- The Rules of Sociological Method by Durkheim


The Third French Republic was declared in 1870, after the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan during the Franco-prussian war, which the Republic continued. It underwent several social and political upheavals. The problems included the social disorders caused by industrialisation and how to unite society without religion. 

Workers began to unite from 1880 onwards under Marxist banners and declare several strikes. The revolutionary Confédération Générale du Travail, a marxist workers' union was formed in 1895.

The new regime is marked by secularisation. The law Ferry (1881-82) is passed to bring education into secular hands and away from the Church. It establishes obligatory, free, secular education. In 1905 the law to separate Church and State is promulgated. Science gradually replaces religion and faith is placed in technological progress. 

Durkheim remained apolitical but became involved in the Dreyfus affair and the League of Human Rights. He wants a sociology which will tend directly to society's morality. One of his aims is to offer solutions to anomie, the absence of rules. It is also a scientific morality since he believes that science can help to direct behaviours and give them a moral sense. However, contrary to Comte, he does want to create a new religion and replace God with science. He believes that the source of morality is solidarity and it is society which directs individual behaviours. He wishes to achieve this through observation and analysis of society as a way to combat anomie.

Durkheim is considered the founder of French sociology since, unlike his peers, his project was to build a sociology based on science. He gave the science content and methodology which distinguished it from commonsense. In 1893 he founded a review called L’année sociologique which in turn created the French school of Sociology.


In Les Règles de la méthode sociologique (The Rules of the Sociological Method) (1895) Durkheim puts forward his method and the first outlines of his sociology.

I. Introduction

Durkheim develops his concept of 'social facts' in the introduction. 

“Social facts are something more than the actions of individuals.”

This was a response to two ideas he disagreed with. First he argued against Hobbes and Rousseau who envisaged life in contractual terms. They claimed that society deliberately constrained society in order to guide it, using a strong State to repress individual wills. The theory of social contract based it on an agreement among the population that bonds people together. In this sense social life arises from individual choices. 

The author also argues against functional theories of society. Spencer applied the darwinian theory of natural selection to society. His analogy is that just as the human body parts function to maintain survival for the whole organism so social structures preserve society.

II.Social Facts

"[social facts] consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to individuals, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over them.”

The key element of social facts is that they can constrain individuals who do not conform to them. The sanctions range from stigmatisation to ostracism to fining or even emprisonment. 

Durkheim identified two types of social fact: social constraints based on morality and legality; social movements such as crowd behaviour, mass hysteria and religious fervour.

Social facts are characterised by being external to the individual. They are not open to change by individuals; they are not chosen, but imposed; they can change in time and space.

They constrain people and are a general rule in the society, subject to normative pressure in customs, laws and linguistics.

They are general because they depend on people acting in concert. This is also the reason they change slowly.

III. Rules for the Explanation of Social Facts.

The functionalist argument for a partial structure's existence is that it is necessary for the whole: the liver is needed for the whole body to function. This thinking implies that the end result is the cause of the previous event. Durkheim argues that the causes of a social fact cannot reside in the functions of a social fact.

"Therefore when one undertakes to explain a social phenomenon the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfils must be investigated separately.”

He affirms that function explains why a social fact survives, but it does not explain how it is created. This answer is found in earlier social facts. 

Social facts do not result from individual or psychological facts.

"Since their essential characteristic is the power they possess to exert outside pressure on individual consciousnesses, this shows that they do not derive from these consciousnesses and that consequently sociology is not a corollary of psychology.”

Social facts exist beyond one individual. To determine the cause of a social fact you must search, not among individual consciousness, but in previous social facts. 

As regards the function of a social fact:

“The function of a social fact ought always to be sought in its relation to some social end.”

The origins of social processes should be looked for in the internal constitution of the social group - the "social milieu". This consists of things (laws, customs, material objects...) and people, who drive social facts.

The task of the sociologist is to Find the aspects of this milieu which can exert influence on the social phenomena. One aspect is the number of social units and the other is the degree of social interaction ("dynamic density").

"Dynamic density may be defined … as the function of the number of individuals who are actually having not only commercial but also social relations, i.e. who not only exchange services or compete with one another but also live a common life.”

For example the patterns of cultural relationships in a high school depend on the structure of friendships in that school.



18th. century industrialisation in Europe saw people flood to cites for work. This created new social problems such as poverty, unemployment and social strife. 

Auguste Comte founded sociology to understand this new context. He believed that just as we use the positivist methods of science to improve industrial production, these can also be used to study society, discover its laws and combat its social problems.

Positivists applied quantitative methods such as official statistics, questionnaires and social surveys to collect numerical information and discover trends. These methods allow the researchers to remain mostly detached from the process and so offered some objectivity.

In Suicide (1897) Durkheim made a case study of suicide rates, comparing Catholics and Protestants. This distinguishes sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy. He attributed the lesser rates among Catholics to causes which were 'social facts': more social control and higher levels of integration among Catholics.


In social changes, such as the division of labour, increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, Durkheim claims that social pathologies will arise. He terms these anomie, normlessness, which is the breakdown of regulations for individual behaviours. This is the result of irregular changes in social solidarity and has several causes: lack of moral regulation and excessive market demands on individuals (similar to the marxist concept of alienation). However, he is optimistic about the capitalist society and insists that people need regulation, a hobbesian idea. His study of suicide was partly based on this theory of social collapse leading to individual suicides.

Durheim and Marx

Marx's theory of capitalism was based on the social conflict between classes produced by the division of labour and its resulting differentiations. It created vertical inequalities. Durkheim's analysis saw horizontal divisions and did not view the division of labour as necessarily negative. He thought that the functional effect of the division of labour benefitted society since workers' skills were improved and they felt more class solidarity. 

Durkheim interprets the contradictions of modern society as moral (anomie) compared to the Marxist materialistic view of alienation. Marx’s theory sees employees working from necessity and so they grow more and more resentful of their jobs. The French sociologist believes that most people working in retail avoid social alienation because they interact with other workers and customers and so remain aware of their humanity:

“he knows that his activity has a meaning."

Durkheim's structural functional concept of society held that social order is spontaneous and that a healthy society is evolutionary but homeostatic. On the other hand Marx argued that it was conflict between social groups that provoked change, in a revolutionary movement.

The established aspects of society, such as the State, the law and the dominant beliefs are seen by Durkheim as functions of society. Marx viewed them as instruments of the ruling class.


Durheim divided all societies into two aspects: the sacred, which transcends daily life and the profane, which refers to our daily routine.

Religion is the practice of distinguishing between the profane and the sacred, through rituals like prayer and places like mosques or churches. Societies determine what is sacred and it may be anything from a rock, to an animal, to a book to a temple. In order to comprehend the role of religion in society Durkheim thought the sociologist must discover the relationship between sacred symbols and their representation.

Durkheim developed his theory of religion by studying the totemic practices of Australian aborigines. Each clan had a sacred totem like an animal or plant carved in wood and normally related to a creation myth. This served as a clan identity.

The sociologist proposed that by worshipping the totem clan members are worshipping society. This suited his theory in which society is more important than the individual. Totems represent society in a simplified format and that is true for all religious symbols, which make it easier to grasp transcendent concepts.

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