The Rules of Sociological Method (1895)

[Excerpt from Robert Alun Jones. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Pp. 60-81.]

Outline of Topics

  1. What is a Social Fact?
  2. Rules for the Observation of Social Facts
  3. Rules for Distinguishing the Normal from the Pathological
  4. Rules for the Constitution of Social Types
  5. Rules for the Explanation of Social Facts
  6. Rules for the Demonstration of Sociological Proof
  7. Critical Remarks

What is a Social Fact?

The reader of The Division of Labor in Society would have understood that "sociology" is a science which, like biology, studies the phenomena of the natural world and, like psychology, studies human actions, thoughts, and feelings. What he might not have understood was that Durkheim conceived of sociology as the scientific study of a reality sui generis, a clearly defined group of phenomena different from those studied by all other sciences, biology and psychology included. It was for these phenomena that Durkheim reserved the term social facts, i.e., "a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him."1 Since these facts consisted of actions, thoughts, and feelings, they could not be confused with biological phenomena; but neither were they the province of psychology, for they existed outside the individual conscience. It was to define the proper method for their study that Durkheim wrote The Rules of Sociological Method (1895).

Durkheim was particularly concerned to distinguish social facts, which he sometimes described as "states of the collective mind," from the forms these states assumed when manifested through private, individual minds. This distinction is most obvious in cases like those treated in The Division of Labor -- e.g., customs, moral and legal rules, religious beliefs, etc. -- which indeed appear to have an existence independent of the various actions they determine. It is considerably less obvious, however, where the social fact in question is among those more elusive "currents of opinion" reflected in lower or higher birth, migration, or suicide rates; and for the isolation of these from their individual manifestations, Durkheim recommended the use of statistics, which "cancel out" the influence of individual conditions by subsuming all individual cases in the statistical aggregate.2 Durkheim did not deny, of course, that such individual manifestations were in some sense "social," for they were indeed manifestations of states of the collective mind; but precisely because they also depended in part on the psychological and biological constitution of the individual, as well as his particular circumstances, Durkheim reserved for them the term "socio-psychical," suggesting that they might remain of interest to the sociologist without constituting the immediate subject matter of sociology.3

It might still be argued, of course, that the external, coercive power of social facts is derived from their being held in common by most of the individual members of a society; and that, in this sense, the characteristics of the whole are the product of the characteristics of the parts. But there was no proposition to which Durkheim was more opposed. The obligatory, coercive nature of social facts, he argued, is repeatedly manifested in individuals because it is imposed upon them, particularly through education; the parts are thus derived from the whole rather than the whole from the parts.4

But how is the presence of a social fact to be recognized? Durkheim gave two answers, one pointing backward to The Division of Labor, the other forward to Suicide. Because the essential trait of social facts is their external coercive power, Durkheim first suggested that they could be recognized by the existence of some predetermined legal sanction or, in the case of moral and religious beliefs, by their reaction to those forms of individual belief and action which they perceived as threatening. But where the exercise of social constraint is less direct, as in those forms of economic organization which give rise to anomie, their presence is more easily ascertained by their "generality combined with objectivity" -- i.e., by how widespread they are within the group, while also existing independently of any particular forms they might assume. But whether direct or indirect, the essential defining characteristic of social facts remains their external, coercive power, as manifested through the constraint they exercise on the individual.

Finally, again invoking a distinction introduced in The Division of Labor, Durkheim insisted that social facts were not simply limited to ways of functioning (e.g., acting, thinking, feeling, etc.), but also extended to ways of being (e.g., the number, nature, and relation of the parts of a society, the size and geographical distribution of its population, the nature and extent of its communication networks, etc.).5 The second class of "structural" facts, Durkheim argued, exhibits precisely the same characteristics of externality and coercion as the first -- a political organization restricts our behavior no less than a political ideology, and a communication network no less than the thought to be conveyed. In fact, Durkheim insisted that there were not two "classes" at all, for the structural features of a society were nothing more than social functions which had been "consolidated" over long periods of time. Durkheim's "social fact" thus proved to be a conveniently elastic concept, covering the range from the most clearly delineated features of social structure (e.g., population size and distribution) to the most spontaneous currents of public opinion and enthusiasm.

Rules for the Observation of Social Facts

In his Novum Organum (1620), Francis Bacon discerned a general tendency of the human mind which, together with the serious defects of the current learning, had to be corrected if his plan for the advancement of scientific knowledge was to succeed. This was the quite natural tendency to take our ideas of things (what Bacon called notiones vulgares, praenotiones, or "idols") for the things themselves, and then to construct our "knowledge" of the latter on the foundation of the largely undisciplined manipulation of the former; and it was to overcome such false notions, and thus to restore man's lost mastery over the natural world, that Bacon had planned (but never completed) the Great Instauration.

It was appropriate that Durkheim should refer to Bacon's work in the Rules, for he clearly conceived of his own project in similar terms. Just as crudely formed concepts of natural phenomena necessarily precede scientific reflection upon them, and just as alchemy thus precedes chemistry and astrology precedes astronomy, so men have not awaited the advent of social science before framing ideas of law, morality, the family, the state, or society itself. Indeed, the seductive character of our praenotiones of society is even greater than were those of chemical or astronomical phenomena, for the simple reason that society is the product of human activity, and thus appears to be the expression of and even equivalent to the ideas we have of it. Comte's Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842), for example, focused on the idea of the progress of humanity, while Spencer's Principles of Sociology (1876-1885) dismissed Comte's idea only to install his own preconception of "cooperation."

