“A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.”
For Emile Durkheim, commonly referred to as the father of sociology, social facts were the basis of all sociological study. He succeeded in creating a distinction between social science and psychology or political philosophy. According to him, social facts constituted phenomena that could not be reduced to biological or psychological elements, but existed independently.
Biology, psychology and then women and religion
However, he also believed that one of those social facts was that women were intellectually and socially inferior to men. For him, biology and psychology were the two greatest determining factors of the role of women in society. He also differentiated between the social division of labor and the sexual division of labor. It is important to understand that motherhood was influenced by great minds like Durkheim, the patriarch of sociology and at the same time realise how Durkheim perceived women.
Religion, which he considered to be the basis for the existence of all human societies, was one of the social facts that became a subject of study for him. However, he believed that religion originated in social interactions rather than from divine proclamation. In addition to religion, he also studied the social constructs of law and education as well as the phenomenon of social deviation from social norms.
His theories regarding social stratification led to his invention of the concept of the “collective consciousness”, which can be defined as the total sum of the beliefs and emotions common to members of a society. He believed that the collective unconscious, once formed, could then exist independent of individuals within the society as a social fact.
He married Louise Dreyfus in 1887, and together, they had two children, Marie and Andre. The years shortly after his marriage were creatively productive for him. In 1892, he published “The Division of Labour in Society“, which was made possible by the division of labor in his own household. His wife oversaw domestic affairs and cared for their two children while he wrote.
Sociology and quantitative methodology
Durkheim was one of the first to use quantitative methodology during a suicide case study he oversaw while conducting research for his 1897 book “Suicide”. He also recognized the scientific value of empiricism compared to the previously common and more abstract Cartesian method of scientific inquiry.
By 1902, Durkheim was named as the chair of education at the Sorbonne in Paris. He became so influential that his classes were mandatory for all students. He taught a number of classes about the social development of the family in which he stressed the concept of structural functionalism.
Division of labour and the role of women in society
Even though he warned of its potential dangers, he argued that the division of labor was the result of higher evolution. Further, he believed that it magnified the natural biological differences between men and women, such as women being more emotionally affective and men more intellectual. For him, the increasing differences between men and women as a result of the nurturing role of women in society created a stronger marital bond between them, as neither could be whole without the other.
He viewed “anomie“, a state when rapid population growth reduces interaction and understanding between social groups, as a potential danger to society. He also viewed a forced division of labor as a potentially destructive pathology. People forced to do work they were unsuited for as a result of the greed of the powerful could result in a destabilization of society.
However, although he recognized these social facts objectively regarding society as a whole, he refuted feminist theories and did not apply the same logic to the forced sexual division of labor. Regarding equal rights for women, he said
“As for the champions of equal rights for women as those with man, they forget that the work of centuries cannot be easily abolished: that juridical equality cannot be legitimate so long as psychological inequality is so flagrant.”
Ironically, any existing psychological inequality between men and women could be attributed to the patriarchal infantilizing of women through economic dependence and relegating them to the exclusive company of children. According to Durkheim, the most highly evolved role of women in society was that of “completing” men and caring for children. The lesser value he placed on women is evident in that his grief over the loss of his son Andre in WWI was recorded for posterity, while there is no mention of his daughter, Marie.
The scientific methods he used to arrive at his conclusions regarding the inferiority of women received a good deal of criticism from colleagues. One method was the study of “totemism“, which he believed to be the most ancient religion of Australian aborigines and Native Americans. He also relied on anecdotes of priests and merchants, who’d had limited experiences in observing those cultures, when reaching his conclusions.
The useful concepts and terms he contributed to a newly emerging field of study that he himself helped create are still used by sociologists today. Happily, his theories regarding equality between men and women and parenting aren’t nearly as influential as they once were.
If you want to know why modern psychologists find that motherhood is more defined by psychology than biology, go here.