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In sociology, social facts are the values, cultural norms, and social structures which transcend the individual and are capable of exercising a social constraint. French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who put the term into broad circulation, states that in the study of society, "The first and fundamental rule is to consider social facts as things." These "things" form the distinctive subject matter of sociology.
For Durkheim, sociology was 'the science of social facts'. The task of the sociologist was to search for correlations between social facts in order to reveal laws of social structure. Having discovered these, the sociologist could then determine whether a given society is 'healthy' or 'pathological' and prescribe appropriate remedies. Within social facts Durkheim distinguished 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.
Among the most noted of Durkheim's work was his discovery of the 'social fact' of suicide rates. By carefully examining police suicide statistics in different districts, Durkheim was able to 'demonstrate' that the suicide rate of Catholic communities is lower than that of Protestant communities. He ascribed this to a social (as opposed to individual) cause. This was considered groundbreaking and remains influential even today.
Initially, Durkheim's 'discovery of social facts' was seen as significant because it promised to make it possible to study the behavior of entire societies, rather than just of particular individuals. Contemporary sociologists refer to Durkheim's studies for two quite different purposes, however:
- As graphic demonstrations of how careful the social researcher must be to ensure that data gathered for analysis is accurate. Durkheim's reported suicide rates were, it is now clear, largely an artifact of the way in which particular deaths were classified as 'suicide' or 'non-suicide' by different communities. What he had actually discovered then was not different suicide rates at all—it was different ways of thinking about suicide.
- As an entry point into the study of social meaning, and the way in which apparently identical individual acts often cannot be classified empirically. Social acts (even such an apparently private and individual act as suicide), in this modern view, are always seen (and classified) by social actors. Discovering the 'social facts' about such acts, it follows, is generally neither possible nor desirable, but discovering the way in which individuals perceive and classify particular acts is what offers insight. A further complication is introduced by asking about the status of our "discovery" of these perceptions and classifications. After all, don't such "discoveries" also reflect socially embedded practices of classification? But if the alleged discoveries of perceptions of social facts aren't therefore dubious, its hard to see why the original claims about the social facts are.
For Marcel Mauss (Durkheim's nephew and sometime collaborator) a total social fact (French fait social total) is "an activity that has implications throughout society, in the economic, legal, political, and religious spheres". Diverse strands of social and psychological life are woven together through what he comes to call 'total social facts'. A total social fact is such that it informs and organizes seemingly quite distinct practices and institutions.
"These phenomena are at once legal, economic, religious, aesthetic, morphological and so on. They are legal in that they concern individual and collective rights, organized and diffuse morality; they may be entirely obligatory, or subject simply to praise or disapproval. They are at once political and domestic, being of interest both to classes and to clans and families. They are religious; they concern true religion, animism, magic and diffuse religious mentality. They are economic, for the notions of value, utility, interest, luxury, wealth, acquisition, accumulation, consumption and liberal and sumptuous expenditure are all present..."—Mauss (1966), 76-77 
- Sociological positivism
- Sociological perspective
- Philosophy of social science
- Durkheim, E. The Rules of Sociological Method. 1895.
- Durkheim, E. Suicide. 1897.
- "Search in Google Scholar: Author: Durkheim, Title: Suicide". Retrieved 25 April 2012.
- Edgar (1999), 64
- Edgar (2002), 157
- Mauss (1966), 76-77
- Edgar, Andrew. (1999). "Cultural Anthropology". in Edgar, Andrew and Sedgwick, Peter R. (eds.). Key Concepts in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-11404-2
- Edgar, Andrew. (2002). "Mauss, Marcel (1872-1950)". in Edgar, Andrew and Sedgwick, Peter R. (eds.). Cultural Theory: the Key Thinkers. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-23281-4
- Mauss, Marcel. (1966). The gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Cohen & West.
- Shaffer, L.S. (2006). Durkheim’s aphorism, the Justification Hypothesis, and the nature of social facts. Sociological Viewpoints, fall issue, 57-70. Full text