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The concept of social fact is identified with Emile Durkheim, but is also relevant to social theories viewing society as an objective reality apart from the individual. In The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Durkheim defined social facts as ways of feeling, thinking, and acting external to and exercising constraint over the individual. Sociology and psychology are independent levels of analysis. Durkheim thought social facts should be treated as things, realities in their own right, with their own laws of organization, apart from individual consciousness. For Durkheim, social facts include such phenomena as social institutions (e.g. religion, the state, kinship structures, legal codes) as well as more diffuse phenomena (e.g. mass behavior of crowds, collective trends such as suicide and crime rates). In classic studies such as The Division of Labor in Society (1893), Suicide (1897), and Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), Durkheim examined a variety of social facts and explained them by reference to purely social causes. Durkheim’s followers (e.g. Marcel Mauss, Robert Hertz, Maurice Halbwachs, and others) continued this approach in their studies of seasonal variations in social integration, gift exchange, religious polarity, and collective memory.
Other theorists have variously emphasized the facticity of social conditions. Karl Marx argued that individuals make history, but under conditions independent of their individual wills. Social existence conditions consciousness and individuals are primarily personifications of objective economic forces. Collective actors, especially social classes (e.g. bourgeoisie and the proletariat), are his central focus.
Functionalist and structuralist approaches emerged from these earlier treatments of the factuality of social existence. Talcott Parsons’s mature work developed a systematic, structural-functional theory emphasizing four functional problems of social systems (i.e. adaptation, goal attainment, social integration, cultural pattern maintenance) and the interchanges among institutions serving these functions (e.g., economy, polity, household, school, law). In Economy and Society(1956) Parsons (and Neil Smelser) examined the economy as a social system and its relations with non-economic systems, while in Family, Socialization and Interaction Process (1955), Parsons and his collaborators discussed the family as a social system, including its structure of instrumental and integrative roles.
Modern French social thought produced several variations on Durkheim’s sociological objectivism, including Claude Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Michel Foucault’s investigations, and the theorizing of Louis Althusser. Levi-Strauss combined structural linguistics with ideas drawn from the Durkheim school, Marx, and Freud to create structural theories of kinship, myth, and culture which emphasized the centrality of enduring structures of human cognition and organization. Individual expressions and the actions represented variants within these established social and cultural structures. Foucault diminished the role of the subject in his studies of madness, the clinic, the prison, and changing systems of knowledge. Causal sequences rooted in the actions of individuals or groups are rejected and actors are seen as instantiating the words and deeds made possible by reigning discourses. These theoretical tendencies are most fully expressed in Althusser’s work. He rejects Marx’s early humanistic writings in favor of his later, objectivist scientific work and forges a structural theory of society eliminating human agency and viewing social change as a process of internal contradictions within dynamic socioeconomic, political, and legal structures.
Thinkers who see human agency as central to understanding social processes often oppose the idea of social facts. For example, Max Weber’s social action theory, Herbert Blumer’s symbolic interactionism, and Alfred Schutz’s phenomenological sociology emphasize either methodological individualism” (Weber), or society as a process of social interaction (Blumer), or the taken-for-granted conceptualizations of individuals in everyday situations (Schutz). Efforts by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, and others to synthesize the tradition emphasizing social facts with a focus on social action, interaction, and agency have not always been fully successful in doing justice to both sides of what is evidently a perennial dilemma in social theory.
- Althusser, L. (1970) For Marx, trans. B. Brewster. Vintage Books, New York.
- Durkheim, E. (1982)  The Rules of Sociological Method, trans. W. D. Halls. Free Press, New York.
- Gilbert, M. (1992) On Social Facts. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- Nielsen, D. A. (1999) Three Faces of God: Society, Religion and the Categories of Totality in the Philosophy of Emile Durkheim. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
- Ritzer, G. (1980) Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science. Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA.
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