Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Social fact

core definition

Social facts are ways of acting, thinking and feeling independent of the will of the individual.

explanatory context

Social facts, according to Durkheim, are external to the individual and impose themselves upon the individual and, in so doing, become become part of the individual. Social facts as a way of acting may involve an external constraint on the individual or may exist in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.

Social facts are fundamental to a Durkheimian approach, which sees the subject matter of sociology as the study of social facts. Social facts are all the events that take place in a social context, as such they are the actual manifestations of the conscious collective.

analytical review

Durkheim ([1895] 1938, p. 2) explains what a social fact is:

Here, then, is a category of facts with very distinctive characteristics: it consists of ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him. These ways of thinking could not be confused with biological phenomena, since they consist of representations and of actions; nor with psychological phenomena, which exist only in the individual consciousness and through it. They constitute, thus, a new variety of phenomena; and it is to them exclusively that the term ‘social’ ought to be applied. And this term fits them quite well, for it is clear that, since their source is not in the individual, their substratum can be no other than society, either the political society as a whole or some one of the partial groups it includes, such as religious denominations, political, liter- ary, and occupational associations, etc. On the other hand, this term ‘social’ applies to them exclusively, for it has a distinct meaning only if it designates exclusively the phenomena which are not included in any of the categories of facts that have already been established and classified. These ways of thinking and acting therefore constitute the proper domain of sociology.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'social facts' as:

To Durkheim, social facts are the subject matter of sociology. They are to be treated as things that are external to, and coercive over, individuals, and they are to be studied empirically.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section 1.4.2


Durkheim, E., [1895] 1938, The Rules of the Sociological Method, Eighth edition, translated by Sarah A. Solvay and John H. Mueller. Edited by George E.G. Catlin. The Free Press.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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