How ‘social’ are social facts? – An interpretation of Emile Durkheim’s “Rules of Sociological Method”

Introduction: In the study of Rules of Sociological Method, Emile Durkheim aims to provide a concrete definition of ‘social facts’ and the components they entail. This is done by deconstructing the definition and providing an expansive explanation of its components. Therefore, Durkheim follows a pattern wherein first, he provides a definition of the components and ultimately combines these definitions to provide us with a basic understanding of social facts.

In this paper, I aim to summarize the text authored by Durkheim, highlight the key arguments and provide a critical review that includes my reflections as well as a scholarly critique.

- Emile Durkheim’s “Rules of Sociological Method”


The paper begins with an explanation of the term ‘social’ and how the subject matter of sociology is separated from other disciplines. Every human occurrence in its essence should be social, however, in order to truly qualify as being ‘social’, it must be defined clearly with a set of unique characteristics (that will be discussed in the paper below). In this sense, attachment of the word ‘social’ comes from the concept that the foundation of these social facts is society and not a single individual which creates the desired field of study for sociology as a discipline. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

For a fact to be ‘social,’ it must be external to the individual- this means that these “ways of acting, thinking and feeling” should continue to exist even when the individual is not partaking in these activities. An example of this would be how individuals are taught beliefs about their religion after their birth but their religion is practiced before they even come into existence. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

Another characteristic of ‘social’ facts is that they have a coercive or compelling force over the individual. This means that we perform our duties in society, not only from our free will that makes the coercion feel non-existent, but also because we are socialized and taught to behave in a way that complies to the socially prescribed roles and behaviour. This coercion is felt most when an individual resists it. This resistance involves a reaction which is manifested in the form of direct or indirect constraints. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

According to Durkheim, the very presence of these constraints threatens the apparent ‘autonomy’ of highly individualistic people. He points out how all our notions, beliefs and ideas stem from the socialisation we receive and the environment we are brought up in. Therefore, these phenomena becomes a part of us only by being enforced or imposed upon us. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

Another point that comes to light is how social facts only exist in the presence of complete social organisation. This social organisation contains beliefs and practices that are well established, thus pointing towards a sort of crystallisation or concreteness. However, there exists another type of ‘facts’ that lack this crystallisation but are objective in nature and have some amount of domination over individuals. These facts are termed as ‘social currents.’ (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

Social currents can be seen as waves of opinions that differ in time, space and capacity from one generation to another. These social currents can be understood by looking at the group interactions amongst people and how emotions like enthusiasm, pity and indignation have no individual consciousness attached to them and might be considered underlying the group interactions. These emotions exert a coercive power that becomes more visible when an individual resists it. Even if we intend to perform these actions consciously, the pressure they exert on us is not reduced or eradicated but simply disguised. Social currents thus are a part of social facts. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

Durkheim takes this point forward to explain how we might feel alienated from ourselves in a gathering and experience emotions that ‘feel’ more imposed rather than being internal. This is why individuals behave atrociously in groups without consciously knowing that they are doing so. This notion is then taken forward to substantiate the macro-level phenomena of religion, politics, literacy, and other art forms. Thus, the social pressure is exerted from a transitory, micro-level phenomenon to a more lasting, macro-level one. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

In order to verify this definition of ‘social fact’, he provides an example of education, elaborating on its role in socialization of an individual, its externality and coercive power. Due to the education being given, the child learns certain socially acceptable ways of behaving. Over time, this influence of education might seem to diminish due to the development of certain individual tendencies and habits. This lack of constraint replaces the constraint of education, only because it is derived from the existence of the constraint itself. In simpler terms, a lack of constraint can only exist when there is a constraint in the first place. Thus, the goal of education is to create social beings even if all individuals have a unique and personal expression of it. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

As a result, one can conclude how the institutions created by human beings become larger than the human beings themselves and human beings are dominated by the forces of their own creation.

