Theorizing Society

Durkheim is the sociologist who developed the methodological principles of knowledge as premises for the social life studies. He also developed methods for conducting specialized sociological studies.

The founder of the French School of Sociology Emile Durkheim called himself a rationalist, not a positivist. He thought it is appropriate to be asking “Why” and to look for reasons of various social phenomena. His work was centered on theory of sociology; in his opinion, the social has primacy over the individual. The society is perceived as the reality which is richer and more meaningful than the individual; it is a determining factor of human activity and social facts, thus, social facts are separated from the individual. Therefore, any researches should be conducted over the classes of social facts with understanding of their separation from the individual manifestations.

Durkheim defined sociology as a science which differs from biology and psychology. He was focused on psychology researches and individual studies, while sociology is the science about society at large and a place and role of the individual in it. Psychology is the starting point of sociology; it is limited, however, in means and methods of explaining various collective phenomena (Hamilton, 1974, p.107). The sociology studies the reasons for social facts in the specific society or social context. Durkheim provided the methodology for the sociology, “the science of morality” (Hamilton, 1990, p. 203)

Emile Durkheim  his study of sociology has compared social elements with particles of the physical world. The analogy of a new phenomenon creation through a combination of the elements illustrates the society at large: different individuals as “combined” elements form something totally new, the society (Durkheim, 1972, p.69). To have an approach to measurement and explanation of societies and its effects on individuals the new term emerged – social facts, which are concepts, expectations and values that are received from the social community as opposed to individual responses; they are explanations of human behavior. Social facts are:

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 (Jones, 2011).

Clearly, these facts could not be associated with biological functions.

The social facts are established on two basic criteria: constraint and exteriority.

Constraint is the characteristic of the social facts. It is not, however, the primary indicator of the social nature of the behavior. Social facts are comprised of the united beliefs and practices or tendencies of the specific group or the society. The term “social fact” may appear fairly vague, but the identification that the factor is indeed social can be made by differentiation of the function that can or cannot be called social.

Therefore, 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 predetermined sanction, or through the resistance that the fact opposes to any individual action that may threaten it (Durkheim).

Social facts are the mode of action, which exists independently from individuals and can have an external compulsion function.

Social reality is comprised of several “components” or phenomena, such as collective representations, or a collective life (Durkheim & Giddens, 1972, p.73), social trends or currents and social morphology. Society is not a material entity. According to Durkheim, social representations are what society is constituted of, so called “social essence” (Hamilton, 1974, p.107). Similarly to the social facts, it is a manifestation of a system of beliefs, norms, values that are corresponding with their foundation in the social reality. Therefore, it is the interpretation of the society as a fundamentally normative system which constrains or conditions its members to act and think in a certain way. If this requirement is upheld, the society maintains certain stability. (Hamilton, 1974, p. 107)

Collective life includes folklore, religious beliefs and practices, trade practices, customs, legal rules, fashion, cultural rules, the language and other socio-cultural norms that belong to a long-existing social group. Sanctions in collective life may be formally established, such as laws and regulations, as well as informal ones. Those include such forms of social sanctions as social control through shaming, exclusion, etc. In order to find patterns, laws and other characteristics of the collective life a researcher cannot study individuals as the basic component of a group, but should instead study a collective life, which is closely connected with an individual’s life.

Social trend or current is represented by the moods and short-term actions of the masses of people, for example, “the crowds”. Individual behavior may be influenced and even changed when a crowd of people gathers together. The phenomenon of people sharing common emotions and thoughts, when in a large gathering, is an example of social current. This phenomenon often manifests itself at public gatherings such as church meetings, political campaigns, and other social events. The individual’s behavior in the crowd setting may be altered so much that “individuals who are normally perfectly harmless may, when gathered together in a crowd, let themselves be drawn into acts of atrocity” (Durkheim, 1982).

Social morphology is the structural unit of society, the number and nature of its constituent groups, territorial distribution of population, the amount and nature of communications. 

Society is a specific, primary in respect to individual and not reducible to the individual manifestations reality, whereas social facts are its measurements and indicators. The social facts exist separately from the effect it causes to the individual. Social facts have non-material nature; therefore, the need arises for identification guidelines. Establishing whether they are sanctioned or not, is the first step in the identification process. That can be achieved by examining an individual’s behavior. Is the individual following established or institutionalized ways or junctions? Answering this and other similar questions will help to determine the social fact.

Durkheim also suggested possible methods of social types’ identification. Individual’s behavior can be greatly affected by the society. The importance of social type cannot be underestimated as the same phenomena can manifest itself differently in different conditions.

Therefore, the same approach should be taken to the social facts as to “the elements” or things. That helps to define sociology as a science of social facts and, therefore, scientific approach to sociology should be in studies about relations of those social facts with the goal of finding patterns and revealing laws.

