Analysis and Discussion

Meyer (1999) is his essay “An Essay in the Philosophy of Social Science” has quoted Durkheim’s attempted distinction of Sociological method and methodology of Psychology in terms of what as to what constitutes social reality. The author way of introducing the concept has a background on his philosophical inquiry on whether scientific knowledge accords reality.  The requirement of reality according to Meyer (1999) is verifiable by persons with proper ability before a field of study is to be considered a science. Meyer (1999) then made connection with Durkheim’s distinction of his sociological methodology and the methodology of psychology as to the concept of social fact.

The social fact therefore is our framework for explaining and analyzing the distinction. Meyer (1999) said, “In Chapter 1 of his The Rules of Sociological Method he states two criteria for identifying “social facts”. Firstly: “A social fact is to be recognized by the power of external coercion which it exercises or is capable of exercising over individuals, and the presence of this power may be recognized in its turn either by the existence of some specific sanction or by the resistance offered against every individual effort to violate it.”(Durkhiem, p.10) According to this definition, gravity is a social fact, since it coerces individuals to remain on the ground and resists their attempts to fly by their own efforts.” At the end of Chapter 1 he restates this as: “A social fact is every way of acting — capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint.” (Durkhiem, p.13)”

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Meyer (1999) argued that since gravity is not a “way of acting” this excludes gravity. He therefore inferred that presumably is must be people that acts and that  a social fact would seem to be present whenever people act in such a way as to constrain the actions of other people. He explained that people do so  by virtue of occupying space, since we cannot walk through solid objects. He concluded what Durkheim  mean that people constrain others by intention to be referring to customs, laws and traditions which individuals ignore at some risk.

Citing customs, laws and tradition as exerting constraint on individuals, Meyer (1999) appears agreeing with Durkheim. Wikipedia , 2006, further affirmed this when it discussed the term  saying, “social facts are the social structures and cultural norms and values that are external to, and coercive of, actors (Ritzer 2000:73). Social facts would be represented by social norms or social institutions within the collective conscience or collective representations, which is internalized by individuals as morals which inevitably constrain their behaviour (Marshall 1994: 486). Examples would be law or the suicide rate in a given community.”

Social facts are therefore evident in social norms and social institutions. They have their observable characteristic which is veriafiable for those who want to study sociology (Wikipedia , 2006)

Meyer (1999) gave the second criterion Durkheim have cited  for the presence of a “social fact”  saying, “Every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.” ([Dur], p.13) But does it make sense to speak of anything “existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations”? To take an example from Durkheim’s own work, can we say that suicide exists “in its own right” apart from particular instances of suicide?”

Durkheim’s second criterion has created a controversy as to the basis of the assertion. However, the Meyer (1999)  appear to have admitted:, “Nevertheless there is a sense in which customs and traditions exist over and above the actions of individuals which may be said to exemplify them, for example, the custom and tradition of marriage. Yet even if one denies that there is an entity of some kind distinct from the individual instances of marriage, marriage is not simply the collection of those instances. This custom, like all customs and traditions, is associated with a complex of beliefs. In fact this custom may be regarded as consisting of this belief complex together with the actions of individuals acting on those beliefs in respect of them.”   Meyer (1999) appeared to have illustrated a classic example of the existence of social fact in the form of the custom of marriage (Westermarck, 1936).  The author did distinguish a collection of instances from a complex of belief.  Marriage appears to be a social fact that for some it is called an institution that must be respected.  Society confers it a distinct meaning as one the most significant events in the lives of people. That they are accepted modes of behaviour by groups of people is not an over- illustration of the reality of social fact.

But one would are arguing: “Does not a person enters a marriage because of promise of happier life and therefore becomes and individual decision?”  Meyer (1999)  appears to confirm this possible scenario when he said , “ Such a view risks being seen as a psychological conception of marriage, i.e., a reduction of the “fact” of marriage to instances of individual belief and consequent action, and thus is inconsistent with Durkheim’s wish to distinguish social science from psychology.”

But how do we really see and observe in marriage in society today? Will it just be really an individual decision that affects marriage?  I believe not because for many people, there are varied reasons why people go into marriages. Under different laws, marriages have also both social and legal consequences (Bernstein and Reimann, 2001) that it may not be again an exaggeration to believe, that the individuals entering into marriage alone decide the event. It may even decide by the parents and by other social groups especially in terms political alliances (Westermarck, 1930) .

