Annotations on The Rules of Durkheim (I). The Definition of Social Fact

We begin here a short series of entries about one of the classic works of sociology: The Rules of Durkheim. In recent times the fortunes of Durkheim, and of the vision methodology that the Rules they embody, has experienced strong poundings. To the criticisms of traditional conservatism, and to a vision that would deny the subjective character of the social life (let’s say, the Giddens of the New Rules), have joined the other around his social vision of the social life (the requirement to explain the social by the social) was a bet wrong, and so on.

These entries will defend the opposite point of view: An important part of the betting theory which makes Durkheim in the Rules are fundamentally correct. Not always get the consequences right of it (and it can even blame the own Durkheim), but the approach that-in essence – gives account central elements to understand the social life. In particular, the fundamental elements (the definition of social fact, rules of observation and explanation are correct. The incorrect claims are those that stem from the organicism of Durkheim, but this position is independent of the basic postures: it Is possible to keep the positions on the above issues without being organismic.

Let us start with the definition of social fact in chapter 1. Let’s talk to Durkheim and his classical definition:

ils consistent in des manières de agir, penser et de sentir, extérieures à l’individu, et qui sont douées d’un pouvoir de coercition in vertu duquel ils s imposent à lui (Ch 1, p 5)

Now, in principle, a definition is not correct, or not. One can define things as one wishes. What is important is that they are helpful: allocation of a set of situations, which more or less corresponds to the one you want to delimit. What we will do in the rest of this entry is to show that this definition is useful in that sense, and that a good part of the criticisms that have been made are inaccurate and incorrect.

The central points of the definition are (a) exterior character of the individual and (b) a coercive nature. In connection with the first, it is obvious that Durkheim does not mean that these facts (say, the language or the moral rules) do not operate in the individual. What that is stating is that they are ways of acting, thinking and feeling that are not generated by the individual and not reduced to what each individual can do

Le système de signes dont je me sers pour former prime ma pensée, le système de monnaies that j emploie pour payer mes dettes, les instruments de crédit that j’utilise dans mes relations commerciales, les pratiques suivies dans ma profession, etc, etc, fonctionnent indépendamment das usages that j’en fais (Ch 1, p 4)

It is clear that the appointment newly used is correct. Spanish as a language is not reduced to what I speak and so on. Stating that this does not imply -nothing more – that these practices can survive without individuals who get it: The Spanish cannot stand as active practice without speakers. That is a statement completely separate that can be said with the definition used: Any social fact (id est outside of each individual and coercive) can’t survive without that there are individuals who realize and put into action.

There is a topic that is overlooked by the critics of the assertion: That between each individual (and remember that Durkheim in his example uses the first person singular, ‘I’), and all individuals there is a break. And that this jump can not be surpassed by any individual -the set of individuals and what they do is a social reality, ‘outside’ in relation to each particular individual. It is, in fact, that’s why the two features (external and coercive) appear as different requirements in the definition: One can think of a fact external to each individual (any feature that depends on the set of individuals) that were not coercive.

Let’s turn to the second part. The dispute here is not clear if there are facts of coercion in social life, it is clear that there are. The question is about whether such a feature effectively delineates the set of situations that we are interested in collecting. Durkheim emphasizes on the nature of coercion that it is not whether we accept or not the social need -even if we accept it is still a requirement. And also refers to the fact if the pressure required or not, physical violence: even if it does not exist, the pressure continues to exist. And that is what definitive.

Ailleurs, la contrainte, pour n’être qu indirecte, n est pas moins efficace. Je ne suis pas obligé de parler français avec mes compatriotes, ni d employer les monnaies légales; mais il est impossible that je fasse autrement (Ch 1, p 5)

The impossible may be a bit exaggerated, (and as you’ll see, it is not essential for the definition), but the examples are clear in showing the existence of a pressure on the actor: If everything around me the world speaks English, if I want to communicate with them, the option to speak in that language is clearly applicable, even if you would prefer to speak in another language (and speak in another language when the social context, the others with whom I’m interacting, so allow). The fact of the pressure refers ultimately only to the circumstance that a practice used by the other actors with whom I interact makes it more difficult not to use it (for that I repeat the impossibility is not necessary to define this feature).

None of the features of the definition requires, and this even against the routine use of Durkheim, that it operate at the level of the global society: it is Not society that is external to the individual, it is not coercion, something of the society. The fact that what happens in the interaction is external to each individual occurs under any context of interaction, at any level. In the same way, the pressure that is generated by the very fact that it is easier (produces less friction) follow the practice of my co-interactantes also occurs at any level. You can argue that those features are more clear and strong to the level of societal, but they are not exclusive of it. They occur wherever there are situations of interaction.

Durkheim in fact discussed a similar problem: The idea that your definition would leave out those situations are not fully stabilized and not yet established (which, in fact, one can say that is what he criticizes Latour). Now, us says:

Mais il est d’autres faits qui, sans présenter ces formes cristallisées, ont et la même objectivité et le même ascendant sur l’individu. C’est ce qu’on appelle ” les courants sociaux. Ainsi, dans une assemblée, les grands mouvements d enthousiasme, d indignation, of pitié qui se produisent, n ont pour lieu d’origine aucune conscience particulière (Ch 1, p 6)

Again: That these currents do not have as a source a personal consciousness does not mean that the first time can be initiated by one actor in particular. But the power as such is something that surpasses each individual (a shout of enthusiasm individual without the existence of the environment where the interactantes take this cry, and expands it does not produce that result, and that situation is something that generate all the interactantes).

Durkheim is aware that, in general, there is a continuum of situations of stability in the social life. But for all of them will tell us that work its features. We already saw what that arose around volatile situations. Also say to situations very stable. He says that the facts referred to are ways of doing things, but what about ways of being? (with the distribution of the population in the territory, with the communication channels or modalities of the houses, Chap 1, p 12). There, we will then say, after observing that there are also true the features you mentioned, that:

Mais elle n’est même pas utile: car ces manières d’être ne sont des manières fair consolidées. La structure politique d’une société n’est que la manière dont les différents segments qui the comprise ont prise l habitude de vivre les uns avec les autres (Ch 1, p 13)

The forms of be are product, at the end, of the ways of doing -and it looks different, says Durkheim, but not what they are fundamentally. In fact, it is possible to find gradations. At the pass, one can see that the facts morphological Durkheim include several that are manifested through and with objects (buildings, communication channels) -the idea that the definition durkheimiana required not to observe the relationship with the objectual world does not have too much base.

Throughout the argument, then, Durkheim insists that the basic characteristics of foreign and coercive operate at all levels of stability. The same argument that we have done in relation to that occurs at all levels of interaction. It is for this reason, then, that can be those characteristics that delimit well what you are interested in studying as a social world. Or as it says Durkheim in one of the phrases the end of the chapter:

Est fait social toute maniére de faire, fixée ou non, susceptible d exercer sur l’individu une contrainte exterieure (Ch 1, p 14)

The text used is the edition of the Presses Universitaires de France, Eidición Quadrige. 2013.

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