But isn't it possible that social phenomena really are the development and realization of certain ideas? Even were this the case, Durkheim responded, we do not know a priori what these ideas are, for social phenomena are presented to us only "from the outside": thus, even if social facts ultimately do not have the essential features of things, we must begin our investigations as if they did. I3ut. truer to form, Durkheim immediately reasserted his conviction of what Peter Berger has aptly called the choséité (literally, "thingness") of social facts. A "thing" is recognizable as such chiefly because it is intractable to all modification by mere acts of will, and it is precisely this property of resistance to the action of individual wills which characterizes social facts. The most basic rule of all sociological method, Durkheim thus concluded, is to treat social facts as things.

From this initial injunction, three additional rules for the observation of social facts necessarily follow. The first, implied in much of the discussion above, is that one must systematically discard all preconceptions. Durkheim thus added the method of Cartesian doubt to Bacon's caveats concerning praenotiones, arguing that the sociologist must deny himself the use of those concepts formed outside of science and for extra-scientific needs: "He must free himself from those fallacious notions which hold sway over the mind of the ordinary person, shaking off, once and for all the yoke of those empirical categories that long habit often makes tyrannical."6

Second, the subject matter of research must only include a group of phenomena defined beforehand by certain common external characteristics, and all phenomena which correspond to this definition must be so included. Every scientific investigation, Durkheim insisted, must begin by defining that specific group of phenomena with which it is concerned; and if this definition is to be objective, it must refer not to some ideal conception of these phenomena, but to those properties which are both inherent in the phenomena themselves and externally visible at the earliest stages of the investigation. Indeed, this had been Durkheim's procedure in The Division of Labor, where he defined as "crimes" all those acts provoking the externally ascertainable reaction known as "punishment."

The predictable objection to such a rule was that it attributes to visible but superficial phenomena an unwarranted significance. When crime is defined by punishment, for example, is it not then derived from punishment? Durkheim's answer was no, for two reasons. First, the function of the definition is neither to explain the phenomenon in question nor to express its essence; rather, it is to establish contact with things, which can only be done through externalities. It is not punishment that causes crime, but it is through punishment that crime is revealed to us, and thus punishment must be the starting point of our investigation. Second, the constant conjunction of crime and punishment suggests that there is an indissoluble link between the latter and the essential nature of the former, so that, however "superficial," punishment is a good place to start the investigation.7

Finally, when the sociologist undertakes to investigate any order of social facts, he must strive to consider them from a viewpoint where they present themselves in isolation from their individual manifestations. Science, as we have seen, must dismiss those praenotiones formed through common, extra-scientific experience, and create its concepts anew on the basis of systematically observable data. But Durkheim was also aware that, even in the natural sciences, sense experience itself could be subjective, so that observable data too "personal" to the observer were discarded, and only those exhibiting a required degree of objectivity were retained. Sociological observations ought to be equally objective, and thus social facts should be detached as completely as possible from the individual facts by which they are manifested. In particular, Durkheim thus endorsed the study of those aspects of social reality which had "crystallized" -- legal and moral rules, the facts of social structure, proverbs and aphorisms etc. -- which were "fixed objects" and thus more impervious to subjective impressions and personal applications.

Rules for Distinguishing the Normal from the Pathological

As indicated in Book Three of The Division of Labor, however Durkheim felt that social facts exhibit both normal and pathological forms; and he now added that it was an important part of sociological method to provide rules for distinguishing between them. The primary objection to such a provision, of course, was that such judgments of value have no place in science, whose sole purpose is to tell us how causes produce their effects, but not what ends we ought to pursue. The practical utility of social science would thus be limited to revealing which causes produce which effects, thus offering us the means to produce causes at will. The ends resulting from these causes might then be pursued and achieved for reasons beyond those of science itself. Durkheim's response was that there are always several means to the achievement of any end, and that the determination of the former is thus no less an act of will than that of the latter.8 Science, in short, must guide us in the determination of our highest goals. The problem is to find an objective criterion, externally ascertainable yet inherent in social facts themselves, which will allow us to distinguish scientifically between social health and social illness.

This was a problem not easily solved, and it was only after a tedious search that Durkheim's criterion was discovered in the ordinary distinction between that which is general and that which is exceptional. Social facts which are "normal," by this criterion, would simply be those found in most, if not all, individuals, within narrow limits of variation. Social facts which are "pathological," by contrast, would be those encountered only in a minority of cases, and only for brief periods in the lifetime of the individual even where they occur.9 If we adopt the term average type to refer to that purely hypothetical entity containing the most frequently occurring characteristics of the species in their most frequently occurring forms, therefore, a social fact would be "normal" in so far as it approximates that type, and "pathological" in so far as it deviates therefrom. And from this criterion, it is clear that what is normal or pathological can be so only in relation to a given species and, if that species varies over time, in relation to a specific stage in its development.10 Hence Durkheim's first rule for the distinction of the normal from the pathological: A social fact is normal for a given social type, viewed at a given phase of its development, when it occurs in the average society of that species, considered at the corresponding phase of its evolution.

