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An Essay on the Intrinsic Relationship between Social Facts and Moral Questions.

THE QUESTION OF VALUE NEUTRALITY has been a contested issue since the early twentieth century. Its original formulation in 1917 is attributed to Max Weber, but there were other early proponents. The idea is that the social scientist should not allow an orientation toward values to influence their work. The problem is that the social facts that are typically the subject of such research are comprised in the first place through a mutual orientation toward values. Therefore, trying to do value-free research can obscure the actual nature of the social phenomena in question--a big distortion that keeps the research from being scientific. In other words, the way the question has generally been taken up, the possibility of value neutrality rests on a hypothetical separation between fact and value that has long been contested by social thinkers, including Weber himself. It was also an important issue for Durkheim, who argued that social facts not only depended on value orientations, but were also properly moral facts because without them and the cooperative work of making them, we would not be human; a consideration that he pointed out most philosophers and social thinkers had overlooked. Garfinkel's argument that social objects and identities depend on reciprocity conditions that are damaged by inequality is similar in drawing an intrinsic relationship not only between social facts and a value orientation in social practices--but arguing that there is a properly moral issue involved.

The idea of value neutrality was hotly contested by social thinkers throughout the 1920s and 1930s with Talcott Parsons (1937) championing the positions of both Durkheim and Weber against the idea. It was only with the advent of World War II that a preference for trying to achieve value neutrality finally gained ascendancy--bolstered by the belief that value neutral methods would more efficiently deliver "immediate" results to support the war effort. Whether the statistical and demographic studies that became predominant at that time were really practical or useful was of less importance to disciplinary leaders than the speed with which results could be delivered and their relevance to winning the war--that is, wartime research was expected to both address social questions that would help win the war and at the same time remain value neutral--a deep contradiction. Given this paradox, it is important to ask in what sense any of these studies could have been value neutral. They were often statistical and demographic. But, the idea that this gained value neutrality for them is a false belief. Statistics are no more value neutral than the social processes and value orientations that are used to create those statistics. The same is true of the "categories" that demographers count. These methods were preferred during the war precisely because they could be aimed at a "value": the political aim of winning the war.

And here we come to two connected misconceptions that have animated the discussion for a long time: first, the false belief that methods that rely on statistics have a greater potential to be value neutral or value free; and, second, that fact and value can be separated in doing social research. Making the argument about the possibility of value neutrality assumes that facts are natural objects that can exist apart from a relationship to society, culture, or social interaction. Believing that statistical and demographic methods have a greater potential to be value free assumes that the categories of person and action that statistics count, as well as the counting procedures themselves, are free from value-oriented social relationships: they are not.

Both assumptions are false. Even categories such as male/female and Black/White that are used to compile simple apparently straightforward demographic data are social categories with no natural or biological counterpart. They are social facts that are defined differently in different places and times. There are a range of different biological conditions for sex. It is societies that decide how these correspond with the social categories of gender. The way people are assigned the categories male/female represents these arbitrary social definitions. The same is true for race. A person can be Black in one country and White in another. How societies decide to draw the lines is a social matter, determined by social relations; by social orientations toward values, beliefs, and social practices, not by biology.

It is not just that the categories themselves are social facts, but that each social institution develops its own unique ways of recording, counting, and processing those social facts. There are many social processes involved in creating the institutional data sets that so-called "value-free" approaches often use. Take crime rates for instance. There is a general misperception that they report the number of crimes. They do not. Some crime rates measure self-reported crime, some large portion of which never resulted in arrest and a significant portion of which does not meet the legal definition of crime. Most local and state crime rates represent the rate at which police officers and courts record and process crimes. The police work and prosecutorial decisions involved are not unmotivated or value free. In a society like the United States, which has a serious race problem there is a higher recorded crime rate for African Americans. This does not mean that they commit more crime--although the crime "rate" is generally treated as though it did mean that. It means that Black Americans see more police action, and that law enforcement is less likely to give them breaks. That is, they are "processed" more often. This is, of course, a serious moral issue that is embedded in the statistics themselves. Institutional statistical data sets like this are not value free. Treating them as if they were--and pretending to do "value-free" research based on them--creates even more inequality and reifies the prejudices that led to the statistical imbalance in the first place. The question becomes "Why do Black Americans commit more crime?" and there is a whole industry producing explanations that often posit the inferiority of Black Americans on one or another measure as an explanation.