Our analysis appear to have a support by Meyer (1999) when the author said, “However in the case of marriage (and other customs and traditions) we do not have simply a collection of individual beliefs and actions. Rather we have a belief complex which is instantiated in many individuals and persists over time. It consists in individuals, in fact, most individuals in society, believing more-or-less the same thing as their contemporaries and as those who went before them and those who succeed them, and acting in ways implied by this belief complex, that allows us to identify “marriage” as something distinct from individual instances of marriage and individual instances of belief.” The author suggested that we are dealing here with something like “collective” psychology, as opposed to “individual” psychology.

Meyer (1999) further  said that there is basis to  say that a quasi-Durkheimian conception of social science as the study of human psychology as it manifests itself not in individual beliefs and actions but in the beliefs and actions of large numbers of (indeed, most if not all) people in a society.  In fact Meyer (1999) strongly believes that that this formulation may not have been acceptable to Durkheim because of his wish to draw a clear distinction between social science and psychology. Durkheim’s philosophical realism must really have basis to have arrived at “collective psychology” as a “collective consciousness” or a “group mind”.

There is basis to agree with the author in inferring the concept the “collective psychology” as “collective consciousness.”  The author has become more convincing when he said “Social reality, it seems, is what social researchers discover when they seek to understand society in a way that makes sense to their colleagues, provided they can agree on what they discover and that this agreement persists over time. Thus it cannot be said to exist independently of the collective activity of social researchers, yet it exists independently of individual social researchers.” (Meyer, 1999)

Based in evidence presented there is basis to agree in Durkheim having aimed to set sociology on a firm, positivist footing, as a science among other sciences. His reason that any particular science must have unique subject matter which is not shared with any other science, but which must be susceptible to investigation by empirical means is well grounded both logic and observation. Wikipedia, 2006 further said, “Variations within the phenomena under investigation, according to Durkheim, must be explained by causes which also lie within the realm of that particular science. In consequence, Durkheim asserted that sociology must become the ‘science of social facts’. “Sociological method as we practice it rests wholly on the basic principle that social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual…. …if no reality exists outside of the individual consciousness, it [sociology] wholly lacks any material of its own.” (Suicide, p. 37-8, quoted in Hoult, p. 298)”

Wikipedia, (2006) argued too that in Durkheim’s view; sociology was simply ‘the science of social facts’. This, it suggested that the task of the sociologist, then, was to search for correlations between social facts and thus reveal laws and that having discovered the laws of social structure, the sociologist is then able to determine if any given society is ‘healthy’ or ‘pathological’ and prescribe appropriate remedies. It even for the existence of a total social fact [fait social total] which it defined as “an activity that has implications throughout society, in the economic, legal, political, and religious spheres.” (Sedgewick 2002: 95) “Diverse strands of social and psychological life are woven together through what he [Mauss] comes to call ‘total social facts’. A total social fact is such that it informs and organizes seemingly quite distinct practices and institutions.” (Edgar 2002:157)”

Durkhiem’s theory to distinguish sociology from psychology via his emphasis on social fact appears more famous in case of suicide rates. He was able to demonstrate in his examination of police suicide statistics in different districts, that  Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than Protestants, and interestingly, he ascribed this to a social (as opposed to individual) cause.  This  was a pioneering work and up to this time , he was quoted by many writers and it proved that the significance of his  ‘discovery of social facts’. This is a living legacy in research showing big potential to make it possible to study the behaviour of entire societies, rather than just of particular individuals. (Wikipedia, 2006)  (Paraphrasing made)


Durkheim’s social fact appears to have made the distinctions clear between sociology and psychology. Although in both terminologies there is a study of  human behaviour, there is basis to agree with Durkheim’s.   While one cannot sociology without studying psychology,  the methodology is simply different.  As individuals reaction to a certain situation may vary so with group’s reaction to stimulus vary depending on the purpose and norms of the group as called for by the situation.   It is also undeniably true that the whole is greater than its parts.   Other writers may not have agreed with Durkheim’s but history documents his unique contribution to sociology and the fact that his sociological method is published is a proof of respect for his work in the field  research.


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