Introducing Western Sociologists

Introducing Western Sociologists

Question

What are social facts ? How do we recognise them ?

Answer
Meaning of social facts : Social facts are like thnigs. They are external to the individual but constrain their behaviour. Institutions like law, education and religion constiture social facts. Social facts are collective representations which emerge from the association of people. They are not particular to a person but of a general nature, independent of the individual. Attributes like beliefs, feelings of collective practices are examples.

According to Durkheim the subject matter of sociology is the study of social facts. Social facts and its study makes sociology different from other social sciences.

Recongnition of Social Facts :

(i) Sociology concerned itself exclusively with what he called the ‘emergent’ level, that is the level of complex collective life where social phenomena can emerge. These phenomena — for example, social institutions like religion or the family, or social values like friendship or patriotism etc. — were only possible in a complex whole that was larger constituent parts.

(ii) Although it is composed entirely of individuals, a collective social entity like a football or cricket team becomes something other than and much more than just a collection of eleven persons. Social entities like team, political parties, street gangs, religious communities, nations and so on belong to a different level of reality than the level of individuals. It is this ‘emergent’ level that sociology studies.

(iii) Abstract of social facts : The second defining features of Durkheim’s vision of sociology was that, like most of the natural sciences, it was to be an empirical discipline. This was actually a difficult claim to make because social phenomena are by their very nature abstract. We cannot ‘see’ a collective entity like the Jain community, or the Bengali (or Malayalam or Marathi) speaking community, or the Nepalese or Egyptian national communities. At least, we cannot see them in the same straightforward way that we can see a tree or a boy or a cloud.

(iv) Individual person can be seen but not collectivity itself : Even when the social phenomenon is small — like a family or a theatre group — we can directly see only the individuals who make up the collectivity; we cannot see the collectivity itself. One of Durkhem’s most significant achievements is his demonstration that sociology, a discipline that dealt with abstract entities like social facts, could nevertheless be a science founded on observable emprirically verifiable evidence.

(v) Social facts are indirectly observable : Although not directly observable social facts were indirectly observable through patterns of behaviour. The most famous example of his use of a new kind of empirical data is in his study of suicide. Although each individual case of suiside was specific to the individual and his/ her circumstances, the average rate of suicide aggregated across hundreds of thousands of individuals in a community was a social fact. Thus, social facts could be observed via social behaviour, and specially aggregated patterns of social behaviour.

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