Reading Guide to: Durkheim, E. (1964) The Rules of Sociological Method, 2nd edition, London: Collier Macmillan Publications.
Author's Preface to 2nd Edition
Social facts can be considered as external because they are real -- that is, there is a need to go outside our mental processes (perceptions, and later representations or concepts) to understand them. 'Things include all objects of knowledge that cannot be conceived by purely mental activity' (xliii). This does not involve a philosophical task of clarification, though, merely that we take a 'certain mental attitude' to them, that we assume there is a need to know about them, we want to find out about them, especially if we want to proceed scientifically.. Naive 'representations' of social facts are no good, they are 'devoid of scientific value' (xliv): we do not know their nature or genesis.
The ordinary consciousness is especially 'helpless' with specifically social facts:
(1) Much has been 'bequeathed by former generations'. It is confusing enough when we have participated in their formation, because of the effects of 'unreasonable prejudices etc' (xlv). It is necessary to take not a metaphysical stance towards these formations, but a scientific one. Sociologists are still largely ignorant of 'the factors on which they depend, the functions they fulfil, the laws of their development' (xlvi).
(2) As a result, political intervention in social affairs needs caution. There is an uneasy tendency to state what appear to be the essences involved. However, simplistic answers usually reveal that they are not based on facts, which are complex, but on 'prejudices which the author held prior to his research' (xlvi).
(3) Our own part [in the formation or interpretation of social facts] would be useful to know, but no one can spell out the group's conception [of an institution], which 'alone is socially significant' (xlvi).
(4) Social facts are emergent -- just as cells emerge as living entities from chemical components, just as the [physical] qualities of bronze or water from their [chemical] components (xlviii). Since social facts emerge, they cannot be reduced to the individual elements 'without contradiction' (xlix). They also have a 'different substratum' from psychological facts, they are '"representations" of another type' [so 'social facts are 'representations' too?]. (xlix). There is a group mentality, with its own laws [this is a much disputed passage in Durkheim, and debates turned on whether he persisted with this notion, or replaced it through the discussion of collective representations]. Collective representations convey group perceptions -- representations can take the form of 'concepts' or 'symbols' (lxix).. As an example, changes in social life produce different collective representations -- totemism produces an organisation into clans; a unified set of divinities in [religious] representations 'correspond to' a degree of unity in a society (l). [So these changes in representations both reflect and produce social changes here? See below].
Do collective and individual representations share the same structure and reflect the same laws? There may be general laws of representations [anticipating structural linguistics here?], for example governing the interactions between myths, religious conceptions, and their individual equivalents ('sensations, images and ideas'). These general laws might point to 'contiguity and resemblance, logical constraints and antagonisms' (li). However, such laws are so far unknown: we need much more concrete research. It is possible to suggest that collective representations have different and specific laws [compared to individual ones] -- for example, religious ideas combine and contradict in ways which could be very different from the products of individual thought. Collective thought needs study in its own right, while we postpone the issue of a link to individual thought -- the latter topic is too philosophical anyway for a 'science of social facts' (liii).
Sociology should be a pragmatic and scientific matter. We can choose to focus on the coercive nature of social facts in order to begin to do science, rather than pursuing any philosophical essentialism [a footnote says that we could 'present the opposite character equally well -- institutions may impose themselves on us, but we cling to them; they compel us and we love them; they constrain us and we find a welfare... in this very constraint' (liv)]. However, we should not emphasise the double nature of social facts 'because the objective manifestations [of 'imposition' or compelling' ?] are not easily perceptible' (liv). Instead, we should choose the characteristic that is best for our purpose [another footnote says that constraint and duty are more easily studied].
However, we might choose several characteristics if necessary -- we should choose those that lead to detailed research rather than to bland generalities. We need to avoid premature closure, such as that involved in choosing between whether social facts cause or arise from society: this is still to be decided (liv). Social constraints are not like other constraints: (a) '... [due] to the prestige with which certain representations are invested'; (b) because social constraints 'act on us from without' [so they are not like the constraints of habit] (lv). Other real things also exercise constraint [such as physical things] because all [proper ] 'things' are external and resist individuals [appealingly simple, but philosophically naive -- we can never know if these are real constraints, or whether we simply perceive them to be real, of course].
It is not impossible to change social facts, but it is difficult because they are collective. This is seen in the existence of 'institutions... all the beliefs and all the modes of conduct instituted by the collectivity' [definite undertones of evolutionary theory or other variants of functionalism here!] (lvi). [Another footnote says the impact on our lives can vary -- deviance from religious institutions can be a crime, or it can be tolerated with economic institutions (lvii)]. Sociology can be defined as a 'science of institutions, of their genesis and of their functioning' (lvi).
So: social objects are real, objective, and are the proper objects of scientific study. To justify sociology as legitimate, it is necessary to assume that social facts have a 'definite and permanent existence' [this assumes that we want to justify sociology as legitimate, of course]. Sociology tries to give this idea precision, and to develop some consequences. It is a discipline which will be resisted by those who are forced to renounce voluntarism -- they must renounce a conception of their political power as unlimited. Equally untenable is an apparent total passivity. We do need a proper scientific study in order to engage in politics: we only have power over things when '[man] recognises that they have a nature of their own'. This must be grasped first. [Durkheim seems to offer a parallel to Marx's 'inversion' of Idealism here, although it is not Spirit which needs to be inverted in order to develop materialism, but voluntaristic conceptions of the human subject].
[NB in the Author's Introduction which follows, Spencer and Mill are criticised as operating at too general a level. They need a proper investigative methodology, which will lead to observation of facts first, and to direct research on the special nature of social facts].