Emile Durkheim is known for many sociological theories and concepts, such as social solidarity, which although seen in his study of suicide, exists independently of it. However, he is most famed for his classic methodological – and rather positivist – work, Suicide: A Study in Sociology (First published in 1897). The dictionary definition of suicide is “the intentional killing of oneself” (Marshall, 1998).
However, Durkheim believed that it took more than this to properly define this action, stating, “… suicide is applied 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, 1978, p 44). By positive acts, he meant taking a course of action that was definitely intended to produce death, such as a huge overdose. Negative acts referred to a lack of a distinct action that would ultimately result in death (as the individual would be aware), such as starving oneself. Many argue that both this type of definition and Durkheim’s vast use of statistics generalised what is typically regarded as the most individual of acts.
Various criticisms and support of Suicide will be discussed later. However, Steve Taylor points out that the great majority of studies on suicide since Suicide have been significantly “shaped” by the work of Durkheim. (Taylor, 1982). Durkheim was certainly not the first to study the issue of suicide, and a few had studied it within the discipline of sociology (though not to Durkheim’s extent), such as Wagner in 1864 and Marselli in 1879. However, it is argued – if not generally accepted – that Durkheim’s study is “much more important. ” (Halbwachs, 1978, p 4).
As declared above, Durkheim was attacked due to his extensive use of statistics in showing suicide rates within different social contexts. It is certainly a fact that statistics can be unreliable (see below, with particular regard to Taylor’s discussion of coroners), but they do provide a basis from which to start. Even Taylor, who is sceptical of statistical analysis, concedes that if suicide were purely an individual action, all suicide rates would be “random and not consistent,” (Taylor, 1982, p 5) which Durkheim showed not to be the case.
Even if the rates that Durkheim investigated were imperfect, it seems highly unlikely that they could be so far incorrect as to be completely misleading. Therefore, I believe at this point that while Durkheim’s theory does not provide a definitive explanation of the causes of suicide, it is not a wholly inaccurate analysis. However, this obviously needs investigation. The Theory: Eliminating Ideas A substantial part of Durkheim’s study was employing a process of elimination in establishing the grounds for killing oneself, as Jones describes in great detail (Jones, 1986).
One suggestion to explain the suicide rate (as opposed to individual suicide) was the external physical environment, such as the climate in a particular country. Analysing this using Europe, Durkheim agreed that the variation of numbers of suicide across the countries of this continent correlated roughly with the difference in each country’s climate. However, he pointed out that other factors within each country were better at explaining the difference in the suicide rate and as such dismissed the climate as a viable cause of suicide.
However, one wonders slightly about this determination, since the fact that there is any correlation at all is unlikely to be any coincidence. If the causes of varying suicide rates are purely sociological, then it seems odd that varying weather conditions matter at all; while Durkheim may claim that they do not, as stated above, it is an unusual twist of fate if the parallel between suicide rate and climate just happens to be so.
Montesquieu (cited by Durkheim, 1978 and Jones, 1986) had stated the suicide was more likely in cold and foggy places, both because people became depressed due to the unpleasant weather and as life was, more difficult in such conditions. However, Durkheim disproved this hypothesis, as he was pointed out that suicide rates were higher in spring and summer months (Durkheim, 1978, p 107). Jones refers to a second “extra-social” cause – an individual’s psychological constitution, which he feels may vary from country to country.
In itself, such a remark helps to strengthen Durkheim’s notion of social causes, as if something is in some way determined by a person’s domicile, then it must be a societal reason and not a personal one. The psychological constitution can consist of psychological qualities, such as inherited features, or pathological characteristics, such as insanity. Durkheim argued against the former, stating that other reasons served as better explanations.
He pointed out that suicide as a hereditary condition was an unlikely scenario, as the figures for suicides within the same family show that the children of suicide victims usually kill themselves at a different time of life than their parents did. Durkheim claims that “The law of homochronous hereditary… practically states that… the inherited characteristics appears among the descendents at approximately the same age as among the parents. ” (Durkheim, 1978, p 102). Thus, hereditary features are disproved, along with the other psychological qualities.
Durkheim also dismissed pathological features. Two key pathological features of an individual constitution are insanity and diseases such as alcoholism. In terms of insanity, Durkheim alleged the insane would not have a motive for taking their lives, whereas in the majority of cases, serious deliberation and motive are present.
With regard to alcoholism, he discovered that the consumption of alcohol does not geographically correspond with the rate of suicide – for example, in France in 1873 only 2.84 litres of alcohol were averagely consumed by each person, yet the suicide rate was comparatively high at 150 per million (Durkheim, 1978, p 79). This therefore, is not a factor either. A final issue that Durkheim eliminated was that of imitation, which could also be termed as a psychological theory. This was an argument created by Tarde, a 19th century French sociologist. Durkheim pointed out that the term “imitation” was used to describe the following, and why it should not be: 1) A state of consciousness producing a “collective sentiment”.
This definition was rejected on the grounds that there is no genuine reproduction occurring. 2) An inclination that is inspired by a desire to conform to a societal norms. Durkheim dismissed this also as only specific feelings of respect warrant this type of ‘imitation’ and it is merely inspired by the customs in question. Indeed, in support of Durkheim, the whole process of socialisation ensures that we conform to a large extent, otherwise we will become deviants, and thus it is not an imitation with intent – therefore, perhaps, not an imitation at all.
3) An unplanned replication of actions that occur in one’s presence. Durkheim did not find this explanation unreasonable and went on to define ‘imitation’ from it. His lengthy definition, according to Jones, makes imitation purely psychological. All the same, he did state that sometimes suicide can be contagious, which is a type of imitation and therefore allows the theory to “merit some attention. ” Nonetheless, Durkheim argues that if it had a key effect in the suicide rate, it would be more obvious geographically.
Durkheim’s criticism of the above definitions is somewhat understandable since they are not literally accurate descriptions of what the word ‘imitation’ means. All the same, they are socially accepted versions of it, and have thus come into come usage. Consequently, it is – to a certain extent – unfair to attack them, since most people use the word as such. In this respect, Durkheim may be wrong in eliminating it as a potential factor in the suicide rate.
Cite this essay
Suicide – A Study in Sociology. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/suicide-study-sociology-10583-new-essay