This is all about whether sociology can be considered a 'science' or not. It is an ongoing debate between two sides of sociologists - positivists and interpretivists.
Comte - positivism.
Comte invented the term sociology. He argued it should be based on the methods of natural sciences and this would result in a 'positive science of society' which would reveal the laws that governed society. He is a positivist.
Comte believed that only directly observable facts were acceptable as evidence. Anything that couldn't be directly measured was ruled out. The facts of society must be quantifiable and measurable. Then once this is done it's possible to identify cause and effect relationships and discover the laws underlying social evolution.
Durkheim - the rules of sociological method
Durkheim's first rule was to 'consider social facts as things'. Social facts mean institutions, beliefs and values of society. This means they can be treated in the same way as objects and events of the natural world. They can be objectively measured, quantified and analysed, meaning cause and effect relationships can be established and theories developed. In this way, 'real laws are discoverable' just like in the natural world.
But how can social facts be treated as things? Aren't beliefs, for example, made up of the human consciousness? And aren't human beings, because they have a consciousness, different to the inanimate objects that make up the natural world? - It is questionable whether science methodology is the most appropriate.
Durkheim accepted that social facts form part of our consciousness - they have to for society to function. However, they also exist outside of us. Members of society don't simply act in terms of personal belief - they are directed by social facts, values and beliefs which are over and above the individual and part of wider society. This means social facts can be studied as 'things'.
The social facts of suicide
Durkheim's study of suicide exemplified his rules of the sociological method. He argued that the causes of suicide rates are to be found in society, not the psychology of the individual. Suicide rates are social facts and are also a product of social facts.
Durkheim examined official statistics on suicide from a number of European countries. He found that:
1. suicide rates within countries were fairly constant over a number of years
2. there were considerable differences in the rates between societies and between social groups within the same society.
Correlation and analysis
Durkheim found correlations between suicide rates and a wide range of social facts. E.g. suicide rates and religion.
He then saw if he could discover causal connections. He argued the variations in suicide rates were caused by variations in levels of social integration that is the extent to which individuals are part of a wider social group. He believed the higher an individual's social integration the less likely they are to take their own life.
Theory and explanation