In this way "value-free" research tends to support the inequalities that exist in a social system: so it is actually the opposite of value free. As Garfinkel wrote in 1946, letting the values and assumptions of a culture into the categories unexamined lets "ethnocentrism" in (Garfinkel 1946).

Is there a good alternative argument? Yes, and it is a classic. Two decades before Weber penned the argument that became the anchor of the "value-free" movement, Durkheim had begun making the important argument that all meaningful facts and objects are social facts and that all social facts are moral facts. Durkheim intended by this argument not only the idea that social facts depend on social cooperation to make them, but that the cooperation involved was an essentially moral enterprise because it created the ideas, identities, and social relationships without which we would not be recognizably human. Durkheim considered the social commitments that this creation depended on to be "sacred" and therefore the underlying requirements of the social process to be moral. This was not a functional argument. It was a constitutive argument. If Durkheim is right about this, there is no possibility of value-free science. Durkheim saw this as a plus and argued that the new discipline of sociology that he was founding should become an advocate for social reforms that would better support the needs of social fact making processes in modern society.

For Durkheim, this moral advocacy was more scientific than approaches that treated facts as natural for two reasons: First, they are not natural facts and therefore treating them as if they are leads to huge mistakes. Durkheim ([1893] 1933) laid the major paradoxes of philosophy and social science at the feet of this error (for instance, positing a conflict between individual and society when the individual would not exist without society, or arguing that social requirements are not properly moral requirements when the human individual would not exist without them, etc.); and second, he argued that the approach that recognized the moral implications of social facts is more scientific because it looks beneath the surface of the facts into the social processes and moral relationships used to create them and on which they depend. For instance, if Durkheim had studied crime rates in the United States today and found that the high Black crime rate was the result of differential attention by law enforcement to the Black community, he would have argued that sociology had a scientific duty to expose those rates as the result of a distorted moral relationship. Garfinkel did exactly this in a study of North Carolina courtrooms in 1942 (1949). Durkheim believed that this new scientific approach to morality should be taught in public schools so as to firmly ground modern society on the moral foundation it needs.

Durkheim was only the first of many important social thinkers to tread this path. From the late nineteenth through the twentieth century, other notable social theorists and philosophers also began arguing that most of the facts we have to deal with--and every one that achieves shared meaning--is a social fact and not a natural fact. The philosophers Wittgenstein (1953) and Austin (1955) made the argument between 1939 and 1955. The sociologists C. Wright Mills (1940), Harold Garfinkel (1940, 1942, [1947] 2012, 1949, 1967), and Erving Goffman (1951, 1959, 1961) elaborated the position in sociology between 1939 and 1960. The economist Herbert Simon (1953) came close to a social fact position in the 1950s with his conception of "bounded rationality" and Joseph Stiglitz (2011) and Thomas Piketty (2014) are elaborating the cost of inequality in economics in related terms today.

Given the omnipresence of social facts, the almost complete reliance of social persons on them, and the need for a high degree of cooperation and mutuality to create them each next time, the possibility of value neutrality approaches zero. It is not even desirable to achieve value neutrality if the conditions for the making of the social facts we rely on are in themselves moral imperatives. As such they cannot be separated from their moral conditions. Hence, scientific studies of the conditions for social fact making will necessarily involve moral prescriptions because moral conditions are requirements for successful social fact making. Such studies are done by those inspired by Garfinkel in studies of science, communication, and work. These studies of moral conditions are required in order for studies to be scientific insofar as social fact making actually has such moral conditions. In other words, insofar as practices are constitutive of essential human goods, they involve issues of morality proper. Exclusion of some from such practices is a moral evil. Studies of this moral evil can be scientific. It is when social facts are artificially separated from the moral conditions of their making--as often happens in the attempt to be "value free"--that distortion, subjectivity, and ethnocentricity make their way into scientific practice. Unfortunately, misunderstandings about this have made it difficult for those working to document the moral relations involved in social facts. Because of these misunderstandings, a short review of Durkheim's position is in order.


