We read to you the rules of the sociological method – Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917)


Preface to the first edition from 1895The book aims to establish a rational method of examining social facts, to show them reports of cause and effect by overcoming prejudices and scope of psychology.Preface to the second edition 1901The preface of the second edition is intended to clarify certain points particularly to meet the objections raised in the first issue


First, the proposal to study the social facts as objects leads to addressing the outside. Indeed, the complexity of the links between the psychology of an individual and his actions, the place prejudices or preconceptions, but especially the many individuals involved in a social fact render futile any introspection.

Moreover, as life is not reducible to atoms that make up its support, social facts are not reducible to the psychology of members of a society. In this, sociology is a distinct science of psychology has its own laws.

Finally, the definition of a social fact as a way of doing or thinking could have on particular consciences a coercive influence was found to be too narrow or too broad. A definition is nevertheless necessary before initiating the study of a social fact in order to establish the origin and consequences. To clarify the point, specify that sociology is interested in moral constraints imposed from outside. It thus excludes the physical constraints and personal or hereditary habits that an individual imposes on himself. In a sense, it is the science of institutions considered stresses exerted by the community over the individual.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim

Chapter I: What is a social fact?

Every day we act, think or feel according to principles that we are outside, we found in the state from our birth, we have neither made nor chosen: money, business practices, the alphabet, language, laws, technical rules … and who, in trying to break them, offer resistance, either by invitation or by punishment. This is of social facts. They can also take forms more transient, such as large movements of enthusiasm, indignation or pity produced by a mob, which are not reducible to the sum of the feelings of each member that constitutes, whose consciences individual may be, afterwards, the first surprises of group behavior.

Social necessarily of a general nature to the extent that they apply to everyone, but this property is not sufficient to characterize them. It is also the approach in designating them as ways of acting to feel or think that spread within a group while remaining independent individual forms they take.

A law exists independently as individual judgments are rendered. The diffusion of social facts is then due to their first home, their binding. A social fact can present as a way of being. However, it is then the result of the crystallization of a way of doing. For example, the distribution of a population depends on the right, lines of communication, depend on transport flows and migration, architectural types are the result of centuries-old traditions.

We can give the following definition:

Social fact is any way to, fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint; or again, which is generally in the range of a given society whilst having an existence independent of its individual manifestations.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim

Chapter II: Rules on the observation of social facts

The first rule and most fundamental is to consider social facts as things.

To cope with various situations in which he finds himself, man needs to represent the phenomena that surround it. These representations have a practical purpose and does not reflect reality. The alchemy and astrology are well designed to provide practical answers yet inaccessible to chemistry and astronomy. This is prenotions.

In sociology, we argue about the ideas that we have of the State, Justice and all the functions necessary to our society, without considering the reality of these things.

These representations have gained authority linked to their recurrence and seem to resist when we go against them. Thus, everything contributes to that we take for reality. The constant progress of humanity defended by account or definition of the essence of social life through the cooperation of individuals supported by Spencer are examples of preconceptions that are not based on any social fact.

The notions of sovereignty, political liberty, democracy, communism are commonly used following common sense and without being defined. But it is in the reflections on morality that this ideological character is highest. All systems are looking for a superior idea whose legal and moral rules that would declination in different circumstances.

The review is not about the rules themselves but on a hypothetical principle supposed to contain them. It is the same political economy, studied without being defined. Economists are applying the law of supply and demand which corresponds to the best interest of everyone without having actually seen.

It is therefore necessary to adopt a scientific approach, return to the observation of social phenomena from outside, as things.

The first corollary to the first rule is: we must systematically discard preconceptions.

This postage requires effort, as we are attached to our political, religious and moral. All mysticism and all feelings should be put aside.

Furthermore, it is essential to give a precise definition studied phenomenon from external criteria.

Indeed, the deeper features can be discovered after analysis. This rule therefore consists in:

Never take for research object that a group of phenomena previously defined by certain external characteristics common to them and understand in the same search all who meet this definition.

