A social fact is any phenomenon that exercises control over the lives of individuals due to its being accepted as a norm by a large number of people. It’s not a physical thing, but a concept that society generally agrees upon.
Examples of social facts include religion, currency, the nation-state, morality, chivalry, and the family.
There are two types of social facts. Firstly, material social facts are ones that are institutionalized, like currency and religion. Non-material social facts are not codified in institutions, but rather in culture. For example, chivalry, conservatism, and morality are non-material social facts.
Classification of Social Facts
Durkheim classified social facts as being of two types – material and non-material.
Material Social Facts – Material social facts refer to institutionalized norms and laws in a society that exist in either in the form of written codes, or are directly observable.
Non-material Social Facts – Non-material social facts are the unwritten codes of conduct, best practices, etc. that are not written down anywhere, and that are not visible directly, but are felt or experienced.
Examples of Material Social Facts
1. Legal Systems
Different societies have different legal systems and they represent social facts that are binding on the individuals.
Even though laws are made, implemented, and enforced by individuals the legal system transcends the individual and becomes representative of the entire society.
For instance, the legal system of the United States is different from the legal system of Saudi Arabia, each of which is a social fact about the respective society.
2. Institutionalized Religion
Institutionalized religion refers to religions that follow a formal code and is administered by a specialized cadre of individuals ordained for religious duty.
Even though individuals engage with religion on a personal level, the entire religious community taken as a whole comes to represent certain values that can be construed as a social fact.
For instance, in Durkheim’s classic study of suicide, he attributed higher rates of suicides among protestants to certain attributes particular to the Protestant faith.
3. The Nation-State
The state is a collection of individual citizens who have organized themselves to perform certain social functions.
At the same time, the state is much more than the mere sum of the capabilities of its individual citizens. The state is, in this sense, “external” to the individual citizen in Durkheim’s sense of the term.
The ordinances of the state are binding on the individual, and its laws, in most cases, are applicable to the citizenry as a whole.
Currency in its essence is simply a medium of exchange. However, it becomes invested with meanings that are not inherent in its essence.
For instance, the Dollar is a symbol of American global hegemony, being used almost as a synonym for currency itself the world over. Most international transactions happen in Dollars.
The Dollar is thus a social fact about the international political and economic system in the post Bretton-Woods world.
Future generations attempting to write a history of our times can read into this social fact of the Dollar, valuable information about the power dynamics of the international order in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Being regulated by the American state, the Dollar is bound by rules. One cannot simply print Dollars in one’s own backyard.
Being a tangible, physical entity one can hold in one’s hand, the Dollar is a material social fact about our lives and times which is external to us all, even though we may keep a stack of Dollars in our wallets.
Every society possesses a style of architecture that is unique to it. While structures might be designed by individual architects, when aggregated over a period of time, one sees a clear pattern linking the various buildings produced by a specific society over a specific period of time.
Further, this style is reflective of the values and norms of the society, and is anchored to the specific physical needs such as climate and geography of that society.
As an example, Italian Renaissance architecture has a distinct style that was rooted in the ethos of Italian society of the age, even though the buildings we called “renaissance” were built by a number of architects over a period of several decades.
Examples of Non-material Social Facts
6. The Nuclear Family
In most societies, there is no particular law that states that families must be nuclear, or which prohibits joint families.
Yet, in almost all societies in the modern world, the nuclear family, with 1 to 4 children has become the norm. When we take this information as a whole, we arrive at a relevant social fact about modern society – that certain conditions such as capitalism, urbanization, and the demands of the modern workforce have induced a preference for the nuclear family in society.
Most societies have codified laws, but morals are rarely written down, nor are they enforced by the state or its agents.
Yet, there is an expectation from the members of the society to be moral and ethical in all their dealings with other members. Standards of morality may also vary from one society to another.
For instance, the extremely low rates of crime in Japan are attributed to the moral and ethical values embedded in Japanese culture that all individuals are expected to adhere to. (Lopez, 2015)
States have political ideologies that are often enshrined in their constitutions.
However, in addition to these, states follow certain values that are not written down, but become symbolic of them. These values, in turn stem from the cultural orientation of their citizens.
For instance, countries of the “west”, commonly understood as comprising Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand are often classified as liberal.
The term liberal here is used not in the political economy sense, but to the relaxed cultural attitudes and mores of the people.
Liberal values may include greater freedoms for citizens, multiculturalism, a less authoritarian state, more social support, greater respect for human rights, etc.
Similar to liberalism, conservatism may be an unwritten feature of society which can be abstracted to the level of a social fact. Even within liberal societies, conservatism – whether religious, social, or political – may be an attribute of wide swathes of society.
For instance, within the United States, certain regions such as the Bible Belt or Texas are typically identified as being conservative in orientation and outlook.
