Book Critique on ‘Suicide’ by Emile Durkheim Nearly a century ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim became interested in the phenomenon of suicide. Why, he asked, do people kill themselves? In his day, the common answer to such a question is: the suicidal person is depressed or mentally ill or has suffered an unbearable loss. An alternative philosophical answer is also presented: an individual commits suicide because it is part of his nature. But Durkheim was not satisfied with these explanations.
He thought it likely that forces within society influenced people’s decision to kill oneself was never simply personal. Durkheim wanted to provide a sociological answer to the phenomenon of suicide. To find out whether his ideas were correct, Durkheim considered the explanations for suicide that were common in his day and systematically assembled the evidence for each. As his sources, Durkheim used government records that listed numbers of suicides and gave information about the people involved – their age, sex, race, religion, marital status.
Upon analyzing this material, Durkheim saw that the usual explanations for suicide were contradicted by the evidence. There was a general variance of suicide rates across countries and time. Durkheim argued, “If suicide is considered a personal issue, why is there so much variation? ” (Durkheim, 1897/1951:17). If suicide were related to mental illness, Durkheim would have found relatively stable proportions of suicide and mental illness within social groups. Durkheim found the opposite: some groups shared high rates of mental illness but little suicide; other groups shared high rates of both.
Durkheim found that women were more likely to be diagnosed a mentally ill, but had less chances of committing suicide. Other contradictory information surfaced: Durkheim discovered that most people committed suicide during warmer periods of the year, not, as might be expected, during the cold days of winter. These initial findings forced Durkheim to conclude that suicide is determined by social forces; that is, forces external to the individual. Durkheim said, “suicide is based on social causes and is itself a collective phenomenon” (Durkheim, 1897/1951:145).
Characteristics of the social group in which people find themselves make suicide more or less likely; self-destruction is not simply a private act. In analyzing his information, Durkheim looked for specific social conditions under which suicide occurred the most and least often. Here were some of his findings: 1) Protestants committed suicide three times more than Catholics and Catholics more than Jews; 2) Single people committed suicide more often than married people, and married people with children least often of all; 3) And, suicide rates are higher when people feel few or weak ties to a social group or community.
The Jewish community was more tightly knit than the Catholic, the Catholic more tightly knit than the Protestant. Married individuals, especially those with children, had stronger social bonds than single people. After identifying the general cause of high suicide rates, Durkheim classified suicide into three types: 1) egoistic suicide, 2) altruistic suicide, and 3) anomic suicide. Individuals with few or weak ties to a community are likely to commit egoistic suicide, or suicide related to social isolation and individualism.
The opposite of egoistic suicide is called altruistic suicide. Here individuals whose ties to their particular groups are so strong that their commit suicide for the good of the group. Durkheim also saw that suicide rates increased when there were sharp economic upturns, and decrease when there was economic stability. When times are stable, people feel better integrated into the social fabric and committed to social norms. When times are stressful, the resulting state of anomie leads people to commit anomic suicide.
At the end of his research, Durkheim argued that ‘sociology is a legitimate field of study’ (Durkheim, 1897/1951). This statement is founded on two striking facts. First, he showed that suicide tendencies can be explained by social facts; that is, empirical statements with no psychological or philosophical implications. In essence, sociology is a field of study independent from psychology and philosophy. And second, social explanations about specific phenomenon are never inferior from other types of explanations.
In essence, social explanations are sufficient to explain contradictory social facts, since the latter depends on the former for empirical validity. General Critique There are several criticisms on Durkheim’s research on suicide. Here are some of the criticisms: 1) Durkheim defined suicide as referring to ‘all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result’ (Durkheim, 1897/1951:44). By positive act, Durkheim meant such things as jumping off a bridge or shooting oneself.
By negative act, he meant such things such as not taking necessary medicine or not getting out of the way of a moving vehicle. When Durkheim developed the concept of altruistic suicide, he himself committed a violation of his own operational definition. This violation constituted a flaw in his research. Given his data, it is almost impossible or difficult to find instances of altruistic suicide. One can infer that the inclusion of this type of suicide was the result of ‘overzealous inference’ from data;
2) Some sociologists argued that Durkheim was able to delineate the difference between personal issues and public problems. This is not entirely true. Durkheim never gave operational definitions to both personal issue and public problem. Durkheim only assumed that personal issues are issues peculiar to personal events; public issues are issues salient to the interests of a given social group. In a sense, it was Mills, not Durkheim, who formalized the distinction between personal issues and public problems;
3) Durkheim also ignored one important factor in his analysis of suicide: the political context of the late1890s. Durkheim argued that economic upheavals increased suicide rates, economic stability decreased suicide rate. If one closely analyzed the context of the late 1890s, one can perceive that it was not economic crisis (ups and downs of the economy) that determined suicide rates; rather it was the stability of political structures. The more stable the political structure, the more stable is the market. Hence, there are fewer tendencies for individuals to commit suicide. Conclusion
Although these criticisms were significant in many respects, they are insufficient to demolish Durkheim’s theory of social facts. For one, Durkheim successfully defended the integrity of sociology as a field of study. And second, his analysis of suicide rates cannot be proved to be incomplete or faulty. His definition of suicide may be shaky, but the implication of such is of no theoretical importance. Hence, Durkheim’s study on suicide rates is sociologically acceptable. Reference Durkheim, Emile. 1897/1951. Suicide: A Study of Sociology. J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson. New York: Free Press.