For example, the study may relate to a partial inbred society of individuals united by legal ties called family. The study of the facts are punished is the subject of criminology. But it should not exclude from the scope of reflection acts punishable under the pretext that they are judged in a primitive society or for the wrong reasons. Such withdrawal before any thought could only be arbitrary.

The sociologist has no choice and is used as a criterion for defining a superficial facts studied because, as in any science, he has to leave sensitive data.

« Science, to be objective, must go, not concepts that have formed without it, but the feeling. This is sensitive data that is directly borrow the elements of its initial definitions. « Émile Durkheim

Finally, scientific research should be established not-not on floating practices but on bound facts. The following rule can be established:

When the sociologist undertakes to explore any order of social facts, he must endeavor to consider the one side where they have isolated their individual events.

So to address the crimes, we will build on the mid practices and laws; to popular beliefs, sayings and proverbs on.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim

Chapter III: Rules relating to the distinction between normal and pathological

Science does she do that describe phenomena without judging, their use is left to our discretion or is it likely to enlighten our choices? The first hypothesis assumes a higher concept guiding our awareness in the use of science, the second, a difference between the normal and the pathological ie the ability to set a standard.

In medicine, the definition of healthy and pathological is complex: one is tempted to assume that the disease state causing the weakening and death of an organism. But healthy states, such as old age or childhood, correspond to a weakening and has a much higher mortality than certain diseases. Translating these concepts to social facts adds a difficulty: the smaller sample sizes.

The method calls in a first stage, from the most general forms we see, worthless of consideration, to define average condition satisfying the requirements of the majority of companies of the same social species. This state will be described as normal and any deviation from this pathological reference. The normal state of a form of organization or agency allows them better adaptation to the environment and promotes their survival since, by definition, it diffuses better than pathological conditions.

However, it happens that in social evolution in species that have not reached their steady state, a phenomenon persists habit while its causes have disappeared. Following the abovementioned first stage verification of the sustainability of the causes that gave rise to a widespread phenomenon in a social type must be completed in order to qualify the definitely normal.

These considerations set out the following three rules:

  1. a social fact is normal for a certain social type, considered at a given stage of its development, when it occurs in the average company of this kind, considered to the corresponding phase of their evolution.
  2. One can check the results of the previous method by showing that the generality of the phenomenon is due to the general conditions of collective life in the particular social type.
  3. This verification is necessary when this fact is related to a social species that has not yet achieved its full development.

A normal crime

The application of its rules to crimes, ie acts that offend certain collective sentiments, endowed with energy and a special sharpness, shows that a crime rate is normal as this in all societies .

The lack of crime presuppose that collective requirements have penetrated all consciences. But in this case, the feelings of the company would be re-calibrated. Simple moral faults, which differ from the crime only in degree, as they offend a lesser extent collective sentiments, would then be seen as crimes.

Moreover differences between individuals does not allow to consider sharing all the values of a society, a necessary condition for the absence of moral fault. Also, such uniformity would prohibit any moral evolution acts leading some to lose their criminality to trivialize and vice versa. Finally, if the crime is considered normal, it is appropriate to question the role of the sentence …

Thus, the sociologist must accept that learning the facts about the normal or not the phenomena. The statesman must, meanwhile, aim to restore, when threatened, the normal state defined as generality, rather than targeting an abstract perfection.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim

Chapter IV: Rules for the formation of social types

For the historian, every people has its own values and its own organization as for the philosopher, these systems reflect one principle that applies to mankind. An intermediate position is to define social species is possible to store companies.

To distinguish these species, the comprehensive review of the companies being impossible, it should focus on their most essential characteristics in a social morphology process and in particular to find the simplest society that existed.


The horde, whose unobserved primitive existence but deduced from examination of clans which are groups, meets this criterion. It will be observed for so-called simple polysegmental companies formed by juxtaposing clans. Their joints constitute merely composed polysegmental companies flocking in polysegmental society doubly compound. This process is complex and different degrees of companies may also assemble, as happened in the Roman Empire.

Secondly, it should differentiate the degree of coalescence between the groups that form the higher level of society. Among the Germanic tribes, each segment retains autonomy while in Rome, political unity is total.

