From Emile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method,(Ed. by Steven Lukes; trans. by W.D. Halls). New York: Free Press,1982, pp. 50-59.
Before beginning the search for the method appropriate to thestudy of social facts it is important to know what are the factstermed 'social'.
The question is all the more necessary because the term is usedwithout much precision. It is commonly used to designate almost allthe phenomena that occur within society, however little socialinterest of some generality they present. Yet under this headingthere is, so to speak, no human occurrence that cannot be calledsocial. Every individual drinks, sleeps, eats, or employs his reason,and society has every interest in seeing that these functions areregularly exercised. If therefore these facts were social ones,sociology would possess no subject matter peculiarly its own, and itsdomain would be confused with that of biology and psychology.
However, in reality there is in every society a clearly determinedgroup of phenomena separable, because of their distinctcharacteristics, from those that form the subject matter of othersciences of nature.
When I perform my duties as a brother, a husband or a citizen andcarry out the commitments I have entered into, I fulfil obligationswhich are defined in law and custom and which are external to myselfand my actions. Even when they conform to my own sentiments and whenI feel their reality within me, that reality does not cease to beobjective, for it is not I who have prescribed these duties; I havereceived them through education. Moreover, how often does it happenthat we are ignorant of the details of the obligations that we mustassume, and that, to know them, we must consult the legal code andits authorised interpreters! Similarly the believer has discoveredfrom birth, ready fashioned, the beliefs and practices of hisreligious life; if they existed before he did, it follows that theyexist outside him. The system of signs that I employ to express mythoughts, the monetary system I use to pay my debts, the creditinstruments I utilise in my commercial relationships, the practices Ifollow in my profession, etc., all function independently of the useI make of them. Considering in turn each member of society, theforegoing remarks can be repeated for each single one of them. Thusthere are ways of acting, thinking and feeling which possess theremarkable property of existing outside the consciousness of theindividual.
Not only are these types of behaviour and thinking external to theindividual, but they are endued with a compelling and coercive powerby virtue of which, whether he wishes it or not, they imposethemselves upon him. Undoubtedly when I conform to them of my ownfree will, this coercion is not felt or felt hardly at all, since itis unnecessary. None the less it is intrinsically a characteristic ofthese facts; the proof of this is that it asserts itself as soon as Itry to resist. If I attempt to violate the rules of law they reactagainst me so as to forestall my action, if there is still time.Alternatively, they annul it or make my action conform to the norm ifit is already accomplished but capable of being reversed; or theycause me to pay the penalty for it if it is irreparable. If purelymoral rules are at stake, the public conscience restricts any actwhich infringes them by the surveillance it exercises over theconduct of citizens and by the special punishments it has at itsdisposal. In other cases the constraint is less violent;nevertheless, it does not cease to exist. If I do not conform toordinary conventions, if in my mode of dress I pay no heed to what iscustomary in my country and in my social class, the laughter Iprovoke, the social distance at which I am kept, produce, although ina more mitigated form, the same results as any real penalty. In othercases, although it may be indirect, constraint is no less effective.I am not forced to speak French with my compatriots, nor to use thelegal currency, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise. If Itried to escape the necessity, my attempt would fail miserably. As anindustrialist nothing prevents me from working with the processes andmethods of the previous century, but if I do I will most certainlyruin myself. Even when in fact I can struggle free from these rulesand successfully break them, it is never without being forced tofight against them. Even if in the end they are overcome, they maketheir constraining power sufficiently felt in the resistance thatthey afford. There is no innovator, even a fortunate one, whoseventures do not encounter opposition of this kind.
Here, then, is a category of facts which present very specialcharacteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking andfeeling external to the individual, which are invested with acoercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.Consequently, since they consist of representations and actions, theycannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychicalphenomena, which have no existence save in and through the individualconsciousness. Thus they constitute a new species and to them must beexclusively assigned the term social. It is appropriate, since it isclear that, not having the individual as their substratum, they canhave none other than society, either political society in itsentirety or one of the partial groups that it includes - religiousdenominations, political and literary schools, occupationalcorporations, etc. Moreover, it is for such as these alone that theterm is fitting, for the word 'social' has the sole meaning ofdesignating those phenomena which fall into none of the categories offacts already constituted and labelled. They are consequently theproper field of sociology. It is true that this word 'constraint', interms of which we define them, is in danger of infuriating those whozealously uphold out-and-out individualism. Since they maintain thatthe individual is completely autonomous, it seems to them that he isdiminished every time he is made aware that he is not dependent onhimself alone. Yet since it is indisputable today that most of ourideas and tendencies are not developed by ourselves, but come to usfrom outside, they can only penetrate us by imposing themselves uponus. This is all that our definition implies. Moreover, we know thatall social constraints do not necessarily exclude the individualpersonality. 