But if "generality" is thus the criterion by which we recognize the normality of a social fact, this criterion itself still requires an explanation. Durkheim's initial request for such an explanation was accompanied by two rather pragmatic observations: first, that the normality of the phenomenon would be less doubtful if it could be shown that its external sign (generality) was not merely "apparent," but "grounded in the nature of things"; and, second, that the practical application of the knowledge thus acquired would be facilitated by knowing not simply what we want, but why we want it. But Durkheim's more fundamental motivation was derived from his recognition that, in certain "transition periods" (such as that through which he was manifestly living), a fact of extraordinary generality can persist, through force of blind habit, despite its lack of any correspondence with the new conditions of existence. Having established by observation that a fact is general, therefore, the sociologist must still reconstruct the conditions which determined this general fact and decide whether they still pertain or, on the contrary, have changed;11 in the first case the fact is "normal," while in the second, its normality is "merely apparent."12 Hence Durkheim's second rule: The results of the preceding method can be verified by demonstrating that the general character of the phenomenon is related to the general conditions of collective life in the social type under consideration.13

It was Durkheim's illustration of these rules, however, which provoked the immediate interest of his contemporaries; for the example he selected was crime, whose "pathological" character, by almost any other criterion, appeared indisputable. Nonetheless Durkheim observed, crime exists in all societies of all kinds, and despite centuries of effort at its annihilation, has rather increased with the growth of civilization; thus, "there is no phenomenon which represents more incontrovertibly all the symptoms of normality, since it appears to be closely bound up with the conditions of all collective life."14 But for Durkheim to describe crime as normal did not mean resignation to a necessary evil; on the contrary, it meant that crime was useful, "a factor in public health, an integrative element in any healthy society."15

Consider first its necessity. In Book One of The Division of Labor, Durkheim had shown that "crime" consists of an action which offends strong, well-defined collective feelings. For such actions to cease therefore, those feelings would have to be reinforced in each and every individual to the degree of strength required to counteract the opposite feelings. But if this occurred, Durkheim added, those weaker states of the conscience collective, whose milder reactions previously acknowledged mere breaches of convention, would also be reinforced, and what was unconventional would thereby become criminal; and the elevation of all collective sentiments to a strength sufficient to stifle all dissentient voices was simply incompatible with the enormous diversity of those environments which condition the commensurate variability of individual consciences. Since there cannot be a society in which individuals do not diverge to some extent from the conscience collective, it is equally necessary that some of these deviations assume a criminal character.

Durkheim's more scandalous argument, however, was that crime is also useful, in both a direct and an indirect sense. The argument for indirect utility appeared again in The Division of Labor, where Durkheim had shown that the gradual evolution of law and morality itself reflects more fundamental transformations in a society's collective sentiments. For such sentiments to change, however, they can be only moderately intense, while the only condition under which crime could cease (see above) must necessarily be one in which collective sentiments had attained an unprecedented intensity. For moral consciousness to evolve at all, therefore, individual creativity must be permitted. The criminal thus becomes the price we pay for the idealist. More directly, as in the case of Socrates, the criminal and the idealist are sometimes the same, and the crime proves to be the anticipation of that morality still to come.

Rules for the Constitution of Social Types

According to the second rule in the previous section, a social fact can be labeled "normal" or "pathological" only in relation to a given social "type" or "species." Durkheim's next stop was thus to set out rules for the constitution or classification of such species. In particular, he sought a via media between the historians, for whom each society is unique and incomparable, and the philosophers, for whom different societies are only various expressions of the fundamental attributes of "human nature." In other words, Durkheim was after an intermediate entity which would acknowledge the unity required by scientific generalization as well as the diversity inherent in the facts.

As the means to this end, Durkheim again endorsed the method advocated in Bacon's Novum Organum -- namely, to look for decisive or crucial facts which, regardless of their number, have scientific value or interest.16 But which facts are most "decisive" or "crucial"? Clearly, those facts which explain other facts; and in this sense, Durkheim admitted, explanation and classification are interdependent, and neither can proceed very far in the absence of the other. But at least we know where to start: societies are made up of parts, and their character must thus depend on the nature, number, and relations of the parts thus combined. Durkheim thus set about classifying social types according to the same principle which had guided that activity in The Division of Labor, and eventually codified it in a rule: We shall begin by classifying societies according to the degree of organization they manifest, taking as a base the perfectly simple society or the single-segment society. Within these classes different varieties will be distinguished, according to whether a complete coalescence of the initial segments takes place.17

Rules for the Explanation of Social Facts

The titles of the first two books of The Division of Labor, as well as most of the arguments within them, attest to Durkheim's aversion for any "teleological" confusion of the function of a social fact with its cause.18 This aversion followed naturally from Durkheim's preemptive rule of sociological method; for once we recognize that social facts are real things, resistive forces prevailing over individual wills, it becomes clear that no human need or desire, however imperious, could be sufficient to such an effect. Indeed, like the vestigial organs of its biological counterpart, a social fact sometimes exists without serving any vital need or desire whatsoever, either because it has never done so, or because its utility has passed while it persists from force of habit.19 Needs and desires may intervene to hasten or retard social development, but they cannot themselves create any social fact; and even their intervention is the effect of more fundamental social causes.20 Therefore when one undertakes to explain a social phenomenon, the efficient cause which produces it and the function21 it fulfills must be investigated separately.