The classification rule can be stated thus:

We begin by classifying societies according to the degree of its present composition, taking as a basis the perfectly simple society or single segment; within these classes we distinguish the different varieties depending on whether or not occurs a complete coalescence of the initial segments.

The existence of social species is necessary because there is a limited number of possible combinations, which are these species, among the hordes then polysegmental between companies in different degrees.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim

Chapter V: Rules for the explanation of social fact

Some sociologists believe that every social fact is a need. But the need and the social fact is not of the same nature, the second can not generate the first. The social fact is a force to which we are subject, only one other force can create.

Thus, to give a government the authority, it is not enough to feel the need. The independence between the functions, that is to say the services rendered and the cause of a social fact is illustrated by the fact that some of them are useless. Others remained the same rules, but whose usefulness has evolved over time.

However, we must not deny the role that can have on the human need development, not the creation of a social fact.

Thus, the social work division was a need in an increasingly dense society. This need has « fertilized » the germ of specialization to achieve the society we know.

Finally, if their usefulness were taken out of nothingness, social fact should have an infinite diversity, corresponding to all the solutions to achieve their goal. But invariants highlighted by the study of societies contradict this hypothesis and show that they are the result of efficient causes.

The following rule can be stated thus:

when one undertakes to explain a social phenomenon, we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it performs.

Finally, it is legitimate to continue seeking the function and effects of the phenomenon once found his cause. We often experience an interdependence between cause and effect: the utility of an already established social fact frequently ensures the sustainability of its cause. Indeed parasites phenomena are often expensive, only facts generating a benefit to society persist and with them the cause that produces them.

Sociologists such as Account and Spencer explain social facts by individual psychology whose civilization would that development. But, again, the power they have over us shows that they are not of the same nature as our will. It should not confuse the stresses they exert on us from outside our own ability to dominate us. The first control the second.

If social life does not come from individuals, it can only come from the company, which is a collective consciousness, a psychic being, not reducible to individual consciences of its members.

The causes of social facts which apply to individuals must therefore be sought in this emerging entity. Formation of the company by the association of its members is itself a social fact that escapes individual psychology: a man born in a society and a culture that are binding on him and that it is difficult to leave . Also belonging to society is a priori no fixed goal, since it does not know what she expected of him in the future.

The contribution of individuals in social facts is in very general statements and vague trends. Thus, the feeling experienced in the face of forces beyond ourselves will lead to the religious institution and its complex rules. The mutual feelings of same blood lead on family law. Individuals under the influence of its social facts will eventually consider that they are natural tendencies. But the differences in the organization of various companies show that what sociologists take for innate dispositions, such as religious sentiment or filial piety, are consequences of social facts and not the reverse.

Furthermore, no link could be found between race, which is an organic-psychic character, and the form of organization of a society. Similarities exist between societies composed of individuals of different races, as well as observable differences between societies composed of individuals of the same race. This finding is further evidence that the origin of social facts is not to be found in individual psychology.

We can state the following rule:

The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among antecedent social facts and not among the states of the individual consciousness.

In addition, the consequence is to say, the function of a social fact can only be social. So :

The function of a social fact must always be sought in the report argues with a social purpose.

The company consists of elements, teaming, form its internal environment as well as the anatomical elements form an organization. As such:

The original source of all social processes of any importance must be sought in the constitution of the internal social environment.

The constituents of the social environment are of two kinds:

  1. passive things, previous social action products, literature, arts, rights, morals;
  2. the human environment that contains the drivers.

Within the human environment, two sets of characters are able to influence the course of social phenomena:

  1. the number of social units, that is to say, the company’s volume;
  2. the concentration of mass, that is to say the dynamic density or the degree of coalescence of social segments, the material density of the population reflects only imperfectly.

It is observed that the social strength is an increasing function of each of these factors. They also condition the lives of smaller sized companies, such as family, professional societies, etc, though each remains under the influence of the general environment.

The social environment is not an ultimate fact.

It is the result of causes inherent to society and related to its interactions with neighboring societies. It can be called primary that because it helps explain many other facts.

