The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Social Facts Rule Your Life

The world is human. Most humans live in cities, artificial environments created by us. We walk on streets laid out by humans, work and sleep and cook in buildings, drive in cars or take buses, trains and planes. We talk on cell phones and use the internet. Even those who live in the country live on land which has been altered by agriculture and the pasturing of animals domesticated by humans. The farmer grows wheat which was bred over millenia (or genetically altered recently). The farmer raises animals humans have been raising for thousands of years. We eat the meat of cows and pigs and chicken, we dine on rice or wheat or vegetables we have tended for millenia and which we have bred to suit us.

As individuals, we did not create almost any part of this physical world. We did not invent the techniques for caring for domesticated animals, growing vegetables, or making smart phones.

We live in a physical world created by humans, many of whom are dead. Human life is human in a way that animal life is not animal. Animals have an effect on the environment, but it is minor compared to what humans have done to the world.

And this is just the physical side of the world. Just as important is the world of ideas, of social facts.

Look at the words you are reading right now. You didn’t invent writing, typing, any of these words, or language itself. You spend your life thinking most of your thoughts in a language or languages created by humans, for humans, and mostly by dead humans.

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You almost certainly receive your daily food in exchange for something called money which is probably either plastic woven to look like paper or electronic bits. Money has no intrinsic value, a million dollars in the middle of Antarctica would do nothing for you, most money isn’t even paper any more; you couldn’t even burn it for heat. Yet most of us spend most of our waking days working for someone who gives us “money” and exchange it for most everything else we want.

In times of war and famine, money may lose most of its value. Food, cigarettes, or sex may be worth more. Money’s value is a social fact.

When someone is killed by another human being, whether it was murder or not is a social fact. In war, if a soldier kills someone it is probably not murder. If the state is executing someone it is not murder. When police kill someone it is usually not considered murder. Social facts.

The quality and amount of health care provided to individuals is a social fact. It depends on where they live. In some countries, it depends on how much money they have. In other countries, it depends on how much power they have.

The amount of melanin in someone’s skin is a physical fact. That having a “black” name in America leads to half the interview requests for an identical resume compared to someone with a “white” name is a social fact(x).

Cannabis is almost certainly less physically harmful than tobacco or alcohol, but selling or possessing cannabis is far more likely to get you thrown in jail. In the US, during alcohol prohibition, this was not true. Alcohol is alcohol, its legal status is a social fact.

Social facts rule most of your life. They are layered on top of physical facts and tell you how to understand those facts, and how to act towards them. There are few more consequential decisions than “When should I kill someone?” or “When should someone receive health care and how good should it be? or “Should I hire someone and for how much?”

Not all ideas are social facts. You may believe something “ought” to be true, but often other people do not agree. You think your girlfriend shouldn’t cheat, she doesn’t agree, the state doesn’t care. But if you act on that idea, and so do other people, it’s a social fact. They may call her a cheater, ostracize her, and so on. If no one acts on it, it is not a social fact.

A gang or mafia may believe that their members shouldn’t inform, and they may enforce this as best they can, but obviously the state does not. It is still a social fact if they can make it one, however.

You may also believe in ideas which are contrary to the ideas currently enforced by the state or other people. Perhaps you do not believe in intellectual property. Perhaps you think confessions obtained by torture shouldn’t be used in criminal proceedings. Perhaps you believe that women should or shouldn’t be able to have abortions.

These ideas may fall short of being social facts if no one acts on them. They are just ideas about how the world “ought” to be.

But while social facts are not just ideas, they are still ideas. Unlike the rules of the material universe, they can be changed.

And because they rule our lives, and our societies are built upon them, to change social facts is to change everything.

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  1. Herman

    Dean Baker often writes about the related idea that most of the outcomes of our society are politically (“socially”) determined. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is trade policy that really amounts to selective protectionism. Trade agreements forced downward pressure on wages and working conditions by exposing American production workers to competition from poor powerless workers from abroad while at the same time strengthening protections for intellectual property and maintaining protections for professionals. The result has been growing inequality as trade policy has clearly favored upper-income groups at the expense of lower-income groups.