But what was thus denounced as teleological was at least equally disparaged as psychologistic, for Durkheim regarded these as no more than different descriptions of the same methodological blunder. Indeed, if society is only a system of means set up to achieve certain ends, then these ends must surely be individual, for prior to society only individuals could exist. The origin and development of society would thus be the result of individual minds, and the laws of sociology no more than corollaries of those of psychology. The organization of the family would thus be the consequence of the conjugal and parental emotions; economic institutions, that of the desire for wealth; morality, that of self-interest informed by the principle of utility; and religion, that of those emotions provoked by fear of nature or awe at the charismatic personality, or even the religious "instinct" itself. At the risk of repetition, Durkheim regarded such "explanations" as inadequate to that which was to be explained -- namely, a group of facts external to the individual which exercises a coercive power over him: "It is not from within himself that can come the external pressure which he undergoes; it is therefore not what is happening within himself which can explain it."22

Here Durkheim faced two common objections. The first was that, since the sole elements of which society is composed are individuals, then the explanation of social phenomena must lie in psychological facts. To this objection Durkheim's habitual response was to revert to the biological analogue -- i.e., the constituent molecules of the living cell are crude matter, yet the association of such cells produces life. The whole, in other words, is something greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, the association of individual human beings creates a social reality of a new kind, and it is in the facts of that association rather than the nature of associated elements that the explanation for this new reality is to be found. Between sociology and psychology, therefore, there exists the same break in continuity as is found between biology and the physical or chemical sciences: "... every time a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon," Durkheim thus concluded, "we may rest assured that the explanation is false."23

Acknowledging that society, once formed, is the proximate cause of social phenomena, however, a second objection insisted that the original causes of the association itself were psychological in nature. But however far back in history we go, Durkheim answered, the fact of association appears to be the most obligatory of all, for it is the origin of all other obligations. We are born into a family, granted a nationality, and given an education, without our choosing any of them; and it is these associations which in turn determine those more "voluntary" obligations in which we subsequently acquiesce. All societies are born of other societies, Durkheim concluded, and "in the whole course of social evolution there has not been a single time when individuals have really had to consult together to decide whether they would enter into collective life together, and into one sort of collective life rather than another."24

Durkheim thus arrived at another rule: The determining cause of a social fact must he sought among the antecedent social facts and not among the states of the individual consciousness. But the arguments which lead to this rule, Durkheim then added, apply equally to the function of a social fact -- while a social fact may have repercussions which serve the individual, this is not the immediate reason for its existence; on the contrary, its function consists in the production of socially useful effects. Durkheim thus complemented the rule above with a second: The function of a social fact must always be sought in the relationship that it bears to some social end.25

But in which among its innumerable antecedent conditions is the determining cause of a social fact to be found? If the distinctive condition for the emergence of social (as opposed to psychological) phenomena consists in the fact of association, Durkheim argued, then social phenomena must vary according to how the constituent elements in a society are associated. Durkheim called this the inner environment of a society, and thus proposed still another rule: The primary origin of social processes of any importance must be sought in the constitution of the inner social environment.26 The arguments presented in support of this rule largely reproduce27 the discussion of "social volume" and "dynamic density" found in Book Two of The Division of Labor.

But doesn't this "inner environment" itself depend on other social causes, either inherent within the society itself, or involving interaction with other societies? Durkheim admitted that there are no "first causes" in science, and that a fact is "primary" only in the sense that it is general enough to explain many others. But the "inner social environment," he insisted, is precisely such a fact. The more specialized environments of particular groups within a society also affect its functions; but these groups are themselves subject to the influence of the general internal association, and are commensurately less important. A similarly reduced significance was granted to the external environment of neighboring societies: first, because its influence can be felt only through the prior mediation of the internal environment; and second, because this would make present social facts dependent on past events. The second consequence was particularly objectionable, for Durkheim always insisted that the relationship between past and present states of any society was merely chronological, and could be rendered causal only at the exorbitant cost of postulating, as had Comte and Spencer, a metaphysical "inner tendency" in social evolution.28

Finally, it is only in relation to the inner social environment that the "utilitarian value" (function) of a social fact can be measured; for among the changes caused by that environment, only those are useful which correspond in some way with the most essential conditions of society itself. Moreover, the inner social environment alone can account for the undeniable diversity and complexity of "useful" social facts without recourse to rather arbitrary and ad hoc causal hypotheses; and this again indicates the extent to which the constitution of qualitatively distinct social types is connected to their explanation by a variety of concomitant conditions.29

The rules thus established enabled Durkheim aptly to characterize his own conception of collective life by contrast with those of Hobbes and Rousseau, on the one hand, and Spencer, on the other. The first two thinkers viewed the individual as "real" and society as artificial, the latter being imposed upon the former in order to secure certain collective advantages.30 Spencer, by contrast, viewed society as natural because it expressed certain tendencies of individual human nature, and thus its imposition by force represented an abnormal condition. Durkheim's own theory, as we have seen, contains elements of both -- he agreed with Hobbes and Rousseau that constraint is an essential feature of social facts, and with Spencer that society is a part of nature. But precisely because the constraint of society is the consequence of its natural superiority, there is no need to resort to Hobbes's or Rousseau's "social contract" in order to explain the individual's subservience; and inversely, precisely because this natural superiority derives not from Spencer's individual, but from a social reality sui generis, the constraint it exercises is not merely physical, but also moral and intellectual. It is that superiority of which religion provided the earliest, symbolic representation, and science the later, more exact explanation.31