Excluding volume and dynamic density of society as factors of intensification of social life, nothing can explain the movement of society.

One must then apply a driving force, based for example on the progress and the pursuit of happiness, which would allow the company to move forward on a path already determined by the elements accumulated in the past.

Now this type of causal connections, leaving no room for concurrent causes, is contradicted by experience which shows that if the past is understandable, the future is unpredictable and non-route in advance.

In addition, the foundations of the driving force, shared by each company, should lead to a common goal. But the diversity of societies shows that institutions must be judged case by case, depending on the social environment. Those suitable to be harmful to the other and vice versa.

Companies do not reflect various human groups progress reports pushed toward a common goal.

There are two ways to conceive of social life.

  1. For some, including Hobbes and Rousseau, it is a strain artificial nature, developed by the individuals themselves, to enable the common life;
  2. For others, including Spencer, inspired by the natural law theorists, it is the product of the natural inclinations of individuals.

The rules established in the framework of the new theory refer back to back these ideas and say that the social fact comes directly « from the bowels of reality » and of social being that emerges from the association of consciences.

Reconciling aspects « binding » and « natural » social fact, they founded the spirit of discipline as a condition of life in common.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim

Chapter VI: Rules for the taking of evidence

Social phenomena are not reproducible by the will of the observer, it must resolve to connect each of them to its cause by an experimental method of inducing or comparative method.

The sociologist must therefore rely on the principle of causality and to draw on the proposition to the same effect is always the same cause.

Thus, if a fact appears to have multiple causes, it should seek common element, which is the real cause, unless this fact may itself have, despite appearances, several different kinds. There are several such kind of crimes or suicides.

In sociology, some methods are impractical as those of comparing multiple companies in one feature, all others are assumed stable. Sociological method par excellence is that of concomitant variations of examining a sufficient number of cases the variation of parallelism of two phenomena regardless of the status of other phenomena.

If the result is positive, the evidence of a causal relationship is taken for granted, even if in some particular cases, the parallelism of changes is not found. It happens that some secondary phenomena have not allowed the causal chain run or show results in the expected form. An interpretation is then necessary to search for the causal link, confirm by new observations and verify its compatibility with the already established laws. If these investigations did not provide conclusive results, it should seek an upstream phenomenon, conditioning those with parallel evolution.

The review of concomitant variations of two phenomena can limit the number of observations compared to methods based on specific facts. These variations must also be observed on the beaches as extensive and continuous as possible. Over the base of observation in space and time, the greater the evidence is solid.

General phenomena such as suicide may only be observed in only one country. However, for institutions or moral rules, observation will involve several companies and be extended to earlier societies of which they are the inheritors.

We can explain a social fact of any complexity on the condition to follow the integral development across all social species.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim


Sociology is independent of

  • philosophical, she does not share subjectivity;
  • political doctrines, which it does not share the objective of changing societies.

This is a science using legitimately, just as other sciences, the principle of causality to explain social phenomena as things, that is to say, forces that can not be generated as by other forces, and can not be reduced to the sum of their components.

Summary – The rules of sociological method – Émile Durkheim

Appendix: « The current state of sociological studies and France »

Emile Durkheim made in this article published in 1895, an update on the status of the sociology of his time guidance of its mainstream, bringing additional light on the context in which work takes place.

The anthropological and ethnographic group, whose main representative is Letourneau, is interested in the articulation between race and supposed civilization. These sources are essentially travelogues and occasional papers that have not been deepening. Letourneau seems to give preference to primitive societies to the detriment of brilliant civilizations that preceded us and whose expansion demonstrates social superiority. He thus projects his prejudices on his work. His conclusions about the qualities of primitive civilizations were recovered by certain tendencies of socialism however contradicting Marx’s thought that does not invite to turn to earlier types of companies, but to advance towards the development of a society new as the culmination of the story.

The criminologists group, led by Tarde and Lacassagne. The latter defends the thesis of the organic origin of the crime but which, like a microbe, requires a favorable development environment, playing the role of culture broth. The crime would also depend on cosmic causes, climate, seasonal, etc. Tarde advocates, meanwhile, a social origin of crime and poses that « every social fact is a product of imitation. » This, according to him, motivates imitation is, to a small extent, logic and utility, and essentially the prestige of those whose uses are imitated. This theory is interested only in the spread of facts and uses but is unable to explain the genesis she attributed to chance.