Durkheim was the first to argue this social fact position, initiating a social fact lineage that was taken up in sociology by Talcott Parsons and then by Garfinkel and Goffman. The argument is that scientific rigor is achieved precisely through the recognition that facts and values are inextricably linked--and then focusing on that link. In taking up this argument in 1938 and running with it after the war (1950), Parsons maintained that the artificial separation had resulted in a reductionist individualism that had damaged sociology Parsons (1938, 1950). One could argue that the most rigorous empirical studies of social facts have come from Garfinkel, Goffman, and others who recognized the intrinsic connection between facts and values. I would argue that Weber himself recognized such a linkage and that his urging to keep research value neutral recognized that values would nevertheless be a necessary part of scientific research. In other words, his position has been misunderstood. Weber meant that a researcher's own personal values should not obscure their understanding of how the facts and values of the people they were researching were linked (i.e., mutually constitutive).

Durkheim took a different tack. It was Durkheim's view that scientists could understand the moral prerequisites that were a required foundation for making social facts in a certain form of society by looking at regulations (including the constitutive requirements of rituals) and their sanctions. Because these moral prerequisites could be documented scientifically, the scientists who discovered them should also advocate support for those moral prerequisites. Because each form of society could have different moral prerequisites, it is important to scientifically ascertain which form of morality is necessary in each case. Without this information and the advocacy that should follow it, Durkheim argued in The Division of Social Labor ([1893] 1933) that modern society was likely to fail. It was his grand scheme that sociology should be the science to both document the moral needs of modernity and educate people about how to secure the necessary moral prerequisites for its success.

Before World War I, this project was well under way in France. Durkheim's arguments about moral education were taking hold and his school of sociology was becoming established and influential. Unfortunately, the Durkheim school was practically wiped out by the World War I. This not only eliminated Durkheim's immediate students, but left his approach open to critics who have badly misinterpreted it. Changes in sociology and social science that quickly swept through American sociology during the World War II finished the job. The idea that value neutrality was possible and preferred became entrenched.

For Durkheim the new types of social arrangements and practices that developed in modernity required justice: a requirement for the making of social facts that he worked to establish empirically. This was especially true for the new constitutive practices of science and occupations. As social labor became more divided, more equality was necessary. Establishing the required justice, he argued, would also require that natural inequalities not be enhanced by social conditions (better access to education, nutrition, jobs). This would mean, in turn, that new laws and regulations are required to support the transition to equality. The new morality should be taught in public schools so that everyone understands what is required.

So, if Weber, however inadvertently, became the author of value neutrality, Durkheim was the original advocate for a scientific sociology of social facts that would support moral advocacy and moral education.


Much misunderstood as the author of a sociology that was indifferent to moral and political issues, Garfinkel from the first focused inequality, exclusion, and the difficulties confronting the socially marginal. In his earliest publications, he focused on Black and Jewish Americans, the transgendered, and political and social outcasts (Garfinkel 1940, 1942, [1947] 2012, 1949, 1967). He considered their statuses to be interactional achievements of what he called "Passing" that could shed light both on what was going wrong with interaction and what needed to be done to achieve mutual reciprocity.

Like Durkheim, Garfinkel considered the requirements of social life inherently moral--even though actual social conditions usually violated moral requirements. He argued that such violations threatened intersubjectivity and could render interaction meaningless. The possibility of coherent collaborative social action required an underlying moral commitment to the needed reciprocity. He maintained that the underlying reciprocity conditions that he called "Trust" (Garfinkel 1963) was a constitutive requirement for the social practices that are the bedrock of social solidarities. That means for Garfinkel that the moral questions in contemporary life were located in constitutive practices. Because marginal status was consequential for the acceptance of persons into moral reciprocities, the trust requirement was always relevant to social justice issues. Excluding people from trust conditions excluded them from coherence.