Yet since the examples just cited (legal and moral rules,religious dogmas, financial systems, etc.) consist wholly of beliefsand practices already well established, in view of what has been saidit might be maintained that no social fact can exist except wherethere is a well defined social organisation. But there are otherfacts which do not present themselves in this already crystallisedform but which also possess the same objectivity and ascendancy overthe individual. These are what are called social 'currents'. Thus ina public gathering the great waves of enthusiasm, indignation andpity that are produced have their seat in no one individualconsciousness. They come to each one of us from outside and can sweepus along in spite of ourselves. If perhaps I abandon myself to them Imay not be conscious of the pressure that they are exerting upon me,but that pressure makes its presence felt immediately I attempt tostruggle against them. If an individual tries to pit himself againstone of these collective manifestations, the sentiments that he isrejecting will be turned against him. Now if this external coercivepower asserts itself so acutely in cases of resistance, it must bebecause it exists in the other instances cited above without ourbeing conscious of it. Hence we are the victims of an illusion whichleads us to believe we have ourselves produced what has been imposedupon us externally. But if the willingness with which we letourselves be carried along disguises the pressure we have undergone,it does not eradicate it. Thus air does not cease to have weight,although we no longer feel that weight. Even when we haveindividually and spontaneously shared in the common emotion, theimpression we have experienced is utterly different from what wewould have felt if we had been alone. Once the assembly has broken upand these social influences have ceased to act upon us, and we areonce more on our own, the emotions we have felt seem an alienphenomenon, one in which we no longer recognise ourselves. It is thenwe perceive that we have undergone the emotions much more thangenerated them. These emotions may even perhaps fill us with horror,so much do they go against the grain. Thus individuals who arenormally perfectly harmless may, when gathered together in a crowd,let themselves be drawn into acts of atrocity. And what we assertabout these transitory outbreaks likewise applies to those morelasting movements of opinion which relate to religious, political,literary and artistic matters, etc., and which are constantly beingproduced around us, whether throughout society or in a more limitedsphere.
Moreover, this definition of a social fact can be verified byexamining an experience that is characteristic. It is sufficient toobserve how children are brought up. If one views the facts as theyare and indeed as they have always been, it is patently obvious thatall education consists of a continual effort to impose upon the childways of seeing, thinking and acting which he himself would not havearrived at spontaneously. From his earliest years we oblige him toeat, drink and sleep at regular hours, and to observe cleanliness,calm and obedience; later we force him to learn how to be mindful ofothers, to respect customs and conventions, and to work, etc. If thisconstraint in time ceases to be felt it is because it gradually givesrise to habits, to inner tendencies which render it superfluous; butthey supplant the constraint only because they are derived from it.It is true that, in Spencer's view, a rational education should shunsuch means and allow the child complete freedom to do what he will.Yet as this educational theory has never been put into practice amongany known people, it can only be the personal expression of adesideratum and not a fact which can be established in contradictionto the other facts given above. What renders these latter factsparticularly illuminating is that education sets out precisely withthe object of creating a social being. Thus there can be seen, as inan abbreviated form, how the social being has been fashionedhistorically. The pressure to which the child is subjectedunremittingly is the same pressure of the social environment whichseeks to shape him in its own image, and in which parents andteachers are only the representatives and intermediaries.
Thus it is not the fact that they are general which can serve tocharacterise sociological phenomena. Thoughts to be found in theconsciousness of each individual and movements which are repeated byall individuals are not for this reason social facts. If some havebeen content with using this characteristic in order to define themit is because they have been confused, wrongly, with what might betermed their individual incarnations. What constitutes social factsare the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group takencollectively. But the forms that these collective states may assumewhen they are 'refracted' through individuals are things of adifferent kind. What irrefutably demonstrates this duality of kind isthat these two categories of facts frequently are manifesteddissociated from each other. Indeed some of these ways of acting orthinking acquire, by dint of repetition, a sort of consistency which,so to speak, separates them out, isolating them from the particularevents which reflect them. Thus they assume a shape, a tangible formpeculiar to them and constitute a reality sui generis vastly distinctfrom the individual facts which manifest that reality. Collectivecustom does not exist only in a state of immanence in the successiveactions which it determines, but, by a privilege without example inthe biological kingdom, expresses itself once and for all in aformula repeated by word of mouth, transmitted by education and evenenshrined in the written word. Such are the origins and nature oflegal and moral rules, aphorisms and popular sayings, articles offaith in which religious or political sects epitomise their beliefs,and standards of taste drawn up by literary schools, etc. None ofthese modes of acting and thinking are to be found wholly in theapplication made of them by individuals, since they can even existwithout being applied at the time.
