological nature.
Sociology cannot dissociate itself from what concerns the substratum of
collective life. Yet the number and nature of the elementary parts which
constitute society, the way in which they are articulated, the degree of
coalescence they have attained, the distribution of population over the
earth's surface, the extent and nature of the network of communications,
the design of dwellings, etc., do not at first sight seem relatable to
ways of acting, feeling or thinking.
Yet, first and foremost, these various phenomena present the same characteristic
which has served us in defining the others. These ways of being impose
themselves upon the individual just as do the ways of acting we have dealt
with. In fact, when we wish to learn how a society is divided up politically,
in what its divisions consist and the degree of solidarity that exists
between them, it is not through physical inspection and geographical observation
that we may come to find this out: such divisions are social, although
they may have some physical basis. It is only through public law that we
can study such political organisation, because this law is what determines
its nature, just as it determines our domestic and civic relationships.
The organisation is no less a form of compulsion. If the population clusters
together in our cities instead of being scattered over the rural areas,
it is because there exists a trend of opinion, a collective drive which
imposes this concentration upon individuals. We can no more choose the
design of our houses than the cut of our clothes - at least, the one is
as much obligatory as the other. The communication network forcibly prescribes
the direction of internal migrations or commercial exchanges, etc., and
even their intensity. Consequently, at the most there are grounds for adding
one further category to the list of phenomena already enumerated as bearing
the distinctive stamp of a social fact. But as that enumeration was in
no wise strictly exhaustive, this addition would not be indispensable.
Moreover, it does not even serve a purpose, for these ways of being
are only ways of acting that have been consolidated. A society's political
structure is only the way in which its various component segments have
become accustomed to living with each other. If relationships between them
are traditionally close, the segments tend to merge together; if the contrary,
they tend to remain distinct. The type of dwelling imposed upon us is merely
the way in which everyone around us and, in part, previous generations,
have customarily built their houses. The communication network is only
the channel which has been cut by the regular current of commerce and migrations,
etc., flowing in the same direction. Doubtless if phenomena of a morphological
kind were the only ones that displayed this rigidity, it might be thought
that they constituted a separate species. But a legal rule is no less permanent
an arrangement than an architectural style, and yet it is a 'physiological'
fact. A simple moral maxim is certainly more malleable, yet it is cast
in forms much more rigid than a mere professional custom or fashion. Thus
there exists a whole range of gradations which, without any break in continuity,
join the most clearly delineated structural facts to those free currents
of social life which are not yet caught in any definite mould. This therefore
signifies that the differences between them concern only the degree to
which they have become consolidated. Both are forms of life at varying
stages of crystallisation. It would undoubtedly be advantageous to reserve
the term 'morphological' for those social facts which relate to the social
substratum, but only on condition that one is aware that they are of the
same nature as the others.
Our definition will therefore subsume all that has to be defined it
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. Moreover, this is not to say that all constraint is normal. We shall
return to this point later.
2. Suicides do not occur at any age, nor do they occur at all ages of
life with the same frequency.
3. It can be seen how far removed this definition of the social fact
is from that which serves as the basis for the ingenious system of Tarde.
We must first state that our research has nowhere led us to corroboration
of the preponderant influence that Tarde attributes to imitation in the
genesis of collective facts. Moreover, from this definition, which is not
a theory but a mere resume of the immediate data observed, it seems clearly
to follow that imitation does not always express, indeed never expresses,
what is essential and characteristic in the social fact . Doubtless every
social fact is imitated and has, as we have just shown, a tendency to become
generalised, but this is because it is social, i.e. obligatory. Its capacity
for expansion is not the cause but the consequence of its sociological
character. If social facts were unique in bringing about this effect, imitation
might serve, if not to explain them, at least to define them. But an individual
state which impacts on others none the less remains individual. Moreover,
one may speculate whether the term 'imitation' is indeed appropriate to
designate a proliferation which occurs through some coercive influence.
In such a single term very different phenomena, which need to be distinguished,
4. This close affinity of life and structure, organ and function, can
be readily established in sociology because there exists between these
two extremes a whole series of intermediate stages, immediately observable,
which reveal the link between them. Biology lacks this methodological resource.
But one may believe legitimately that sociological inductions on this subject
are applicable to biology and that, in organisms as in societies, between
these two categories of facts only differences in degree exist.
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