Rules for the Demonstration of Sociological Proof

How, then, can we demonstrate that one phenomenon is the cause of another? According to Durkheim, we can only compare those cases where both are simultaneously present (or absent), and ask whether the variations they display in these different circumstances suggest that one depends upon the other. Where the two phenomena are produced artificially by the observer, we call this method experimentation; and where the artificial production of phenomena is impossible, we compare them as they have been produced naturally, a procedure called indirect experimentation, or the comparative method. Durkheim was convinced that sociology was limited solely to the latter method, and this led him to reject both Comte's "historical" method, which depended on an acceptance of his tendentious "laws" of social progress, and Mill's suggestion that even "indirect" experimentation is inapplicable to the study of social phenomena. In particular, Durkheim attacked Mill`s postulate that the same effect can result from various causes as one which would render the scientific analysis of such causes utterly intractable. As the first rule for the demonstration of sociological proof, therefore, Durkheim proposed: To the same effect there always corresponds the same cause.32

But not all forms of the comparative method, Durkheim argued, are equally applicable to the study of social facts, a view which led him to a critique of the five canons of experimental inquiry contained in Mill's System of Logic (1843). Mill's "Method of Agreement," for example, had stated that, if two instances of a phenomenon share only one circumstance, it is either their cause or their effect; his "Method of Difference," by contrast, suggested that, if an instance in which a phenomenon occurs and one in which it does not differ in only one other circumstance, it is the cause, or the effect, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon; and his "Joint Method of Agreement and Difference" consisted in combining the first two, putting together knowledge of what is common to all cases of the phenomenon and what alone differs when it is absent. To all three, Durkheim objected on the ground that they assume the cases compared either agree or differ on only one point, conditions difficult enough to achieve in physics, chemistry, and biology, but literally impossible in the study of phenomena as complex as those of sociology. Mill's "Method of Residues" suggested that we subtract from a phenomenon what is known already to be the effect of certain causes, the "residue" being the effect of the remaining antecedents; but here again, Durkheim objected to the assumption that a considerable number of causal laws are already known, and that the effects of all causes but one might thus be eliminated in a science so complex as sociology.

Mill's fifth canon, however, was that of "Concomitant Variation" -- that phenomena which vary together are connected through some fact of causation. And this search for a "mere parallelism in values" through which two phenomena pass survived all of Durkheim's objections to the first four. For the manner in which a phenomenon develops reveals its internal nature, and where two phenomena develop in the same way, there must thus be some internal connection between the natures thus revealed. Durkheim could thus do quite well without those massive collections of facts assembled by historians, ethnographers, and sociologists pursuing the "Method of Agreement and Differences." Concomitant variation alone, as long as the variations were serial and systematic rather than isolated and sporadic, was always sufficient to establish a sociological law.33

Durkheim then proposed three methods by which such serial, systematic variations might be formed. First, when dealing with very general facts (e.g., suicide) about which we have extensive statistical data,34 the sociologist might limit his study to a single, unique society. But a second method -- i.e., collecting facts from several societies of the same social type -- makes available a more extensive field of comparison. The sociologist could now confront the history of one society with another, to see if the same phenomenon evolves over time in response to the same conditions. But this method is applicable only to phenomena which have arisen during the existence of the societies in question, and thus ignores that part of a society's social organization which is inherited ready-made from earlier societies.

This observation led directly to Durkheim's third method: "to account for a social institution belonging to a species already determined, we shall compare the different forms which it assumes, not only among peoples of that species, but in all previous species."35 This "genetic" method, Durkheim argued, simultaneously yields both an analysis and a synthesis of the facts under study -- by showing us how each component element of the phenomenon was successively added to the other, it reveals them in their dissociated state; and by means of the broad field of comparison, the fundamental conditions on which the formation and association of these elements depend are determined. Consequently, one cannot explain a social fact of any complexity save on condition that one follows its entire development throughout all species. In so far as it ceases to be purely descriptive and attempts to explain social facts, therefore, comparative sociology is not a single branch of sociology, but is coextensive with the discipline itself.

Finally, Durkheim warned against an error characteristic of such extended comparisons -- i.e., in attempting to judge the direction of social evolution, the sociologist compares the state of a social fact during the decline of one society with its state during the early stages of its successor. But the new society, Durkheim insisted, is not simply a continuation of the old; thus, the "revival" of religious traditionalism frequently observed at the outset of a society's history, for example, is the product of the special conditions of that early stage rather than evidence of the "transitoriness" of the religious decline found in the latter stages of its predecessor. To serve as proof, therefore, the comparison of social facts must control for the stage of a society's evolution; and for this purpose, Durkheim concluded, it will be sufficient to consider societies which one is comparing at the same period of their development: "According to whether, from one of these stages to the next, it displays more, less, or as much intensity, one will be able to state whether it is progressing, regressing, or remaining static."36

When Durkheim came to summarize the principal characteristics of sociological method, he mentioned three in particular. First, it is independent of all "doctrines," whether philosophical or practical. Sociology is thus neither positivist, nor evolutionist, nor spiritualist, nor even naturalist in so far as that term is taken in the doctrinal sense, as implying the reduction of social facts to cosmic forces; neither has it to take sides on metaphysics, nor affirm free will rather than determinism (or the reverse). Concentrating the last, its only condition is that social facts are explicable by natural causes, a condition that Durkheim regarded less as a rational necessity than a legitimate inductive inference.37 Similarly, practical doctrines, whether communist, socialist, or individualist, have no scientific value, and if they interest the sociologist at all it is because they are themselves social facts reflective of the interests and desires of certain groups in the society under study.38