Undoubtedly this state of dissociation does not always presentitself with equal distinctiveness. It is sufficient for dissociationto exist unquestionably in the numerous important instances cited,for us to prove that the social fact exists separately from itsindividual effects. Moreover, even when the dissociation is notimmediately observable, it can often be made so with the help ofcertain methodological devices. Indeed it is essential to embark onsuch procedures if one wishes to refine out the social fact from anyamalgam and so observe it in its pure state. Thus certain currents ofopinion, whose intensity varies according to the time and country inwhich they occur, impel us, for example, towards marriage or suicide,towards higher or lower birth-rates, etc. Such currents are plainlysocial facts. At first sight they seem inseparable from the formsthey assume in individual cases. But statistics afford us a means ofisolating them. They are indeed not inaccurately represented by ratesof births, marriages and suicides, that is, by the result obtainedafter dividing the average annual total of marriages, births, andvoluntary homicides by the number of persons of an age to marry,produce children, or commit suicide.  Since each one of thesestatistics includes without distinction all individual cases, theindividual circumstances which may have played some part in producingthe phenomenon cancel each other out and consequently do notcontribute to determining the nature of the phenomenon. What itexpresses is a certain state of the collective mind.
That is what social phenomena are when stripped of all extraneouselements. As regards their private manifestations, these do indeedhaving something social about them, since in part they reproduce thecollective model. But to a large extent each one depends also uponthe psychical and organic constitution of the individual, and on theparticular circumstances in which he is placed. Therefore they arenot phenomena which are in the strict sense sociological. They dependon both domains at the same time, and could be termedsocio-psychical. They are of interest to the sociologist withoutconstituting the immediate content of sociology. The samecharacteristic is to be found in the organisms of those mixedphenomena of nature studied in the combined sciences such asbiochemistry.
It may be objected that a phenomenon can only be collective if itis common to all the members of society, or at the very least to amajority, and consequently, if it is general. This is doubtless thecase, but if it is general it is because it is collective (that is,more or less obligatory); but it is very far from being collectivebecause it is general. It is a condition of the group repeated inindividuals because it imposes itself upon them. It is in each partbecause it is in the whole, but far from being in the whole becauseit is in the parts. This is supremely evident in those beliefs andpractices which are handed down to us ready fashioned by previousgenerations. We accept and adopt them because, since they are thework of the collectivity and one that is centuries old, they areinvested with a special authority that our education has taught us torecognise and respect. It is worthy of note that the vast majority ofsocial phenomena come to us in this way. But even when the socialfact is partly due to our direct co-operation, it is no different innature. An outburst of collective emotion in a gathering does notmerely express the sum total of what individual feelings share incommon, but is something of a very different order, as we havedemonstrated. It is a product of shared existence, of actions andreactions called into play between the consciousnesses ofindividuals. If it is echoed in each one of them it is precisely byvirtue of the special energy derived from its collective origins. Ifall hearts beat in unison, this is not as a consequence of aspontaneous, preestablished harmony; it is because one and the sameforce is propelling them in the same direction. Each one is bornealong by the rest.
We have therefore succeeded in delineating for ourselves the exactfield of sociology. It embraces one single, well defined group ofphenomena. A social fact is identifiable through the power ofexternal coercion which it exerts or is capable of exerting uponindividuals. The presence of this power is in turn recognisablebecause of the existence of some pre-determined sanction, or throughthe resistance that the fact opposes to any individual action thatmay threaten it. However, it can also be defined by ascertaining howwidespread it is within the group, provided that, as noted above, oneis careful to add a second essential characteristic; this is, that itexists independently of the particular forms that it may assume inthe process of spreading itself within the group. In certain casesthis latter criterion can even be more easily applied than the formerone. The presence of constraint is easily ascertainable when it ismanifested externally through some direct reaction of society, as inthe case of law, morality, beliefs, customs and even fashions. Butwhen constraint is merely indirect, as with that exerted by aneconomic organization, it is not always so clearly discernible.Generality combined with objectivity may then be easier to establish.Moreover, this second definition is simply another formulation of thefirst one: if a mode of behaviour existing outside theconsciousnesses of individuals becomes general, it can only do so byexerting pressure upon them. 