The university group share a common training which explains some thought similarities. Their precursors, Espinas and Fouillee were interested in general sociology. Part of their successors have limited their work to the study of the problem of morality. Richard tried to overcome the opposition between,

  • one hand, utilitarian, seeing in morality a set of socially useful rules to contain individual selfishness
  • and, secondly, metaphysicians, conceiving it as a selfless duty imposed upon individuals.

He therefore asked the central question: what are the social influences that have led to the idea of law and that helped in development? It concludes that the right is from the social solidarity: individuals, for their conflicts do not degenerate into war, agree to submit to arbitrators, volunteered to play this role in order to stop the injustices suffered by the offended .

This vision involves neither selfishness nor metaphysics and reconciles justice and charity as the company is kind to one who has been wronged.

Durkheim is in the latter group by its academic origin and interest in moral phenomena.

His method is to first characteristic objectivity that imposes the rejection of the ideas that have not been scientifically established and which are the source of contradictory theories.

It requires above all consider social facts as things, to study them from the outside without wishing to infer mental states which have given birth.

As such, morality must be studied as it exists, first in right, then in popular maxims; religions from their events. That is to proceed in the same way that physicists or chemists interested in the phenomena, not with the idea that men make. The kind of thing legal practices, moral, economic, educational, etc., is proven by the fact that they are forcing us and we oppose resistance when we want to change. Their intangible nature does not alter their nature.

This method allowed to give the explanation of social facts first by the value they have or need they satisfy:

  • marriage by sexual jealousy,
  • religion by fear of death,
  • society by the idea of cooperation.

Social facts can not have been created by things not by desires that are not of the same nature. They are indeed things social, psychological phenomena irreducible to individuals. Their causes must be sought among the social things. The authority they impose on us testify that they are different and higher nature than that of our psyche. Thus, the social realm has its own reality and should be investigated specifically.

Sociology must work today to determine the facts which play a major role in the evolution of social life. Without claiming to have explained, the social evolution seems conditioned by two parameters:

  • the sum of the companies that is to say the number of social units which constitute
  • and dynamic density.

Reader Comments (somewhat loose):

Okay, the title is not very glamorous and about a bit theoretical. But it’s still a reference book of modern sociology that reads reasonably well.

Regarding the explanation of social facts, the parallel between the evolution of society and the evolution of animal species is very tempting.

A physiological trait in animals occurs incidentally by genetic mutation. It should be emphasized that strictly contingent aspect that is often misunderstood. If this newly appeared character is an advantage for those who are carriers, their offspring who also has will be promoted and it will spread. The species will thus be adapted in two stages:

the accidental appearance of a character

and its validation by the living conditions.

In the description of Durkheim, a social fact appears for purely sociological reasons unrelated to its usefulness, the way a physiological character appeared to random genetic reasons.

Then, if this phenomenon is of interest, it will be preserved thanks to the effects of which it is responsible. If there is no use, it can be preserved or disappear depending on the costs it causes to society.

One of the main ideas of the Rules is the duality of the universe of individual psychology and the world of social facts, comparable to that which exists between chemistry and biology. They are concepts of different kinds, which can not interact as asymmetrically, social facts requiring consciences.

The 1895 article refutes Tarde on the role of imitation in disseminating social fact. The theory of memes, that is to say replicators that are memes and cultural genes, seems to rehabilitate the role of imitation. Moreover, this theory shows that memes are subject, like other replicators that are the genes, a Darwinian natural selection that determines their broadcast rule (The meme theory of Susan Blackmore and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins).

Note: The author used interchangeably:

social fact and social phenomenon,

social and social type species.

« The only reason we have to believe that life is good is that it has lasted and is widespread. We did the same no scientific reason to assume that such biological or social form is superior to another; is that one has developed more and more, while the other fell. « Émile Durkheim


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