Social Facts and Necessities for a Healthy Society

From the Lecture Series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Social facts are enforced norms. Some of them are so much a part of us that we simply do not see them anymore. Some of them, on the other hand, are really annoying. Still, they are the norms that the society expects. People who break them are not viewed positively, but are surprisingly necessary to keep the community healthy. Read on to see where the irony comes from.

Crowd of people walking on a street.
Social facts are external parts of an individual’s life, but are sometimes so effectively enforced that nobody questions them anymore. (Image: blvdone/Shutterstock)

Émile Durkheim was the founder of sociology. In his study on the increased rate of suicide among Protestants, he realized that a social factor was involved, as he had previously guessed. He called those factors social facts and explained how they are enforced.

Elements of Social Facts

The first element of a social fact is that it is something external to the individual, but eventually becomes a part of the individual’s way of life. Secondly, if a person begins to ignore social facts, social consequences will follow.

A simple example is wearing trousers. There is no biological or psychological explanation for that, but everyone automatically does it. Going out without trousers will bring nasty looks, being avoided, legal problems, and even losing one’s job. Consequently, social facts are enforced on every member of the society.

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Enforced Norms

Social facts are enforced as they are norms. Durkheim believed norms are “endowed with coercive power”. As long as the social facts are obeyed, an individual is considered normal in a society. As soon as they are broken, the individual is considered pathological and deserves the consequences.

Illustration of a chain of people figurines connected by white lines.
Norms are enforced on individuals of a society, by the society itself, to create the required conformity. (Image: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock)

A person without trousers is condemned in moral terms. Even those with baggy pants that show the underwear are frowned upon as they are a bad influence and against the norm. At the same time, trousers could not even be defined in a society, and the individuals can live happy, well-adjusted lives at the individual and social levels.

There might be different and even contradicting social facts in different societies, but all the individuals in those societies can live equally acceptably since the norms are merely social, not biological. Are there universal social facts?

Learn more about the birth of psychology.

Crime, a Universal Social Fact

Crime is everywhere. Even though crime is defined as breaking some social facts, it is normal to have criminals in a society. Lack of crime is pathological and leads to an unhealthy society. Crime, surprisingly, is necessary for a society’s health.

A country with no crime is a dream that had better not come true. Durkheim explains that crime is an activity that is determined by the society to be unacceptable behavior. Criminals are the only ones who can make individuals think of the internalized social facts.

A society with no crime is one with an incredible degree of conformity. However, the society’s thirst for uniformity will never quench. It will continue until even the smallest individual differences disappear. That leads to anomie.

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If individuals in a society internalize an overabundance of highly restrictive social facts, the result will be an internal struggle within themselves. The standards one must keep up to increase so much that the pressure becomes too much to bear.

In Durkheim’s study on the increase of suicide, he realized that protestants had less of the familial and institutional structures than Catholics did. Thus, they felt lost, abandoned, and in conflict all the time. The answer to such feelings was suicide. As strange as it may seem, criminals could have lowered that rate.

Social Boundaries

When the social facts begin pressuring individuals for conformity, criminals are the ones who can push against the boundaries and reduce the pressure. They can bring changes to social facts.

Big highway with no traffic and traffic sign with text Do Not Go With The Flow.
Criminals are people who break social facts. Not only do murderers commit a crime, but those with no trousers do also so, too. (Image: M-SUR/Shutterstock)

Durkheim did nor cherish murderers and appreciated their hard work for social purposes. Of course, some social facts must be respected and enforced to keep a society healthy. However, that does not apply to all norms.

Social facts that irrationally limit individuals should be fought against. Any fighting against norms is considered a crime, so crime is a normal part of human societies.

Learn more about defining reality in the life sciences.

Criminal Heroes

Villains are usually not the favorite characters of movies and books. Yet, many heroes break some social norms. For example, The Stepford Wives is the 1975 classic, showing how the effects of the World War restrict women. There are perfect wives in the story that do everything as they should. However, they are robots, not humans.

When we see Jack Sparrow, Tony Soprano, Fast Eddie Felson, or Butch Cassidy, we do not see a threat to our social well-being. Rather, we see somebody with the freedom we do not have. We see someone who is willing to ignore the social facts we may find overly restrictive.

Hence, a healthy society needs all elements of being normal, including crime.

Common Questions about Social Facts

Q: What is a social fact?

Social facts are norms enforced on individuals by the society they live in. In fact, something external to the individual becomes part of the individual’s way of being.

Q: How are norms enforced?

Norms or social facts are things that a society enforces on its individual members. In Durkheim’s words, they are “endowed with coercive power”.

Q: Does crime make a society unhealthy?

No. surprisingly, crime is a necessary social fact for having a healthy society. It is, in fact, their rebellion against the social facts that helps people respect the norms.

Q: Does Durkheim cherish criminals?

No. Durkheim does not want to give prizes to the criminals, but he believes when social facts are enforced on people, and they are sometimes fed up, the criminals can help keep the society healthy. They are necessary, but not positive.

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