However, one may well ask whether this definition is complete.Indeed the facts which have provided us with its basis are all waysof functioning: they are 'physiological' in nature. But there arealso collective ways of being, namely, social facts of an'anatomical' or morphological nature. Sociology cannot dissociateitself from what concerns the substratum of collective life. Yet thenumber and nature of the elementary parts which constitute society,the way in which they are articulated, the degree of coalescence theyhave attained, the distribution of population over the earth'ssurface, the extent and nature of the network of communications, thedesign of dwellings, etc., do not at first sight seem relatable toways of acting, feeling or thinking.
Yet, first and foremost, these various phenomena present the samecharacteristic which has served us in defining the others. These waysof being impose themselves upon the individual just as do the ways ofacting we have dealt with. In fact, when we wish to learn how asociety is divided up politically, in what its divisions consist andthe degree of solidarity that exists between them, it is not throughphysical inspection and geographical observation that we may come tofind this out: such divisions are social, although they may have somephysical basis. It is only through public law that we can study suchpolitical organisation, because this law is what determines itsnature, just as it determines our domestic and civic relationships.The organisation is no less a form of compulsion. If the populationclusters together in our cities instead of being scattered over therural areas, it is because there exists a trend of opinion, acollective drive which imposes this concentration upon individuals.We can no more choose the design of our houses than the cut of ourclothes - at least, the one is as much obligatory as the other. Thecommunication network forcibly prescribes the direction of internalmigrations or commercial exchanges, etc., and even their intensity.Consequently, at the most there are grounds for adding one furthercategory to the list of phenomena already enumerated as bearing thedistinctive stamp of a social fact. But as that enumeration was in nowise strictly exhaustive, this addition would not be indispensable.
Moreover, it does not even serve a purpose, for these ways ofbeing are only ways of acting that have been consolidated. Asociety's political structure is only the way in which its variouscomponent segments have become accustomed to living with each other.If relationships between them are traditionally close, the segmentstend to merge together; if the contrary, they tend to remaindistinct. The type of dwelling imposed upon us is merely the way inwhich everyone around us and, in part, previous generations, havecustomarily built their houses. The communication network is only thechannel which has been cut by the regular current of commerce andmigrations, etc., flowing in the same direction. Doubtless ifphenomena of a morphological kind were the only ones that displayedthis rigidity, it might be thought that they constituted a separatespecies. But a legal rule is no less permanent an arrangement than anarchitectural style, and yet it is a 'physiological' fact. A simplemoral maxim is certainly more malleable, yet it is cast in forms muchmore rigid than a mere professional custom or fashion. Thus thereexists a whole range of gradations which, without any break incontinuity, join the most clearly delineated structural facts tothose free currents of social life which are not yet caught in anydefinite mould. This therefore signifies that the differences betweenthem concern only the degree to which they have become consolidated.Both are forms of life at varying stages of crystallisation. It wouldundoubtedly be advantageous to reserve the term 'morphological' forthose social facts which relate to the social substratum, but only oncondition that one is aware that they are of the same nature as theothers.
Our definition will therefore subsume all that has to be definedit if states:
A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixedor not, capable of exerting over the individual an externalconstraint;
which is general over the whole of a given societywhilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individualmanifestations. 
1. Moreover, this is not to say that all constraint is normal. Weshall return to this point later.
2. Suicides do not occur at any age, nor do they occur at all agesof life with the same frequency.
3. It can be seen how far removed this definition of the socialfact is from that which serves as the basis for the ingenious systemof Tarde. We must first state that our research has nowhere led us tocorroboration of the preponderant influence that Tarde attributes toimitation in the genesis of collective facts. Moreover, from thisdefinition, which is not a theory but a mere resume of the immediatedata observed, it seems clearly to follow that imitation does notalways express, indeed never expresses, what is essential andcharacteristic in the social fact . Doubtless every social fact isimitated and has, as we have just shown, a tendency to becomegeneralised, but this is because it is social, i.e. obligatory. Itscapacity for expansion is not the cause but the consequence of itssociological character. If social facts were unique in bringing aboutthis effect, imitation might serve, if not to explain them, at leastto define them. But an individual state which impacts on others nonethe less remains individual. Moreover, one may speculate whether theterm 'imitation' is indeed appropriate to designate a proliferationwhich occurs through some coercive influence. In such a single termvery different phenomena, which need to be distinguished, areconfused.
4. This close affinity of life and structure, organ and function,can be readily established in sociology because there exists betweenthese two extremes a whole series of intermediate stages, immediatelyobservable, which reveal the link between them. Biology lacks thismethodological resource. But one may believe legitimately thatsociological inductions on this subject are applicable to biology andthat, in organisms as in societies, between these two categories offacts only differences in degree exist.
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