Social facts are all the beliefs, thoughts, and ideas of distinct individuals taken up collectively, rendering them to further have nothing to do with a single individual. A difference in these collective states is present due to the differences in the “refraction of each individual” In the last part of the paper, Durkheim provides differentiation between collective custom and individual phenomenon. This differentiation is created since the collective involves a repetition of acts which are unique and separate from the particular. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

In order to study social facts, they must be separated from its individual or particular effects. This separation can be carried out using a sociological application of statistics. Statistics include an amalgamation of all individual cases. These cases further cancel out each other and represent a “state of collective mind.” (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

This state is termed a social phenomenon. The particular or individual manifestations are also considered to have a ‘social’ aspect of them since they ultimately lead to the formation of the collective. These do not, however, form the immediate subject matter of sociology since they involve an intersection of the organic, psychical and individual environmental aspects of an individual. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

Durkheim explicates further by establishing the relationship between collective and general. He states that a phenomenon can only by collective if, first, all individuals find it in common (or the majority) and second, it is a general experience or general to all individuals. Therefore, collective implies general, however, generally does not imply collective. This can be viewed to understand how social phenomenon is handed down to us. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

All these factors are then used to delineate subject matter and create a specific field of study for sociology. Ultimately, Durkheim gives us two definitions. The first definition states that social facts are defined by the “force they exert or are capable of exerting” in relation to their sanction and the opposition they face. The second definition states the extent to which it is widespread only if it “separates itself from the individual characteristics” This definition is the formulation of the first one.  (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

Therefore, all these special characteristics- externality, coercion, crystallisation, constraints and individual manifestations lead us to the final definition of social facts which forms the subject matter of sociology.

Key Arguments

The key points raised by Durkheim mainly focus on the externality and coercive power of social facts and how they guide human behaviour. The idea that finds relevance even today is that of institutions being larger than the individuals due to the constraints they enforce on these individuals and their existence outside the lives of the individuals themselves. He states how these external forces sometimes take over human beings and make them perform certain actions and feel emotions strongly without their conscious realization.

He provides various examples throughout the essay in order to add credibility to the arguments put forward by him. These examples are mainly about global social institutions such as education and family so as to appeal to a larger audience.

He tries to distinguish the collective from the general and particular but simultaneously draws connections between the two and establishes commonalities between them. This differentiation is again linked to the specific, distinctive characteristics of social facts.

Lastly, he defines the subject matter of sociology by providing the readers with a concrete definition of social facts. He links the ideas about social facts to other concepts such as social currents and sociological phenomenon. (Longhofer & Winchester, 2016)

Scholarly Critique

Over the years, Durkheim’s work has unfolded various perspectives and themes of different sociologists and thinkers. His work has been analysed in different lights and contexts-sometimes heavily criticized because his own context has been overlooked.

One such text that analyses ‘Rules of Sociological Method’ states how Durkheim appears to be “quasi-idealistic” by placing society at a higher pedestal than the individual itself. It appears that he is defying society. It states the ideas of Kurt H. Wolff, who believes that Durkheim sanctified the society in terms of everything that he found admirable, such as morality, religion and knowledge. This sanctification promoted an idea where society is considered to be the foundation of all realities in the world. (Gisbert, P. 1959).

Other writers analyse how ‘Rules of Sociological Method’ was unable to earn a reputation like that of his other works due to uncongeniality of this text in reference to the standard expectations set for him. In the journal article, Sociological Perspectives, Turner defines how the ideas presented by Durkheim attack teleology which contradict his reputation “as a functionalist” and instead depict him to be constructionist. According to Turner, the main problem is how the questions raised in Durkheim’s work have a classical significance, however, Durkheim turns to respond to them in a radical sense. This text talks about the “social realism” that Durkheim showcased through his writing. (Turner, S. 1995)

