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Durkheim – Rules of Sociological Method

January 27, 2009

Society is a collectivity.  Durkheim’s definition of sociology as “the science of institutions, their genesis and their functioning” is quite appropriate and lends the distinction between study of the individual and the social, of which Durkheim establishes social scientific method (45).  The scientific study or methodology requires the researcher to use caution in both defining what constitutes a social fact and follow an order in analyzing the relationship between the social fact or social facts and the interaction of groups (48).  An important emphasis is the need to study method.  Only in Comte is found the devotion to explore and establish true methodology for study of the social.  In Comte is seen a kindred spirit with Durkheim; there is need to learn about the whole through examination of the whole.  Therefore, there is the Comtian and Boutrouxian principle that “each science must explain ‘by its own principles” (7).  Interestingly, Durkheim specifies the weakness of focus on the individual and simultaneously criticizes Spencer for his individualism (48).

            Durkheim’s central focus is upon the whole of social order and the impact that social fact has upon society.  The focus develops around the concepts of social facts and external phenomena.  Basic to the analysis is the understanding that social facts are “things”, and social phenomena are “external” to individuals.  This basis establishes the need for objective and methodological sociology.  Hence, Durkheim emanates a desire to establish sociology as a science of objective, specific methods of explanation through the study of independent realities.  It is only through empiric investigation that the impact of external realities upon individuals and their subsequent interaction within groups may be determined.


This book is an inspiration to developing the use of scientific method to examine and answer questions about society and to explore and describe society.  As commented by Lukes in his introduction, this material resonates a “call to arms” as Marx’s’ Manifesto of the Communist Party.  In particular the last sentence of The Rules of Sociological Method emphatically states the following regarding the duty of all sociologists; “we must work to place it (sociology added) in a position to fulfill its part” (163).  The book is a call to action.  The action called for is to break with the heretofore-philosophic tendencies.  Sociology must be not only a concept for discussion, but also an empirical science in application.  If not applied scientifically it will be worthless to society.  Society is the highest order and therefore deserves an independent science, which explores answers and explains society at the highest level, both empirically and objectively.

Method requires 1) observation of facts (things) which are clearly defined as a function of their inherent properties (74, 75), 2) systematically discard all preconceptions (72), 3) discretion in order of main problems to be examined, 4) particular procedures to be followed in sequence, 5) following established rules of proof (never assume), and 6) cautious and critical review (48, 81-83).  What Durkheim calls for is an empirical, objective and quantitative science.  Ideas have their place, but only through real phenomena can there be true study that will allow relationships to be determined and analyzed (69-70).


Social facts lead to order in ways of thinking, acting, and create a consciousness for a group (43).  It is almost as if Durkheim is saying that elements of socialization are the social facts, which construct meaning, establish duties and expectations within each society (50-52).  These social facts are the things we learn that establish reality.  If comparing this thought to the Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft of Tönnies states that, the folkway causes conformity in the Gemeinschaft and mores cause conformity in the Gesellschaft.  These external facts are in essence variables that explain the social condition.  In thinking of social facts as a variable, it is not hard to think of the study of the social as a systematic study of human interaction as controlled by external things (69, 70).  Social phenomena are things; it is data and is a starting point for science (69).  The ability to understand society is thus enhanced by proper selection of things to be studied for causal effect upon society.  Hence, through study of things external to the social it is possible to understand the social, generalize about and predict movement.  Durkheim defines a social fact by two alternate definitions:

“as any way of acting, whether fixed or not,  capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint; or which is general over the whole of a given society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations” (59).


The following will elaborate on primary concepts that complement the definitions.


The basic rule for observation of social facts is that a social fact is a thing (60).  A social fact is not material, yet it is a reality external to the subjective and is therefore a “thing”.  What ever is subjective is a concept or an idea, but the thing is objective.  The “thing” is outside the mind and in order to understand it and the impact or causal effect it may have requires observation of reality.  For example, a social group may have an understanding of appropriate behavior, not because the individuals of the group determined the understanding, but because earlier group affiliations may have established certain religious belief that focused upon the particular behavior as appropriate (52).  In short, the group follows the prior social fact, not because they or any individual established the behavior as appropriate in its own right, but because the behavior comes from a previous external order, which in this instance is the thing called the institution of religion (37).  In turn, the current group may adjust by adding to or taking from the “thing” and in this way become an effect upon other or later groups.  An example may be a campus demonstration that starts passive for most members which later escalates in the heat of the “crowd”, the members then caught up in the current or flow do things that individual members before and after felt incapable of perpetrating.  Yet in the current, they were capable of the accusatory actions (53).  An example of this is perhaps Kent State.  This introduces the concept of the external social phenomena.