Second, sociological method is objective, in the sense that social facts are things and must be treated as such. This means that we can no longer dream of explaining them by their "utility" or by conscious "reasoning" on the part of their agents; on the contrary, social facts are externally coercive forces, which can be engendered only by other forces: "Thus, to account for social facts, we investigate the forces capable of producing them."39

Finally, these "things" are pre-eminently social things, and Durkheim's method was thus exclusively sociological. A social fact cannot be explained except by another social fact, which to Durkheim meant that the "inner social environment" is the primary motive force underlying all social evolution. Indeed, the sense of this "specific nature of social reality" is so important to the sociologist, Durkheim argued, that a "purely sociological culture," an autonomous scientific discipline, is essential to its cultivation. Three years later l'Année sociologique was born.

Critical Remarks

As Steven Lukes has observed,40 The Rules of Sociological Method was simultaneously a treatise on the philosophy of social science, a polemic against the enemies of sociology, and the manifesto of the emergent Durkheim "School"; and it is important to weigh its failures in the light of these multiple, discordant intentions. Nonetheless, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is Durkheim at his worst, and that he is at his best when, where, to precisely the extent, and even "because" he departed from these programmatic utterances. The concept of the "social fact" itself, for example, must be described as extraordinarily capacious if not downright indiscriminate, incorporating the full range of potentially explanatory social phenomena -- population size and distribution, social norms and rules, collective beliefs and practices, currents of opinion -- from the infrastructural to the superstructural level; and as Durkheim's willingness to focus on the latter rather than the former increased over the course of his career, The Rules --rather awkwardly for so imperious a piece -- appeared to straddle an equivocal, intermediate stage.41

It might be argued, of course, that these ambiguities are somewhat relieved by Durkheim's insistence that social facts may be distinguished from their biological and psychological counterparts by their "externality" and powers of "constraint"; but here similar difficulties persist. The suggestion that social facts are external to any particular individual, for example, raises few objections, though a concern for balanced statement might add (as Durkheim increasingly did) that they are also internal to particular individuals; but the suggestion that social facts are external to all individuals can be justified only in the limited sense that they have a prior temporal existence, and any extension beyond these limits is subject (as Durkheim frequently was) to charges of hypostatizing some metaphysical "group mind."42

The term "constraint" seems to have enjoyed a still greater elasticity, for Durkheim used it variously to refer to the authority of laws as manifested through repressive sanctions; the need to follow certain rules in order to successfully perform certain tasks; the influence of the structural features of a society on its cultural norms and rules; the psychological pressures of a crowd on its members; and the effect of socialization and acculturation on the individual. The first of these usages, Lukes has observed, seems more felicitous than the second (which is perhaps better described as a "means-end" relation), and the last three seem something else altogether -- i.e., far from being cases of "constraint" or "coercion," they rather describe how men are led to think and feel in a certain way, to know and value certain things, and to act accordingly.43 It was these latter usages, moreover, which Durkheim increasingly adopted as his interests shifted from the structural emphases of The Division of Labor to the focus on collective representations characteristic of The Elementary Forms; as he did so, "constraint" became less an "essential characteristic" than a "perceptible sign,"44 and eventually, it disappeared altogether.

Like his definition of social facts, Durkheim's rules for their explanation represent a laudable effort to establish sociology as a science independent of psychology; but here again, "psychology" seems to have meant several different things to Durkheim -- explanation in terms of "organico-psychic" factors like race and/or heredity; explanation by "individual and particular" rather than "social and general" conditions; and, most frequently, explanation in terms of "individual mental states or dispositions."45 In each instance, Durkheim discovered logical or empirical shortcomings; but if social facts thus cannot be completely explained by psychological facts, it is at least equally true that even the most determinedly "sociological" explanations necessarily rely upon certain assumptions, explicit or otherwise, about how individual human beings think, feel, and act in particular circumstances. Sociology may not produce many laws, W.G. Runciman has observed,46 but it certainly consumes them -- especially those of psychology.47 Durkheim's insistence that social facts can be explained only by other social facts was thus both excessive and naive.

Durkheim's effort to find objective criteria by which "normal" might be distinguished from "pathological" social facts was a rather transparent attempt to grant scientific status to those social and political preferences we have already observed in Book Three of The Division of Labor. In addition to the logical difficulties of inferring "social health" from the "generality" of a phenomenon, Durkheim himself recognized the practical obstacles to drawing such inferences in "transition periods" like his own; but since economic anarchy, anomie, and rapidly rising suicide rates were all "general" features of "organized" societies, Durkheim's second criterion -- that this generality be related to the general conditions of the social type in question -- could render them "pathological" only by reference to some future, integrated society which Durkheim somehow considered "latent" in the present. Durkheim, in short, tended to idealize future societies while dismissing present realities, and thus appears to have been oblivious to the sheer historical contingency of all social arrangements.48

