Book Report SuicideDurkheim’s intention was to explain the apparently “individual” act ofsuicide in terms of society’s influences. His approach was based on adistinction between individual cases of suicide and society’s, or “socialgroups”, suicide rates. According to Durkheim, the stability andconsistency in suicide rates was an irreducible “social fact” which couldonly be understood sociologically. Social facts are collective phenomena,which hold back individual behavior.
For Durkheim, societies hold backindividuals in two ways. First, by binding them to each other to a greaterextent through shared membership of social institutions (integration).Second, by providing specific goals and means for attaing them(regulation).Durkheim developed four types of suicide from his conception of socialand moral order. Egoistic suicide is the weakening of the ties binding theindividual to society, producing an “excess of individualism”. Which intimes of crisis, can leave the individual isolated, feeling a lack ofsupport and more vulnerable to depression and ultimately suicide.Altruistic suicide, which is the opposite of egoistic suicide, theindividual’s ego, rather than being to great, is to weak to resist thedemands of social custom to commit suicide.
Anomie suicide is a result of aperson’s activity “lacking in regulation”. Durkheim distinguished betweenacute and chronic anomie. Acute anomie may be the result of some suddencrisis, such as an economic crisis. Chronic anomie is the result of a moregradual development of modern societies where individuals are increasinglyplaced into situations of competition with each other.
Durkheim used similarities between suicide rates and various rates ofexternal association to show the existence of his key causal concepts. Forexample, the statistics showed that Catholic areas had consistently lowersuicide rates than Protestant areas; people who were married with childrenwere less inclined to suicide than the single or childless; and a society’ssuicide rate fell in times of war or political upheaval. Durkheim was notarguing that the differences in religion, family life or political activitywere ‘factors’ influencing suicide. Rather he was saying that therelationship between suicide and religious, domestic and political lifewere the invisible underlying causes of suicide.Durkheim used similarities between increased suicide rates and periodsof economic fluctuation to illustrate the existence of anomic suicide. Intimes of rapid economic change an increasing number of people findthemselves in altered situations where the norms and values by which theyhad previously lived their lives becomes less relevant and the resultingstate of moral deregulation, or anomie, leaves them more vulnerable tosuicide. So, Durkheim was able to argue from his research that, even thoughsuicide appears to be a purely individual phenomenon, its underlying causesare essentially social.
As Raymond Aron (1968), summarizing Durkheim’sachievement, put it, “There are, therefore, specific social phenomena whichgovern individual phenomena. The most impressive, most eloquent example isthat of the social forces which drive individuals to their deaths, each onebelieving they are obeying only themselves” (p. 34).Although Durkheim’s work had a significant influence on futuresociological studies of suicide and the development of sociology generally,it is important to bear in mind the limitations of this influence and themany criticisms that have been made of Suicide (see, e.
g. Lester, 1992). Inthe sociology of suicide, as in most areas within the health field, a broaddistinction can be made between positivist studies of social causation andneo-phenomenological studies of social construction. Curiously, neitherperspective accepts Durkheim’s approach.
Positivist researchers, whilegenerally approving of Durkheim’s attempt to correlate suicide rates withsocial variables, have quite legitimately claimed that Durkheim’s keyconcepts of social integration and regulation were defined too loosely toallow for proper empirical testing. Therefore, in imperialistic terms, thetheory was not ‘scientific’ because it could never be ‘refuted’ by theevidence.Phenomenologists, questioning the very idea of trying to explainsuicide sociologically, have honed in on Durkheim’s uncritical acceptanceof official suicide rates.
Research by Douglas (1967) and Atkinson (1978)into the ‘social construction’ of suicide statistics has shown how certaintypes of death (for example hangings and drownings) and certain evidencefrom the deceased’s past (for example, depression, social problems,isolation) act as ‘suicidal cues’ which, taken together, enable officialsto construct a suicidal biography which would then legitimize a suicideverdict. Atkinson, for example, shows that a death will only be recorded asa suicide when officials are able to discover evidence consistent withgeneral cultural assumptions in Western societies about why people killthemselves and how they go about doing it. He goes on to argue thatDurkheim and others who use official suicide rates and find themconsistently related to factors such as social isolation and status changemay not in fact be discovering the social causes of suicide. DismissingDurkheim’s ambition of trying to explain the social basis of suicidescientifically, phenomenologists argue that the most sociology can offer isinterpretations of how suicidal meanings are constructed in givensituations.
So what can a book written a century ago widely criticized and basedon suspect 19th century statistics tell us about suicide in contemporarysocieties? One answer might be that Durkheim’s brilliant theory can stillprovide a basis for theorizing not only about suicide, but also aboutdepression and mental health generally (Brown ; Harris, 1978). Anotheranswer might be that empirically Durkheim was to some extent right aboutthe causes of suicide and that his theoretical concepts of integration andanomie can help to understand a range of self-harming behaviors fromsuicide to self-mutilation and eating disorders.Given the criticisms of Suicide by others and its apparentshortcomings in terms of Durkheim’s own ambitions, are most commentatorscorrect when they grant the work an honored but essentially historicalclassic status? Have we really progressed ‘beyond Durkheim’? I am not surewe have.
So in terms of the relation between the individual and society we haveeither biologically orientated theories which depict the person as littlemore than a social organism driven to suicide by ‘internal’ factors, suchas low levels of serotonin metabolic 5-hydroxindoleacetic acid in thecerebrospinal fluid, or sociological explanations where an entirely socialindividual is somehow pushed towards suicide by various ‘external’ factorsin much the same way as one billiard ball is pushed towards a pocket byanother.Whether we are studying suicide, other aspects of mortality oranything else, we are inevitably confronted by a series of tensions arisingfrom trying to make sense of the actions of biological organisms which arepartially influenced by their culture, trying to understand through ourexperience and through abstract reason, and trying to make sense of amaterial 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 attemptto resolve them more evident than in Suicide. This is what makes thisbrilliant book a classic, and a classic which is just as important tosocial science today as it was 100 years ago.REFERENCESARON, 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.