            Social Fact comes to exist in part through previous fact, but is in part also established through interaction of individuals within groups (45, 52).  This inter-group interaction provides plurality and leads to adjustment, or synthesis of the social institution, such as religion.  Being objective is the key to understanding this synthesis and the evolving effects.  In this way several types of observations may be made, such as 1) phenomena although not a material thing is no less a real thing, 2) things may be defined, 3) things have a mode of existence that is constant, 4) things have an character independent of individual arbitrariness, and 5) things provide necessary relationship flows (46).

Reflective thought precedes scientific investigation (60).  Ideas form from reflection and help establish behavior.  Rather than try to investigate relationships it is simpler to speculate.  The scientific method conversely calls for observing, describing and comparing things.  Hence, scientific investigation should begin with reflection should lead to ideas and ideas should lead to things.  This was a failure of Comte and Spencer (63-65).      

External Social Phenomena

It follows from the premise that elements combine to create phenomena.  Where as the individual can make the entire whole of the psyche, the individual is only a part of the social.  Durkheim’s examples of chemical particles relating to the living cell, and individuals relating to society are well taken (39).  This is a good example of synthesis and may imply a separate stratum of study.  For instance since psychology is study of the whole (see above), and sociology is study of the whole (see above), and since the two wholes do not equate, it follows that they are different.  Hence, study of one is not sufficient study of the other.  While Durkheim admits that both sociology and psychology may overlap and we may find resemblances and similarities they are composed in different ways and must thereby be studied in different ways in an effort to understand them.  Hence, as introduced in the prior section what affects the individual as a whole and the study of that phenomena, is not sufficient or at least higher order study of a new whole consisting of many different individuals.  It follows that the social whole is thus influenced by external things that affect the collective group.

Human Resistance

Why has scientific study of the social been delayed?  Humans fight the logic that they are in part “substance of” rather than being “substance for”.  What does this mean?  Humankind fights objective reality that humans are controlled in part by the external phenomena.  Humans prefer to be complete and autonomous in control and power over themselves as a specie and all other species and existence.  This desire for dominion leads to natural aggression against any science that may subject human social order to an external order beyond their full control (46).


History, Philosophy, And Sociology

History and philosophy fail to examine the social for a number of reasons.  Historians according to Durkheim establish only nominal data who categorize society by individual groups, according to sequential events that have heterogeneous relationships that are unique.  To the historian each society is unique and are not comparable.  The other extreme, the philosopher is pure realist which views groups of tribes, cities and nations as contingent aggregates of people that are held together by general laws and thereby creating a continuum for all humans.  Durkheim intercedes with sociology which is the intermediate.  He firmly states that there are many social species, but held together in unity, and distinguishable in diversity.  Therefore, society is the same overall, but with difference in relation to social facts (108,09).

            An interesting review and criticism of both Comte and Spencer are in this section.  Comte fails to because he defines society as one specie (109).  Spencer, although he recognizes the importance of studying parts in order to understand the whole fails in establishing a definite, clear, and concise definition of a simple society (110).  Durkheim moves forward to discuss the importance of the definition and establishes the horde as the simplest from of social specie in relation to the method of study.  No doubt the 19th century reader would ask the following question.  If society is many species and if it is established that in order to study the whole the parts must be studied fully, how do we study all of the species of society?  It is enjoyable to read Durkheim’s discussion of selecting proper variables for analysis of society (110-17).  As he discusses the proper classification of social types, social morphology, it is easy to visualize the creation of frames and samples (111,112, 241-2).  This discussion is interesting reading because it is the concept we can visualize, not tainted by the sterile definition of a variable.  In his description, Durkheim states that the sociologist must clearly define the simple unit or part of the whole.  In this instance, the simple society which is the basic unit of study must not include others simpler than itself, and must contain only a single segment (113).  This unit must be a natural basis for classification of the population.  It is at this point the discussion of the horde as the basic unit for society grouping is made.  Upon this there may build the clan and the tribe and more general structure of society (111-14).  In his discussion of elements, it is noteworthy that he admits that selection of the simplest units of study are not exact.  There is room for error.   Hence, Durkheim tells the reader that in scientific method it is crucial to classify and define terms.  Not only the element to be studied, but also identify its degree of relationship to what is being studied (115). 