The example chosen to illustrate these criteria -- the "normality" of crime -- reflects the same conservative preconceptions. Even if we accept the argument that the punishment elicited by crime reaffirms that solidarity based on shared beliefs and sentiments, for example, we must still ask a series of more specific questions -- Which beliefs and sentiments? Shared by whom? What degree of punishment? Which "criminal" offenses? Committed by whom? For in the absence of specific answers to such questions (Durkheim's treatment of these issues is unrelievedly abstract), the claim that crime is functional to social integration could be used to justify any favored set of beliefs and practices, and any type or degree of punishment, simply by arguing that the failure to punish would be followed inevitably by social disintegration. Durkheim's additional claim -- that crime is functional to social change -- was a simple extension of the view discussed in Chapter 2, that law is the direct reflection of the conscience collective. But, as Tarde was quick to point out, there is no necessary connection between the violation of these laws constituting crimes and the sources of moral and social innovation.49

Taken together, these criticisms suggest that Durkheim's claim that his sociological method was free of philosophical and political doctrines must be considered an instance of what Jürgen Habermas might call his "self-misunderstanding." Philosophically, for example, Durkheim was clearly a social realist and rationalist -- he believed that society is a reality independent of individual minds, and that the methodical elimination of our subjective preconceptions will enable us to know it as it is. In so far as social facts are culturally transmitted from one generation to another, and individuals do learn and are thus shaped by them, this is unobjectionable; but it is equally true that social facts are themselves constituted by the meanings attached to them by those agents whose acts, thoughts, and feelings they are, and that such subjective interpretations are thus a part of the reality to be "known." The question of what religion "is," for example, is hardly one which can be settled aside from the meanings attached to it by those whose "religion" is under investigation; and any effort to study it independent of such meanings runs the risk not merely of abstracting some "essentialist" definition of religion bearing no relation to the beliefs and practices in question, but also of unconsciously imposing one's own subjective interpretation under the guise of detached, scientific observation.50

Politically, as we have seen, Durkheim maintained that scholars make poor activists, abstained from participation in socialist circles, and generally presented himself as a sociological expert advising his contemporaries on their "true" societal interests; but it is difficult to see how theories which so consistently and emphatically endorsed the secular democratic, egalitarian, anti-royalist, and anti-revolutionary values of the Third Republic could reasonably be regarded as devoid of political interests and objectives. The point here is not simply that these theories served political ends, or even that these ends were Durkheim's own; it is rather that here the distinction between social thought and social action becomes elusive to the point of non-existence; for Durkheim's entire social science, including choice and formulation of problems, definition of terms, classification of social types explanatory hypotheses, methods of proof -- indeed, even the denial of all philosophical and political commitments itself -- was a deeply political act.51