Another text that picks on this point of social realism is that of Jennifer Platt who states that ‘Rules of Sociological Method’ was initially heavily criticized in the United States due to this particular idea. However, with the passage of time, more intensive studies have been conducted on Durkheim’s work that have given more emphasis on the context in which Durkheim first wrote this text. The trend in the 1960s led to the inclination of sociology towards empirical subject matter and directly, an increased understanding of Durkheim’s work. The most interesting observation noted is how this text is often understood in the light of his other, more popular works such as ‘Suicide’ and ‘Religion’ Therefore, sociologists often come back to the foundation work to gain a better, concrete understanding of his more complex writings. Moreover, the later received title as the founding father of Sociology led to a more “favourable interpretation of his works.” (Platt, J, 1995)


In order to critically analyse the essay, we can look at the pattern he follows to put forward his point. Instead of taking a definition and then defining its components, he gradually constructs the definition taking various elements and combining them.

In this paper, his main aim is to establish why social facts should be the subject matter of sociology and what is it exactly that makes them ‘social’. The entire paper is consolidated in a format that compels the reader to make sense of it only as a whole. The style of writing is such that it would be hard for a reader to take an excerpt from his essay and make sense of it, thereby indicating that he builds on every idea by following a stage by stage process and eventually comes to a conclusion by linking all points together.

Durkheim draws several connections and linkages between all his concepts that if not read from an academic viewpoint might be considered as confusing. His reading cannot be understood in paragraphs or in isolation, it must be understood only as a whole to be truly understood.

An interesting feature in this essay is how Durkheim carries a point throughout the essay while simultaneously introducing sub-points in between. For example: when we look at how he talks about the coercive power of social facts- this becomes his point within which he introduces several sub-points of social currents, social phenomenon and collective. Thus, it can become difficult to trace the main point and connect it with the sub-points he creates.

Durkheim also separates the self from the collective and emphasizes on the need to observe social phenomenon as being exclusively social, stripped off all its individual characteristics and by doing so, aims to establish the subject matter of sociology. He claims the need to use statistics for doing so and even provides a formula using the example of marriage, birth and suicide. This provides a mathematical base and helps in strengthening his argument. Moreover, we can analyse how Durkheim has a tendency to place the power of institutions over the individual and his/her free will.

He demonstrates how all social facts, be it crystallized or not, tend to overpower the individual by using a coercive power that may or may not be known to the individual. He states how the free will or intention of an individual simply reduces the visibility of the coercion and constraint but itself does not remove the constraint. Therefore, implicitly highlighting the need of individuals to be controlled or dominated by something that is higher than and external to them.

Durkheim’s writings still find relevance in today’s world wherein the subject matter of sociology is still considered to be social facts and the definition of these social facts remain unchanged. It is possible that in the future, the social, economic and cultural changes, drive the sociologists to redefine the meaning of social facts, however, this redefinition can only add to the current definition since the foundation of this definition is strong and firm. In different cultures, Durkheim is interpreted in different lights but they all involve a significant acceptance of his writings, especially his writings about social facts because the generalisability of these social facts is more than the generalisability of phenomena such as religion, suicide or labour. A reflection of this paper allows the reader to gain clarity about the base of sociology and its subject matter- social facts.


Gisbert, P. (1959). Social Facts in Durkheim’s System. Anthropos, 54(3/4), 353-369. Retrieved from

Platt, J. (1995). The United States Reception of Durkheim’s “The Rules of Sociological Method”. Sociological Perspectives, 38(1), 77-105. doi:10.2307/1389263

Longhofer, W., & Winchester, D. (2016). Social Theory Re-Wired (pp. 7-12). [Erscheinungsort nicht ermittelbar]: Taylor and Francis.

Turner, S. (1995). Durkheim’s “The Rules of Sociological Method”: Is It a Classic? Sociological Perspectives, 38(1), 1-13. doi:10.2307/1389258

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Stuti Banga is a sociology and psychology student, with a keen interest in exploring the different concepts and facets of these two subjects and their intersecting areas. She is passionate about writing and researching on various topics related to sociological and psychological phenomena. She has undertaken on-field research and engaged in several volunteering programs. She wishes to inspire individuals through her work and bring a revolution in the study of social sciences in India.