Study/Discussion Questions on Durkheim

A. On "What Is A Social Fact?"

1. So what is a social fact?

2. Does Durkheim believe that sociology should concern itself exclusively with social facts? If so, what implications would that have for the methodology of sociology?

3. Durkheim argues that social facts are independent of their manifestations in individual consciousness and action. What does he mean? In what ways does he think that social facts are independent? Could a social fact exist without any people? Can social facts have effects independently of individual people?

4. What kind of thing are social facts? Are they mental? Are they physical? Are they generalizations or regularities? Durkheim speaks sometimes of "collective minds." Are social facts and collective minds (or mental states) the same thing?

B. on a chapter from Suicide and "Evaluation of Marxism"

1. (297-8) Durkheim argues that features of the external situation of agents who commit suicide for the most part "are not the determining causes" of suicide. These factors are instead "pretexts." What is his argument? What do you think he takes a "determining cause" to be? Does his argument convince you? Near the end he writes (323) "The role of individual factors in the origin of suicide can now be more precisely put. If, in a given moral environment, for example, in the same religious faith or in the same body of troops or in the same occupation, certain individuals are affect and certain others not, this is undoubtedly, in great part, because the formers' mental constitution, as elaborated by nature and events, offers less resistance to the suicidogenetic current."

2. (299) Durkheim maintains that the relations between the "social environment" and suicide are "real laws". Why? What view do you think he holds of laws?

3. In Durkheim's view, "Each social group really has a collective inclination for the act, quite its own, and the source of all individual inclination, rather than their result. It is made up of the currents of egoism, altruism or anomy running through the society under consideration with the tendencies to languorous melancholy, active renunciation or exasperated weariness derivative form these currents. These tendencies of the whole social body, by affecting individuals, cause them to commit suicide. The private experiences usually thought to be the proximate causes of suicide have only the influence borrowed from the victim's moral predisposition, itself an echo of the moral state of society." (299-300) What does this mean? Is it true? What do you think of the analogy he draws between social entities and biological species (320)?

4. (304-5) Durkheim argues that the constancy in the number of suicides show that suicides "must surely actually result from a single cause or a single group of causes, which dominate individuals." He considers and rejects the objection that the constancy might be due to regularities in the frequency of multitudes of causes (305-6). Do you think he is right? What exactly is his argument?

5. (309) Durkheim writes, "Collective tendencies have an existence of their own; they are forces as real as cosmic forces, though of another sort; they, likewise, affect the individual from without, though through other channels. The proof that the reality of collective tendencies is no less than that of cosmic forces is that this reality is demonstrated in the same way, by the uniformity of effects." Is he right? What sort of entities are these collective tendencies? Note that Durkheim writes (310) "To be sure, it is likewise true that society has no other active forces than individuals; but individuals by combining form a psychical existence of a new species, which consequently has its own manner of thinking and feeling."

6. (312, and "Evaluation of Marxism", p. 161). Durkheim stresses the importance of religion to "collective representations." "Religion is in a word the system of symbols by means of which society becomes conscious of itself; it is the characteristic way of thinking of collective existence." What do you think?

7. "Evaluation of Marxism", pp. 159-60. What is Durkheim's attitude toward historical materialism?