While being conservative is a personal attribute and a preference, at the level of society it becomes an identifying social fact for an entire community. Since it is not enshrined or encoded, it remains a non-material social fact.
The fact that most members of such communities raise their children within the same socio-political milieu, and deviance can be met with disapproval, we can see that there is a certain expectation to adhere to these unwritten, non-material social norms.
The term chivalry originated as an informal code of conduct for knights of the middle ages who were expected to be honorable, courageous, possess integrity, and cultivate gentlemanly attributes (Keen, 2005).
While each of these are highly personal attributes, within certain social settings they are expected to be cultivated by all members of that society.
For instance, Army officers in modern armed forces of almost all nations are expected to be chivalrous. Chivalry then becomes a non-material social fact of the officer corps of the armed forces.
Definition of Social Facts
Social Fact is a concept proposed by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim ( 1858 – 1917). The social fact is a phenomenon that is viewed as a fact by a large collectivity, and like many other social phenomena, may be socially constructed.
According to Durkhem, social facts 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.” (Durkheim, 1982)
Let’s break this definition down into simpler parts to understand what Durkheim was trying to say.
1. First Part – “manners of acting, thinking, and feeling”
A social fact is something which influences us in three ways. It may influence the ways in which we act, in which we think, and how we feel.
2. Second Part – “external to the individual”
What Durkheim meant by this is that even though social facts pertain to society as a whole, and a society is made of individuals, individuals exercise little control over social facts.
Like the famous adage often attributed to Aristotle that the whole is greater than the sum of its part, society is more than just a collection of individuals. We see this at work all around us.
Human beings, for instance, are made of individual cells that sustain life in all life forms. However, we as humans are more than just collections of individual cells.
Even though we owe the gift of life to the fact that the individual cells inside our bodies are “alive”, would it be appropriate to say that the “facts of life” can be located in the individual cells that make up human life?
We would then, like Durkheim, be forced to conclude that human life is “external” to the living cells, even though the living organism is made of the cells in its body.
In the same way, social facts are “external” to the individual, even though society is made up of individuals. The collective society is more than just the sum of all the people in it. It becomes a living, breathing, thinking, organism in its own right.
3. Third Part – “invested with a coercive power by which they exercise control over him”
Once social facts rise above the level of the individual, they take the form of norms, rules, and regulations, which the individual is bound to abide by. If not, there would be consequences to face at a social level.
A key insight that can be drawn from this definition of social facts, and perhaps one which Durkheim himself wanted to draw our attention to, is that an accurate study of society cannot be performed by studying the individual.
Society is a different organism in its own right, and reducing it to its components (which is the individual) and studying them in isolation, as is done in several branches of science such as in physics, biology, and chemistry, will lead us to incorrect conclusions.
This is why, according to Durkheim, a social fact is “external” to the individual and must be studied separately from the individual.
Durkheim outlined this approach in his classic work, Rules of the Sociological Method in which he makes the case of a scientific study of society through a positivist approach.
Characteristics of Social Facts
Based on the definition above, we can now identify three characteristics of social facts:
- General – Social facts are general in two senses – one they apply to all, or at least, most members of a social group. Second, that they influence almost all spheres of human life.
- External – Social facts are external to the individual because they become attributes of the society as a whole, being elevated to something that applies to the collective, rather than to its components.
- Binding – Social facts are binding as they compel individuals to adhere to the norms of the society
The Origin of Social Facts
Durkheim arrived at the concept of social facts through his study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant communities in Europe.
This study became his celebrated monograph, Suicide, publihed in 1897.
Durkheim observed that suicide rates among Protestants were higher than those among Catholics, attributing this to certain social characteristics of Catholic societies that provided more support mechanisms.
The act of suicide, thus, concluded Durkheim, could no longer be viewed as a personal act, but rather needed to seen as a social fact, because it was now a characteristic of an entire society.
Durkeheim belonged to a conservative family of French Jews and was raised in a religious household towards the end of the 19th century. This was a time of immense and drastic social change, and Durkheim became interested in investigating how societies (such as his own French Jewish community) held on to traditions in the face of overwhelming forces of modernity.
Durkheim concluded that this is possible because certain phenomena occur not at the level of the individual, but at the level of the collectivity. Sociology, Durkehim insisted, was the study of social institutions, and needed to rise above any focus on the individual if it was to make a meaningful contribution.
Durkheim, É. (1982) The Rules of Sociological Method Free Press. (first published. 1895).
Keen, M. H. (2005). Chivalry. Yale University Press.
Lopez, G. (December 2015) Japan has exceptionally low crime rates. But there’s a dark side to its justice system Vox https://www.vox.com/world/2015/12/13/9989250/japan-crime-conviction-rate