To study social facts means to study the data that is not based on the individual’s perceptions or isolations; similarly, social facts are not caused by individual factors .

To observe social facts the researcher should treat them as “things”. To define such grouping phenomenon as the family, crime, etc. the external observations must be employed foremost. The essential characteristics of the group analyzed should be concluded rather than assumed from the beginning of the research as given. Social facts should be studied in consolidation in laws, modes, etc (Hamilton, 1990, p. 9). Clearly defined social facts can be attributed to specific phenomena; they should not be explained by an individual’s causes, but through the means of other social facts. When social facts are defined, they can be studied further through the statistical methods, such as the method of accompanying change. If the change of one factor leads to corresponding changes in the other one, it proves there is a relation between factors.

The social facts may be explained through examining its utility. In that respect, social facts are similar to physical facts. To find a reason for social fact individual consciousness is not a good place to start the research. The reasons should be looked for in the preceding facts. The social factors are perceived through the internal social medium, which depends on the “volume” of the society and the number of individuals that are in social relations. By these means, it is possible to explain causes of social progress, rather than only operating in the realm of “tendencies” (Hamilton, 1990, p. 10).

Durkheim makes a clear distinction between collective and individual consciousness. The collective or common consciousness is comprised of beliefs and sentiments that are totality common for the average member of the specific society.

Having given proper attention to the explanation of the social facts, it is important to provide methods for observing those.

The fundamental principle in sociological studies is to treat social “facts as things”. In order to follow this principle, the researcher “must systematically discard all preconceptions” (Jones, 2011).

In order for the research to be successful, the “subject matter of the research must only include a group of phenomena defined beforehand by certain common external characteristics and all phenomena which correspond to this definition must be so included” (Jones, 2011). For the research to be successful, the objective should be clearly defined. The definition should not explain or express the essence of the phenomena.

Another premise of the social facts research is their isolation from an individual manifestation. The researcher should analyze systematically collected data in order to draw conclusions and observe patterns or tendencies and laws. The observers should be objective and personally detached from the social facts they observe. The examples of the “crystallized” or “fixed objects” are laws, legal and moral laws, aphorisms, etc. Studies of those social realities can be the most objective and impersonal.

The studies of society provide a platform to determine whether the society is healthy or if it has pathology. Social facts may exhibit both pathological and normal forms; thus, they determine if the society is healthy or pathological. Studies of those forms of social facts provide us with the understanding of their causes and effects. Social science aims at and is limited to revealing what social facts are caused by and how they are causing certain effect in the society.

Normal social facts were determined as those that are attributed to the majority of individuals in a certain society, with not much deviation from this “norm”. Similarly, “pathological” social facts are those that are encountered only in a minimal number of cases, and  they are often manifested for only limited periods in a lifetime. It is the reason to accept the term “average type”, which reflects the most commonly occurring characteristic of the individuals in the society. In this case, the social fact would be considered “normal”. If the social fact deviates from the average, it is considered “pathological”. Obviously, the term normal or pathological may only be applied to a given society and its members, and only during a certain period of this society’s development. Therefore, a social fact may be considered normal for a given social type if observed in the average society and its members in relation to a certain stage of evolution (Jones, 2011).

The normality as a social fact is perceived through the general approach to the society. It stands to reason that the external expression of the given social fact, in order to be general, does not have to be apparent. It has, however, to be “grounded in the nature of things”. The knowledge obtained from determining normality of phenomenon should not be an object of research in itself. It is the reasons behind it that is important. Sometime, a social phenomenon may exist habitually rather than in correspondence of the conditions of existence. Sociologists should consider generalities together with the conditions in which the social fact became a norm. This should be done to determine whether the fact is normal indeed, or it is “merely apparent” due to conditions change. Thus, the method of analogies is implored, according to which the general conditions and general character of the phenomenon are related. It is only in relation to a certain social “type” that a social fact can be considered either “normal” or “pathological” (Jones, 2011).

The importance of Durkheim’s work in defining the subject and methods of sociology is hard to underestimate. As the society and social groups develop, instruments for their evaluation are needed. Sociology does not offer solutions to the existing phenomena; however, it provides causes and explanations of various social facts. The solutions to the problems presented might be found through different social functions. Also, social facts evaluation in the context of the society development helps determine those social facts that do not carry any function, but exist nevertheless, even though only on the basis of custom.

Durkheim’s theory of society received much criticism and some conclusions, drawn from researches based on his theory, such as an explanation that “a crime” is neither positive nor negative, may be very controversial or even paradoxical conclusions. However, theory provides a fairly reasonable and sound methodology applied to social studies.

The basic rules and tenets of Durkheim’s sociological methods of study have remained relevant until the present time. They had a significant influence on the subsequent development of social science and its methodology. 

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