Instead of asking the kinds of questions that sociologists who believe in value neutrality tend to ask, like "How many Protestants choose X?" or "What effect does income have on life choices?," Garfinkel asked what it is about the organization of the social practices themselves that would work to exclude anyone. If race is part of how courtroom practices are organized, as he argued in his 1942 MA thesis, then the life chances of persons will be affected by their racial identification in the courtroom. His analysis in the 1990s (Ethnomethodology's Program 2002) of how a certain way of queuing for coffee (the "crush") makes it difficult for Helen--who is blind--to get coffee is characteristic of how he approached questions of exclusion. Approaching the question this way goes to the heart of why social justice is so resistant to attempts at change that focus on attitudes and formal institutions rather than on the collaborative processes of exclusion that make inequality a concrete reality.

Garfinkel's first two publications written in 1940 and 1942 at North Carolina (published in 1940 and 1949) examine the social processes that produce and sustain racial inequality in the American South. His later focus (Garfinkel 1967) on interactional processes, and in particular on the reciprocity commitment, social skills, rules, practices, and devices that facilitate meaningful cooperation would extend that interest. Garfinkel refers repeatedly in his early writing (through 1952) to the difficulties faced by Jews, Negroes, Reds, and Criminals, expecting the performance of self to be more difficult, the Trust conditions more tenuous, and the consequences of failed reciprocity to be more serious for members of marginal groups.

For Garfinkel, all of these categories are social creations that constitute marginal statuses, but the social practices by which this marginality is accomplished are different in each case, and thus result in a different positioning of possibilities vis-a-vis the majority for each minority group. His Harvard PhD dissertation in 1952 proposed that highly motivated and successful Jewish minorities would be more negatively impacted by negative feedback than other students. Findings from a study of Harvard undergraduates supported this. The question of how constitutive practices and the reciprocity requirement differentially impacted minorities and marginal persons he would pursue lifelong. His study of "Agnes" (Garfinkel 1967, chap. 5 and appendix, Studies) and 14 other transgendered persons, which began in 1958, also extends these early interests.

Garfinkel devoted a great deal of attention to detailing the moral problems that result from a failure to examine such constitutive practices in details (race, class, and gender discrimination hidden in statistics and other unexamined reified categories). He was concerned that conventional sociological approaches that treated these categories as givens were not only missing the point, but actually making things worse in their quest to be scientific by allowing institutional categories to hide the work of racism (and other categorization work) that went into creating the statistical records that were being treated as "objective" data. His commitment to elaborating the moral basis of society was longstanding.

The key point is that the rules that facilitate cooperative exchange must meet constitutive reciprocity requirements for any of this to work--and these are moral requirements. This is the aspect of the argument that Marcel Mauss took up in The Gift ([1925] 1954), and it dovetails with both Garfinkel and Goffman. There are rules and expectations for social fact making. These can be studied, and their constitutive and moral character can be located in the sanctions that follow from not orienting toward rules and expectations in recognizable ways. In an open democratic society, the rules must also be such that anyone can orient them. According to Durkheim ([1893] 1933:407):
   it is not enough that there be rules; they must be just, and for
   that it is necessary for the external conditions of competition to
   be equal.... what characterizes the morality of organized
   societies, compared to that of segmental societies, is that ... It
   only asks that we be thoughtful of our fellows and that we be just,
   that we fulfill our duty, that we work at the function we can best
   execute, and receive the just reward for our services. The rules
   which constitute it do not have a constraining force which snuffs
   out free thought; but because they are rather made for us and, in a
   certain sense, by us, we are free.

Modern society and the moral basis of "humanity" maybe in crisis. But, "The remedy for the evil," according to Durkheim ([1893] 1933:407), "is not to seek to resuscitate traditions." That is what most social thinkers have proposed. For Durkheim returning to tradition will destroy everything. "What we must do to relieve this anomy," he argues, is to eliminate external sources of inequality such as inherited wealth and "introduce into [social] relations more justice...." (p. 407).

The big problem, from Durkheim's point of view, is that modern division of labor society has not achieved the justice in fact that it has realized in shared sentiment. Many modern people believe in justice. But believing in justice and feeling its necessity is not enough. It must be actual to support the required constitutive reciprocity work. While public morality tends increasingly, Durkheim says ([1893] 1933:386) to demand "an exact reciprocity in the services exchanged," the legal system does not support the conditions necessary to effect fair exchange. People can "believe" in equality and nevertheless produce enormous amounts of inequality. The common practices of inherited wealth and differentiation between the status and wealth of laborers and business owners both violate the implicit conditions of contract.