    Many Americans intuitively understand this even if they don’t know the ins and outs of trade policy. They know that they have been screwed over by the politicians and their masters in the business class and they know that something can be done about it because they still understand that politics and power matters when creating “social facts.” They don’t buy the mainstream media claims about the inevitability of globalization and other arguments that try to paint these happenings as forces of nature like tornadoes or fires. Affluent people often buy into inevitability arguments because they are comforting narratives that reassure them that they owe their good fortune entirely to their own efforts and intelligence and not to politics.

    Nothing will ever get better in this country until more people come to realize that politics has a major role in determining life outcomes for people. Even seemingly individualized issues like suicide and drug addiction are not unrelated to politics. How many people would have never killed themselves or become addicted to drugs or alcohol had their economic fortunes been better? Neoliberals have blood on their hands just as much as any communists did for the victims of their attempts at social engineering.

  2. The Stephen Miller Band

    One social fact is that most people are acquiescent and will capitulate any objective independence to large group dynamics. They will sacrifice their personal sovereignty entirely not only to belong, but to belong in good standing. The psychopaths who own the world and their enablers who run the show understand this fully and use it to their advantage to maintain the status quo hierarchical arrangement that’s pretty much the hallmark of civilization.

    As The World Burns

  3. Alex

    ‘I am but mad. North by northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know the difference between a Hawk and a Handsaw.’ – Shakespeare

  4. Alex

    If you want to read about “social facts”, try Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains”. It explains a lot about why politics has grown so toxic and split people.

  5. Hugh

    People need to have an overarching vision of their society so that they can easily see whether those they have entrusted with positions of authority are working in society’s or their own private interest. Even then there will always be some who refuse to believe their lying eyes or opt for some form of identity politics.

    Pretty much anything that occurs in a society is social engineering. The question is is it helping to build and maintain the society you want or not. The fact that we live in a society does not mean we only live in a society. We have both social and private spaces in our lives. While we might want to concentrate on our private lives, it is our social lives which must take precedence for the very simple reason that our private lives can only acquire some substance and quality from the resources our society imparts to us.

    Societies for millennia have been repressive, run by and for a few. They still are. The difference, I would like to think, is that we are slowly moving to a world view where we can see that this does not need to be so. It is curious that this process should be taking place now when we have the looming but still largely dismissed threats of overpopulation and climate change, and just as we find ourselves in an accelerating class war where the few will go to any lengths to keep the rest of us splintered and at each other’s throats.

  6. Synoia

    Pretty much anything that occurs in a society is social engineering

    I think I object to the word engineering. I perceive it more as manipulation.

  7. People do not get it.

    A normal die-off of lions (one of the best – it gets a alot worse) is 50% before age 1. There is no idyllic paradise.

    Greed, however, does a pretty fair impersonation.

  8. bruce wilder

    It is, of course, not just that social facts exist or are created by social cooperation, but that social facts dominate our thinking and behavior.
    This is what sociology and cultural anthropology are all about noticing: the extent to which our behavior is created and governed according to an imagined (aka socially constructed) virtual reality. Noticing this means noticing that there’s often a gap between social reality and its meaning on the one hand and functional reality. We eat what we believe to be a nutritious meal, but whether it really is a physically nutritious meal is open to doubt. We feel sick (and what we recognize as symptoms of physical illness are socially and culturally defined) and go to the doctor, who treats us in a ceremonial manner much older than medical science. Whether that “treatment” is of any real benefit or well-designed to ostensible purpose is open to question.
    We could not possibly live “raw” without this matrix of social facts, but we also cannot possibly apply critical reason and appreciation to the design of social facts, without recognizing them for what they are, which requires detaching a bit from them emotionally and intellectually.

    How am I doing, in recapitulating what Ian is saying?

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