            Grouping of social facts and units help to improve interpretation of phenomenon.  However the interpretation of phenomenon requires the examination of the cause of the phenomenon as well as the analysis of its function.  The concept called function may be best understood as the effect of the cause, or “the relationship that it bears to some social end” (134).  This is the causal relationship which allows meaning to be given to the analysis of facts.


In this step the essence of proof is looking for combinations of cases in which there is evidence that one case depends upon another (147).  The ability of the observer to artificially reproduce the phenomenon at will is the method of experimentation proper, but when phenomenon are reproduced beyond the will of the observer it is indirect experimentation, or comparative method (147).  Of these two methods comparative method is preferred because it allows the observer to determine sequence of events.  Comte preferred experimentation proper since it establishes general direction of change or progress.  Mill rejected sociological experimentation all together (148).  Durkheim rejects both because effect is not always the result of antecedents.  Only by controlled and isolated conditions may variable cause and effect be determined.

            The discussion of concomitant method is excellent (151-55).  The procedure on page 152 introduces the concepts of cause and effect relationships affected by control and other variables.  This fits nicely with a discussion on bivariate and multivariate analysis and exemplifies the need to be critical in analysis of findings.  Not only must the sociologist be critical and unbiased of his/her own findings, but he/she must question the information used in study of society.  There are many parallel and uninterrupted transformations within society.  This transformation is continuous.  The study of the variations within society must be thorough, methodical, and serial in that study must follow the successions of societies or species.  In this way sociologists may confirm findings through repetition and isolation of specific variables (155).


This section is a very interesting review of Antonio Labriola.  It not only attempts to bring some select clarity to the original doctrine, but also provides a commentary on the Manifesto of the Communist Party.  Central themes of life often dictate what history is or will be.  Hence as Durkheim seemingly correctly surmises humans often establish history upon what is central to their own lives, aims, desires, fears and create ways to justify or reasons to prove their relationship is accurate or legitimate (167).  This is history centered upon subjective concept and is as Durkheim says “worthless” (167). 

            By focusing on the subjective, history distorts reality and therefore true causation is not identified and explored.  This limits discussion and evaluation of the forces that cause society to move and flow in general succession from one era or age to another.  This is much like the theoretical discussion of the current age.  For instance, is our age, say since 1970, better described as a “Post-Industrial”, Information, Neo-Fordist or some other type of society?   Whatever the conclusion, society comes to act in part, because of what it believes to be accurate and this arises from the definition associated with the historical fact.  For instance, the mind may conceive a reason for acting.  This reason is substantively accurate, however in objectivity be inaccurate.  This lack of objectivity is overcome and analyzed through understanding societal evolution.  It appears that Durkheim states that Marx allows for objectivity through the state of technology.  Technology translates to the condition of the instruments of labor, and division of labor (168-9).  These relationships of labor and technology change through history and effect relationships of the classes.  Relationships of labor and technology as from agrarian to industrial change and therefore class relationships change.  Power becomes more central and calls for means by which to regulate masses and exercise power effectively and efficiently call for the state.  The state balances unrest and subordination against power and control.  Through this, law primarily carries out state balance measures.  Morality, arts and religion play roles in this process to “naturalize” the ways of human thinking 168-70).

            This economic illustration of cause and effect between technology of labor and division of labor forms the basis for society.  As such, “things” existing outside the individual consciousness explain social life.  At this point Durkheim turns to a discussion of the economy vis a vis the role of religion in serving as a social fact influencing society.  A point worth noting is that establishing a fact such as the role of economics in society may create a function and thereby lead to other cause and effect.




Durkheim, Emile. [___] 1982. Durkheim: The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method. edited and introduction by Steven Lukes, select translations by W.D. Hallis. New York, NY:The Free Press.

One Comment leave one →
  1. bitex flex permalink
    July 4, 2012 4:55 pm

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