Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess different sociological explanations of suicide. (21 marks) Suicide is the intentional taking of one’s own life and sociologists over the years have tried to put forward various explanations for why someone may do this.
Within sociology there are many different views on suicide on the causes and explanations for it, these come from two main methodologies which are Positivists who believe that sociology is a science and they should aim to make causal laws on suicide rates, compared to Interpretivists who believe that they should look for meaning behind occurrences and certain individuals experiences before the suicide.
Other perspectives also put in their views on what they believe to explain suicide for example, Realists.
Item A references to Durkheim’s Structural Functionalist view on suicide, as stated Durkheim believes that due to sociology being a science with the topic of suicide it is very easy to make causal laws or as said in Item A ‘social facts’.
Due to the fact Durkheim believed that there were a number of causes behind suicide he form four types of suicide from a Positivist viewpoint. Egoistic suicide which is when individuals are not integrated well enough into society for example people who live alone compared to those who live with family.
Secondly Altruistic suicide which is when individuals are felt to be too integrated into society causing suicide, for example members of the armed forces were said to have greater suicide rates than civilian personnel as they were too strongly integrated into a united body.
Durkheim also put forward the idea of Anomic suicide, this is when the norms and values in society become unclear or confused in times of great social change and an individual is not taught to adapt to changes well enough. For example an unexpected death of a family member is sudden social change which can cause Anomic suicide.
Lastly, he suggested Fatalistic suicide. Fatalism is the thinking of the individual that they can do nothing to affect their situation and individuals find their future blocked and oppressed due to society over regulating them. For example slaves and prisoners may have this mindset when they take their own lives. Durkheim said that his work on suicide had several merits as it correctly revealed that suicide is a social rather than psychological occurrence and proved his methodology that you can establish laws and show that sociology is a science.
However his theory on suicide has been met with some criticism. Douglas claimed that Durkheim’s work relied too heavily on the use of official statistics on suicide and he incorrectly assumed that these were representative of the real truth. Douglas notes that official statistics are socially produced and can be distorted in many ways, for example via concealment and varying definitions of suicide by coroners meaning that the validity of the statistics is doubted. So Douglas himself put forward an explanation for suicide.
Douglas adopted a Symbolic Interactionist perspective, along with a interpretive methodology which is opposite to that of Durkheim. Some would argue that Douglas selected to look at suicide as an area of investigation as he thought it would illustrate the beliefs of Interactionists and highlight the short comings of the Structural Functionalists positivist approach. Douglas used psychiatrists reports and newspaper accounts to come up with his four patterns of social meaning for suicide and within his study he took a very subjective approach looking at meaning and motives.
In Douglas’ view suicide could be due to four reasons, the first to gain release from the cares of the world to find happiness, to change the opinion of others in the suicides favour, to achieve a state of fellow feeling creating a climate of sympathy or to simply get revenge towards those who are causing pain towards them. Douglas believed that his work highlighted that suicide is a rational act rather than an automatic response to the environment as people are active not passive, and also to show that sociology is not a science and we should look into meanings over statistics.
Obviously this was highly criticised by Structural Functionalists such as Durkheim who believed that Douglas’ work was too unscientific and that he incorrectly assumed that the nature of man is active rather than passive. Another sociologist who takes an Interpretivist methodology is Atkinson, believing that social meaning and context is more important in finding root causes. However unlike Douglas, Atkinson is a Ethnomethodologist which has a central belief of showing that each individual use their own members methods to work out what they see.
This is why Atkinson decided to study suicide, also to show how official statistics are not enough. Atkinson focused on a Coroner’s report and underwent participant observation at an office to see what methods they used to decide whether a death was suicide or not. Atkinson stated that they used ‘common sense’ theories of suicide so if certain information were to fit the theories it would be called a suicide. They would look at clues to help decided, Atkinson named a few to which he believed was important within their decisions.
Firstly was there a suicide note left, this clearly is a big clue to whether or not the individual meant to kill themselves. Secondly how did the individual die as certain ways such as hanging point towards suicide, also the location of the body, usually if it is hidden away out of sight then the person is indicating that they did not want to be found. Finally did the individual have any past mental illnesses or life history that could lead them towards suicide.
Atkinson therefore stated that a suicide verdict reflects the assumptions and interpretation of the clues by the coroner rather than reality and facts. Atkinson’s study was said to have some merits as it did identify what clues coroners use to arrive at a suicide verdict, but also shows that positivists use of quantative data such as official statistics is not valid as they are produced by coroners who base the label of suicide on their own social assumptions.
Hindess put forward a criticism for both Douglas and Atkinson, arguing that although Interpretive researchers have maintained that suicide statistics can be misleading they haven’t stated to what extent they distort people’s ideas, so therefore it may only be slight and still be possible to make accurate causal laws from a Positivist viewpoint. Taylor has put forward his view on suicide, taking a Realist approach which is very different from the explanations already stated.
Taylor has tried to combine both Interpretivist and Positivist methodologies to come to a verdict on suicide. Taylor underwent a study on the London Underground and people who had died from falling underneath a train asserting that causal factors are important in considering suicide especially that of significant others such as family. In his investigation over half of the 32 who had died were said to have committed suicide although they were no actual evidence, coroners just based this on history of mental illness.
Ignoring such factors of suicide and focusing on coroners is unrealistic, so looking at causal factors is from Taylor’s view a valid approach. But it is also important to gain a fuller understanding of suicide by finding a synthesis between the causes of the occurrence which is the Structural Functionalist side but also the exploration of the social meanings behind it, showing the Interactionist approach.
Taylor therefore identified a category for suicide which is Sacrifice suicide, where it has occurred by the conduct of other people towards the suicide, for example family members have made the individuals life so unbearable this is the only way out. An advantage of Taylor’s approach to suicide is that it attempts to show how both positivist and interpretive methods are useful in trying to understand suicide, however certain sociologist have criticised it for being too one sided. It has been stated that Taylor focused more on the Interactionist failing to achieve ‘Structuralism’.
Another criticism from Durkheim is that Taylor’s cause of suicide that he put forward seems unimportant compared to the large scale of the structural causes central concern such as sudden social change which is a more widespread reason. To conclude many sociologists have differing views to try to explain suicide and why they think individuals do take their own lifes, however these are just theories because no one will ever know the real root cause of why someone has ended their lives unless they leave a note explaining why and in many causes this does not happen.