  1. 1895: 52.
  2. The classic demonstration of this point, of course, was Durkheim's Suicide (1897).
  3. Cf. 1893: 345-350. Durkheim saw such facts as analogous to those "mixed" phenomena of nature studied by "combined" sciences such as biochemistry.
  4. This, of course, had been a major source of Durkheim's disagreement with Spencer in The Division of Labor (cf. 1893: 200 -229). In Rules, Durkheim extended the same argument to oppose the "ingenious system" of Gabriel Tarde: "imitation," like "generality," is viewed as the consequence rather than the cause of the coercive nature of a social fact (cf. 1895: 57).
  5. The distinction corresponds to, and was to a considerable extent the source of, the more common sociological distinction between "structure" and "function," and for convenience these terms will be adopted henceforth. Pursuing the biological analogue, Durkheim also frequently employed the term "physiological" to refer to social function, and "anatomical" or "morphological" to refer to social structure.
  6. 1895: 73.
  7. 1895: 80-81.
  8. It was recognition of this need for reflective thought as a guide to action, Durkheim felt, which had so long preserved the "ideological method" disparaged earlier; but Durkheim insisted that the problem could be solved without sacrificing the claims of reason to those of ideology (cf. 1895: 86).
  9. 1895: 91. The last condition, of cours, describes Durkheim's view of all three of those "pathological" forms discussed in Book Three of The Division of Labor (cf. 1893: 353-395).
  10. 1895: 92. Cf. the point raised in Chapter 2 above, i.e., that what is "normal" for the savage is not "normal" for civilized man.
  11. Precisely because this method of verification presupposes the designation of a fact as normal by the criterion of generality, Durkheim insisted that it remained a secondary method which must not be substituted for the first (cf. 1895: 96).
  12. This was the procedure used by Durkheim in The Division of Labor to demonstrate the "normality" of declining religious faith.
  13. 1895: 97.
  14. 1895: 98. Crime may of course exhibit abnormal forms, as in an excessively high rate for a given societal type; but the existence of crime itself, in any society, is normal.
  15. 1895: 98.
  16. Durkheim rejected the alternative method of detailed monographic comparison as inconsistent with the main purpose of classification, which is to substitute a limited number of types for an indefinite multiplicity of individuals (cf. 1895: 110-111).
  17. The term "coalescence" refers to the degree of concentration of the component segments, and "complete coalescence" is achieved where these segments no longer affect the administrative or political organization of the society (cf. 1895: 115).
  18. Here, again, the primary objects of Durkheim's criticisms are Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer (cf. 1895: 195).
  19. Here Durkheim sometimes seems to argue with himself. While insisting on the need for functional as well as causal explanations of social facts, for example, he states that a social fact must generally be useful if it, and "indeed, the society of which it is a part" are to survive (cf. 1895: 124-125). The most charitable interpretation lays special emphasis on the words "vital" and "generally."
  20. This argument, incidentally, reflects Durkheim's profoundly uniformitarian conception of social evolution. If historical development depended on ends desired and purposes pursued, he observed, social facts would be as infinitely diverse as human desires and purposes themselves; but the extraordinary regularity with which the same facts appear under the same circumstances suggest that less variable causes are at work.
  21. As in The Division of Labor (cf. p. 49). Durkheim used the term "function" (rather than "end," "aim," or "object") advisedly. Even where dealing with the "function" of a social fact separately from its cause, the question was solely one of determining the nature of any correspondence between the fact and the general needs of the social organism, regardless of whether this correspondence was intentional. "All such questions of intention," Durkheim observed, "are... too subjective to be dealt with scientifically" (1895: 173).
  22. 1895: 128.
  23. 1895: 129.
  24. 1895: 130.
  25. Durkheim did not deny that psychology held some relevance for sociology; on the contrary, the association of psychological facts whereby social facts are produced is similar to the association of primary psychological elements (e.g., sensations, reflexes, instincts, etc.) whereby the individual consciousness is made up. Durkheim thus considered an education in psychology even more important than one in biology as a preparation for a sociologist; but still, collective life does not derive from individual life, and the latter cannot explain the former (cf. 1895: 134-135).
  26. The "constituent elements" of this environment are not limited to persons, but include both material and non-material objects (e.g., literature, art, law, custom, etc.) which also influence the direction and rapidity of social evolution. While these must be taken into consideration in an attempted explanation, however, Durkheim denied that they possessed the "motivating power" to produce social transformations, and focused instead on the specifically human environment (cf. 1895: 138).
  27. Durkheim acknowledged an overemphasis in The Division of Labor on physical density as the "exact expression" of dynamic density, but adds that such an equivalence is surely justified when dealing with the economic effects of the latter (cf. 1895: 146 n.21).
  28. This restrictive emphasis on the search for concomitant rather than antecedent causes again reflects the deeply uniformitarian conception of social evolution held by Durkheim (cf. 1895:139-140).
  29. 1895: 141.
  30. This, of course, is a gross distortion of Rousseau; but it is apparently what Durkheim believed.
  31. This became a central idea of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912); cf. Durkheim (1895: 143-144).
  32. This principle had already been applied in The Division of Labor, where Durkheim insisted that punishment appeared to be the result of various causes only because we have failed to perceive the common clement -- i.e., the offense done to strong. well-defined states of the conscience collective -- in its antecedents (cf. 1893: 96-105). The same principle could also be applied in precisely the reverse manner: thus, where suicide was seen to depend on more than one cause, Durkheim insisted that there were in fact several kinds of suicide (cf. 1897b: 145-148).
  33. Durkheim was aware, of course, that such laws required interpretation, as in the not infrequent case (some found in Suicide ) where concomitant variation occurs not because one phenomenon is the cause of another, but because both are the effect of a third; but this, Durkheim observed, is true of any method, and merely imposes certain rules of methodical interpretation (cf. 1895: 152-153).
  34. Even here, the fact must be widely prevalent throughout the society while simultaneously varying from region to region; for otherwise, the comparison yields only two parallel curves, one expressing development of the fact under study and the other its hypothesized cause -- interesting, but hardly proof (cf. 1895: 156).
  35. 1895: 157.
  36. 1895: 158.
  37. This should not be taken as a claim that sociology and philosophy are of no reciprocal value. On the contrary, some of Durkheim's most important works are efforts to show how sociology, once firmly distinguished from philosophy, might in turn illuminate some of the oldest philosophical dilemmas.
  38. Again, it scarcely needs to be added that this is not to say that sociology has no practical value; on the contrary, all of Durkheim's sociology was motivated by practical social problems. But scientific solutions to these problems, he insisted, would be forthcoming only when sociologists liberated themselves from doctrinal parties and studied social facts as things.
  39. 1895: 161.
  40. Lukes, 1972: 226.
  41. In The Division of Labor, for example, Durkheim criticized Fustel for suggesting that "the primitive family was constituted on a religious base," and thus for mistaking "the cause for the effect" (1893: 179), while his review of Antonio Labriola's Essais sur la conception materialiste de l'histoire insisted that from religion "have come all the other manifestations of collective activity... " (1897a: 129).
  42. Lukes, 1982: 3-4.
  43. Cf. Lukes, 1982: 4.
  44. Cf. the preface to the second edition of The Rules of Sociological Method (1901: 47).
  45. Quite aside from his attack on psychology as a mode of explanation, Durkheim frequently described it in terms of its object -- i.e.. the conscience and its représentations. As his interest in such phenomena increased in his later work, Durkheim frequently distinguished between "individual psychology," which studies individual représentations" and "socio-psychology," which studies their collective counterparts; and though his own interest lay entirely in the latter, he considered both studies legitimate (cf. Lukes, 1982: 7).
  46. Runciman, 1983: 32.
  47. Essentially the same point is made independently by Lukes (1982: 17-18).
  48. Lukes, 1972: 29. It was this utterly conservative perspective which led Durkheim to see sociology as analogous to medicine, and the sociologist as a kind of physician.
  49. Cf. Lukes and Scull (1983: 15-19); and Tarde, "Criminality and Social Health" (1895), in Lukes and Scull (1983: 76-92).
  50. Both risks, of course, are taken repeatedly in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), with predictable results. See Chapter 5 below.
  51. Lukes, 1982: 22-23.

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