Durkheim's work on the 'social fact' of suicide rates is famous. By carefully examining police suicide statistics in different districts, Durkheim was able to 'demonstrate' that Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than Protestants, and ascribe this to a social (as opposed to individual) cause. This was groundbreaking work and remains much-cited even today. Initially, Durkheim's 'discovery of social facts' was seen as significant because it promised to make it possible to study the behaviour of entire societies, rather than just of particular individuals. Modern sociologists refer to Durkheim's studies for two quite different purposes, however:
A total social fact [fait social total] is "an activity that has implications throughout society, in the economic, legal, political, and religious spheres." (Sedgewick 2002: 95) "Diverse strands of social and psychological life are woven together through what he [Mauss] comes to call 'total social facts'. A total social fact is such that it informs and organises seemingly quite distinct practices and institutions." (Edgar 2002:157) The term was popularized by Marcel Mauss in his classic The Gift where he wrote, "These phenomena are at once legal, economic, religious, aesthetic, morphological and so on. They are legal in that they concern individual and collective rights, organized and diffuse morality; they may be entirely obligatory, or subject simply to praise or disapproval. They are at once political and domestic, being of interest both to classes and to clans and families. They are religious; the concern true religion, animism, magic and diffuse religious mentality. They are economic, for the notions of value, utility, interest, luxury, wealth, acquisition, accumulation, consumption and liberal and sumptuous expenditure are all present..." (Mauss 1923-34, translation by Cunnison, 1966: 76-77).