Social Fact: A complex notion, with attributes of externality, constraint, and ineluctability. It is to be understood within the context of Emile Durkheim’s conception of collective conscience and collective representations. Social facts are ways of acting which emanate from collectively elaborated and therefore authoritative rules, maxims, and practices, both religious and secular. Norms and institutions are examples of social facts in more or less solidified forms. They constitute practices of the group taken collectively and thus impose themselves and are internalized by the individual. Because they are collectively elaborated they are moral and therefore constrain individual behavior. The interesting problem for sociologists concerns the gap between the ideal representations and the material social organizations and their constituent actions—as, for example, between the socially approved forms and the actual practice.
Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.