Durkheim's Division of Social Labor introduced a new conception of social facts as cooperatively constituted objects and argued that a constitutive sense of justice and a constitutive type of social practice develop in modern society to support social fact making in contexts of diversity. The argument parts company with classic philosophy and social science not only in its conception of social facts as depending on immediate constitutive work for their creation, but in proposing a distinction between two types of social practice: one suited to traditional societies and the other to modernity. As such, the book marks a division between classical and modern social thought, and many important social thinkers went on to elaborate similar distinctions between social and natural facts and between types of social facts over the course of the twentieth century: Wittgenstein's (1953) "use" practices, Rawls' (1954) "constitutive" versus "regulative" rules, and Searle's (1969) constitutive criteria for "Speech Acts" all based important philosophical arguments on a similar point. Garfinkel's "constitutive rules" versus "institutional accountability," his "Trust conditions" for engagement in constitutive practices, and Goffman's "working consensus" and "Interaction Orders" are important sociological arguments that rely on a similar premise. In spite of the importance of these arguments, however, and the rich vein of research they have inspired across many disciplines, they have not yet had the impact on social theory and philosophy that they should have.

The mistake about value neutrality is one of the things that has gotten in the way. The rise to prominence of Pragmatism in the latter twentieth century was necessitated by the failure of the earlier "practice conception" to secure its point about the importance of constitutive rules and practices in philosophy. One could also argue that the failure of sociology to appreciate the importance of the new social fact argument explains the current condition of the discipline--which now more than ever treats social facts as if they were natural facts; reifying values in the process. Durkheim argued that success in reforming society would require establishing a comprehensive approach to practice that was based on empirical observation. At this point the research is in hand. But, it is not "value-free" research. It cannot be value free. Achieving acceptance for the scientific status of this research that focuses on practices and the reciprocity and equality they require is important. This in turn requires an explanation of how the research fits into a comprehensive--and alternate--theoretical framework.

This is where a regrounding of Garfinkel and Goffman in Durkheim's social fact lineage is essential. The functionalist and structuralist misinterpretations of Durkheim do not help. It is the work of Garfinkel, in particular, that provides the empirical demonstration of Durkheim's original point about constitutive practices of science and occupations. Goffman offers demonstrations of Durkheim's argument about the dependence of individual freedom on social relations. Not only did Durkheim propose an empirical approach to social facts/orders as constitutive (using that term), he proposed an integral connection between those orders and an egalitarian form of social relations that he argued was an underlying requirement for their achievement--and he did so in the context of a comprehensive theory of modernity. Given the empirical character of constitutive practices, the study of these practices and their moral requirements, he argued, must also proceed empirically. The argument supports the development of an observational sociology focused on constitutive detail such as Garfinkel's; not the statistical sociology that claims Durkheim as a founder, which is based on generalization and static categories that obscure the cooperative practices that are the centerpiece of Durkheim's argument and allow ethnocentrism and cultural inequality into the data.

The problem is that Durkheim's social fact argument got lost. The relationship he drew between the social fact argument and morality also got lost. In the process, social theory itself got lost. Rereading Durkheim offers a blueprint for recovery. Garfinkel elaborates that blueprint. Rather than assuming that meaningful social contexts exist as a backdrop for posing questions of social and moral order, Durkheim asked how the coherence of meaningful social contexts is made possible in the first place by moral relationships. This initial achievement of coherence he treats as the true purpose of morality (and in a traditional society he proposes the need to achieve coherence as the true purpose of religion). This raises to prominence the questions--"Which empirical details of cooperative constitutive practice are necessary for mutual coherence to be achieved?"--and "What underlying conditions do they require?"

Garfinkel asks how in and through these details we achieve meaningful social facts.

