Emile Durkheim's Examples of Social Facts and Their Negative Impact

How Society Exerts Control on Individuals

People smear each other in colored paint in celebration of Holi, a Hindu festival

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Social fact is a theory developed by sociologist Emile Durkheim to describe how values, culture, and norms control the actions and beliefs of individuals and society as a whole.

Durkheim and Social Fact

In his book, "The Rules of Sociological Method," Durkheim outlined social fact, and the book became one of the foundational texts of sociology. 

He defined sociology as the study of social facts, which he said were the actions of society. Social facts are the reason why people within a society seem to choose to do the same basic things; e.g., where they live, what they eat, and how they interact. The society they belong to shapes them to do these things, continuing social facts. 

Common Social Facts

Durkheim used many examples to demonstrate his theory of social facts, including: 

  • Marriage: Social groups tend to have the same ideas toward marriage, such as the appropriate age to get married and what a ceremony should look like. Attitudes that violate those social facts, such as bigamy or polygamy in the Western world, are regarded with disgust. 
  • Language: People living in the same area tend to speak the same language. In fact, they can develop and pass on their own dialect and idioms. Years later, those norms can identify someone as being part of a particular region. 
  • Religion: Social facts shape how we view religion. Different areas have different religious strongholds, with faith being a regular part of life, and other religions are considered foreign and strange. 

Social Facts and Religion

One of the areas Durkheim explored thoroughly was religion. He looked at the social facts of suicide rates in Protestant and Catholic communities. Catholic communities view suicide as one of the worst sins, and as such, have much lower suicide rates than Protestants. Durkheim believed the difference in suicide rates showed the influence of social facts and culture on actions. 

Some of his research in the area has been questioned in recent years, but his suicide research was groundbreaking and shed light on how society affects our individual attitudes and actions. 

Social Fact and Control

Social fact is a technique of control. Societal norms shape our attitudes, beliefs, and actions. They inform what we do every day, from who we befriend to how we work. It's a complex and embedded construct that keeps us from stepping outside the norm. 

Social fact is what makes us react strongly to people who deviate from social attitudes. For example, people in other countries who have no established home, and instead wander from place to place and take odd jobs. Western societies tend to view these people as odd and strange based on our social facts, when in their culture, what they're doing is completely normal. 

What is a social fact in one culture can be abhorrently strange in another; by keeping in mind how society influences your beliefs, you can temper your reactions to what is different. 

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Crossman, Ashley. "Emile Durkheim's Examples of Social Facts and Their Negative Impact." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/social-fact-3026590. Crossman, Ashley. (2021, September 8). Emile Durkheim's Examples of Social Facts and Their Negative Impact. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/social-fact-3026590 Crossman, Ashley. "Emile Durkheim's Examples of Social Facts and Their Negative Impact." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/social-fact-3026590 (accessed June 5, 2023).