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Social Fact

  The term social fact was first used by Émile Durkheim to describe social phenomena which were external to the individual yet constrained his or her actions. He thought that societies had their own objective realities, which could not be reduced to the actions of individuals. For Durkheim, the task of sociology was to study these objective social realities (or ‘social facts’ as he called them) which he believed could be treated in the same way as ‘things’ were in the natural sciences. He considered that the subjective thoughts or motivations of individual members of society had no place in sociological explanations.

Sociologists remain divided between those who stress the externality and independence of social facts from individuals, and those who say that individuals participate fully in the construction of their own social lives. That Durkheim saw little place in sociological explanation for the ideas and meanings of individual members of society has been subject to considerable criticism. Social phenomena, for example suicide, cannot be fully understood unless the variable meanings attached to social activities by different individuals is fully appreciated. DA

See also action perspective; individualism; naturalism; positivism; social construction of reality; social realism; society; structure; structure-agency debate; understanding; values.Further reading A. Giddens, Durkheim; , A. Giddens (ed.), Positivism and Sociology.



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