Justice is necessary because of the fragile character of the social objects and meanings that need to be cooperatively created through reciprocities. Garfinkel and Goffman both document this fragility in detail and talk about the trust, reciprocity, and working consensus they require. In a sufficiently fragile situation in which positions are not preallocated, all participants have an interest in protecting all positions. They have an obligation to protect every identity and/or position that belongs to a situation and its identities which could become their own. If they do not do this move by move, meaning and identity can fail. If there are categories of person who are not seen as equal participants (by race, gender, or culture for instance), and therefore cannot be recognized as participants, it will not be possible to create mutually intelligible social facts with them. Similarly, those, who through incompetent performance become ostracized from the group, will not be able to participate.

For this reason, social solidarity based on exclusion cannot sustain a diverse modern society. Justice and equal and open participation are necessary. In a perfectly just situation, all persons would be eligible to participate and all positions would be exchangeable. Given sufficient fragility in the process, all participants are obligated to protect all positions in order to preserve their own interests. The cooperative requirements of these fragile constitutive orders demand a different kind of attention and care than the durable categories and objects of traditional societies. Justice is a functional necessity for constitutive orders of practice.

Garfinkel and Goffman argue that underlying trust conditions, or a working consensus, are necessary and constitutive of the coherence and stability of communication and interaction. They also argue that the fragile and momentary character of social facts requires close cooperation based on equality and reciprocity. That each next response can change the meaning of what has gone before--also an essential feature of Mauss' gift argument--is foundational to both Garfinkel and Goffman.

Because what is moral and marked as such is determined by social needs, not abstract principles, morality will vary as social needs vary. In traditional societies, this means that to the extent that social needs vary between groups, the result is a strong element of moral relativity. But, in Durkheim's view that relativity is remedied in modern differentiated society by the fact that the social requirements of constitutive practices under the division of labor become more and more the same. Ironically this happens as the particulars of identities, practices, and beliefs become less and less the same. In other words, the increasing specialization of work and differentiation of identity leads to an increasing sameness in the underlying constitutive requirements. The moral imperatives of the new social needs thus become one big interconnected "is" that imposes one increasingly universal "ought" that Durkheim refers to as justice.

It is the social and moral relations of constitutive practice and the cooperative commitment to them on which the existence of the perceiving self, its social identity, and the coherence of mutually intelligible social objects depend. All mutually coherent social facts are, on this view, moral facts and none exist independently of social relations.

It is not surprising that the greatest sociological and philosophical minds of the twentieth century took up this idea, which offered solutions to the major classic dilemmas. Every social object, identity, or meaning needs to be cooperatively created by people who make a moral commitment to constitutive practices and their underlying moral prerequisites. The idea of "value-free" sociology is as much an illusion as the economists' idea of a "Free Market." In a modern highly differentiated social context, social solidarity and the coherence of things and ideas depend on the constitutive practices that create and sustain mutually available social facts. Thus, our commitment to those practices and their distribution among the population (equal or unequal) is a moral issue of huge practical consequence. It is a moral issue in the philosophical sense. A moral failure is a failure to secure a basic human good. Any failure to achieve justice in differentiated modern publics threatens the coherence of all social facts and situations. By the same token, any consideration of social facts, which is the business of sociology, would of necessity also involve considerations of morality.

Durkheim's approach to functionalism has been misunderstood largely because it is closely tied to his argument about moral requirements, which has been misunderstood. It is not that social relations are moral because they are functional. Rather, the argument is that they are functional because they fulfill constitutive moral requirements. Even though reciprocity and cooperation are in some abstract sense moral ideals, Durkheim argues that when the ends are essential social goods (reason, social facts, self, mutual coherence, social solidarity), the cooperative social processes necessary to create and maintain those ends become moral requirements.

The solution for Durkheim was to go forward--not back--basing reforms on new empirical understandings of the practical and moral requirements of modernity that would be delivered by sociology. Garfinkel, Goffman, and other qualitative researchers have been delivering on that promise. But, until social science recognizes that the value-free project is a dead end--progress will battle against the false idols of statistical reification--rife with embedded unexamined moral assumptions-- "ethnocentrism" passing for natural facts.


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Anne Warfield Rawls

Bentley University and University of Siegen

Anne Warfield Rawls, Department of Sociology, Bentley University, Morison Hall 149H, Waltham, MA 02452. E-mail:
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Author:Rawls, Anne Warfield
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
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Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2017
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