Joetta Squire

Book Report
Suicide
Durkheim’s intention was to explain the apparently “individual” act of
suicide in terms of society’s influences. His approach was based on a
distinction between individual cases of suicide and society’s, or “social
groups”, suicide rates. According to Durkheim, the stability and
consistency in suicide rates was an irreducible “social fact” which could
only be understood sociologically. Social facts are collective phenomena,
which hold back individual behavior. For Durkheim, societies hold back
individuals in two ways. First, by binding them to each other to a greater
extent through shared membership of social institutions (integration).

Second, by providing specific goals and means for attaing them
(regulation).

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Durkheim developed four types of suicide from his conception of social
and moral order. Egoistic suicide is the weakening of the ties binding the
individual to society, producing an “excess of individualism”. Which in
times of crisis, can leave the individual isolated, feeling a lack of
support and more vulnerable to depression and ultimately suicide.

Altruistic suicide, which is the opposite of egoistic suicide, the
individual’s ego, rather than being to great, is to weak to resist the
demands of social custom to commit suicide. Anomie suicide is a result of a
person’s activity “lacking in regulation”. Durkheim distinguished between
acute and chronic anomie. Acute anomie may be the result of some sudden
crisis, such as an economic crisis. Chronic anomie is the result of a more
gradual development of modern societies where individuals are increasingly
placed into situations of competition with each other.

Durkheim used similarities between suicide rates and various rates of
external association to show the existence of his key causal concepts. For
example, the statistics showed that Catholic areas had consistently lower
suicide rates than Protestant areas; people who were married with children
were less inclined to suicide than the single or childless; and a society’s
suicide rate fell in times of war or political upheaval. Durkheim was not
arguing that the differences in religion, family life or political activity
were ‘factors’ influencing suicide. Rather he was saying that the
relationship between suicide and religious, domestic and political life
were the invisible underlying causes of suicide.

Durkheim used similarities between increased suicide rates and periods
of economic fluctuation to illustrate the existence of anomic suicide. In
times of rapid economic change an increasing number of people find
themselves in altered situations where the norms and values by which they
had previously lived their lives becomes less relevant and the resulting
state of moral deregulation, or anomie, leaves them more vulnerable to
suicide. So, Durkheim was able to argue from his research that, even though
suicide appears to be a purely individual phenomenon, its underlying causes
are essentially social. As Raymond Aron (1968), summarizing Durkheim’s
achievement, put it, “There are, therefore, specific social phenomena which
govern individual phenomena. The most impressive, most eloquent example is
that of the social forces which drive individuals to their deaths, each one
believing they are obeying only themselves” (p. 34).

Although Durkheim’s work had a significant influence on future
sociological studies of suicide and the development of sociology generally,
it is important to bear in mind the limitations of this influence and the
many criticisms that have been made of Suicide (see, e.g. Lester, 1992). In
the sociology of suicide, as in most areas within the health field, a broad
distinction can be made between positivist studies of social causation and
neo-phenomenological studies of social construction. Curiously, neither
perspective accepts Durkheim’s approach. Positivist researchers, while
generally approving of Durkheim’s attempt to correlate suicide rates with
social variables, have quite legitimately claimed that Durkheim’s key
concepts of social integration and regulation were defined too loosely to
allow for proper empirical testing. Therefore, in imperialistic terms, the
theory was not ‘scientific’ because it could never be ‘refuted’ by the
evidence.

Phenomenologists, questioning the very idea of trying to explain
suicide sociologically, have honed in on Durkheim’s uncritical acceptance
of official suicide rates. Research by Douglas (1967) and Atkinson (1978)
into the ‘social construction’ of suicide statistics has shown how certain
types of death (for example hangings and drownings) and certain evidence
from the deceased’s past (for example, depression, social problems,
isolation) act as ‘suicidal cues’ which, taken together, enable officials
to construct a suicidal biography which would then legitimize a suicide
verdict. Atkinson, for example, shows that a death will only be recorded as
a suicide when officials are able to discover evidence consistent with
general cultural assumptions in Western societies about why people kill
themselves and how they go about doing it. He goes on to argue that
Durkheim and others who use official suicide rates and find them
consistently related to factors such as social isolation and status change
may not in fact be discovering the social causes of suicide. Dismissing
Durkheim’s ambition of trying to explain the social basis of suicide
scientifically, phenomenologists argue that the most sociology can offer is
interpretations of how suicidal meanings are constructed in given
situations.

So what can a book written a century ago widely criticized and based
on suspect 19th century statistics tell us about suicide in contemporary
societies? One answer might be that Durkheim’s brilliant theory can still
provide a basis for theorizing not only about suicide, but also about
depression and mental health generally (Brown ; Harris, 1978). Another
answer might be that empirically Durkheim was to some extent right about
the causes of suicide and that his theoretical concepts of integration and
anomie can help to understand a range of self-harming behaviors from
suicide to self-mutilation and eating disorders.

Given the criticisms of Suicide by others and its apparent
shortcomings in terms of Durkheim’s own ambitions, are most commentators
correct when they grant the work an honored but essentially historical
classic status? Have we really progressed ‘beyond Durkheim’? I am not sure
we have.

So in terms of the relation between the individual and society we have
either biologically orientated theories which depict the person as little
more than a social organism driven to suicide by ‘internal’ factors, such
as low levels of serotonin metabolic 5-hydroxindoleacetic acid in the
cerebrospinal fluid, or sociological explanations where an entirely social
individual is somehow pushed towards suicide by various ‘external’ factors
in much the same way as one billiard ball is pushed towards a pocket by
another.

Whether we are studying suicide, other aspects of mortality or
anything else, we are inevitably confronted by a series of tensions arising
from trying to make sense of the actions of biological organisms which are
partially influenced by their culture, trying to understand through our
experience and through abstract reason, and trying to make sense of a
material world where real things happen, like people killing themselves,
but which we can only make sense of through various systems of thought.

Nowhere, in my view, are the resulting tensions and the brilliant attempt
to resolve them more evident than in Suicide. This is what makes this
brilliant book a classic, and a classic which is just as important to
social science today as it was 100 years ago.



REFERENCES
ARON, R. (1968). Main currents in sociological thought II. London:
Weidenfeld and Nicolson.


ATKINSON, J. (1978). Discovering suicide. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


BROWN, G. & HARRIS, T. (1978). The social origins of depression. London:
Tavistock.


DOUGLAS, J. (1967). The social meanings of suicide. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.


LESTER, D. (ed.) (1992). ‘Le suicide’–one hundred years on suicide.

Philadelphia, PA: Charles Press.


STENGEL, E. (1973). Suicide and attempted suicide. London: Penguin.

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