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May 28, 2013 / C H Thompson


Durkheim’s first work was published in 1894 argued society has a reality all of its own. This social world exists ‘outside’ the individuals who occupy it. In addition one can study the social world in the same ways as one study’s the physical world. Thus, functionalists see the social world as “objectively real,” and therefore measurable because social facts exist to constrain each individual.

Social facts are best understood as existing in two distinct ways – material and nonmaterial social facts. Material social facts have to do with the physical social structures which influence the individual. Nonmaterial social facts are values, norms and conceptually held beliefs.

Durkheim argued members of society are constrained by forces external to them which determine the way people behave. Durkheim called these forces ‘social facts’. The best way to conceptualise social facts as being similar to an external force acting on an individual, like the way gravity does. Imagine you’re standing on top of a building and about to jump from the top of it because you want to see if you can fly. What will happen if you jump?

You’ll fall down to earth with a thump, because the external force of gravity is acting upon you. Durkheim saw social facts in the same way. People act a particular way, not because of their free-will, but because commonly held beliefs and values transcend the individual (this means they exist outside people) and shape their consciousness.

From this we can see the social world exists ‘outside’ individuals who occupy it in the form of social facts acting on them. In addition Durkheim also said one can study the social world in the same ways as one studies the physical world because social facts exist like gravity. Therefore in the same way natural scientists measure the force of gravity, social-scientists can measure the force of ‘social-facts’ acting on individuals (Durkheim explained this in his study of suicide). Thus, functionalists see the social world as “objectively real,” and therefore measurable because social facts exist to constrain each individual.

Although Durkheim focused much of his attention on the social world this wasn’t at the expense of the individual. Indeed, he believed in modern societies the individual has become sacred, and he called the modern form of collective conscience the cult of the individual.

According to Durkheim, humans are constituted by two ‘selves’ – the social self and the individual body self.  Though two dynamics of the self are in a continual state of tension, they become connected because individuality develops as modern society develops through process like the division of labour.  This is because the division of labour, allows people to see themselves as distinct autonomous individuals functioning within a collective conscience formed around a value consensus -social facts.

Durkheim said social facts continue to exist because they serve a function; their function being their continued maintenance of society, particularly social order. Their function is best understood through three key themes identified by Durkheim – functional prerequisites, value consensus and collective consciousness. These three concepts will be examined further through the work of Talcott Parsons.


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