How Successful In Your Opinion Is Durkheim’s Study Of Suicide
In Demonstrating The Decisive Importance Of Social Factors On Even The Most Intimate Aspects Of Our Personal Life
The definition of suicide is any death which is the immediate or eventual result
of a positive (for example shooting oneself) or a negative (for example
refusing to eat) act accomplished by the victim themselves. The distinctive
characteristic of suicide in comparison to other ways of death, is not that the
act is performed intentionally, but rather that it is performed advisedly. In other
words the victim knows that death will be the result of their act, regardless of
whether or not death is the individual’s goal.
Durkheim chose to study suicide, although this is a more psychological
concept rather than a sociological one, the actual act of suicide is related to
the problem of social cohesion and the social bonds which hold society
together. Although suicide had already been studied in countries such as
France, Belgium and Germany. It was seen more as a moral problem and
then a social problem with correlations which were established between the
suicide rate and other numerous social factors which included rapid social
change, economic depression, socio-economic status and urbanism.
Durkheim, however, wanted to develop a systematic and coherent
sociological framework of different suicide rates, which would weave in with
the previous findings. Durkheim found that the causes of suicide were
connected with the states of society and excessive individualism etc.
Durkheim stated that the stability of suicide rates is caused by the ‘moral
constitution of groups’, and this differs from group to group and in each of
them remain for long periods of time practically the same.
Durkheim identified four different type of suicide, egoistic, altruistic,
anomic and fatalistic. These four types were based on the degrees of
imbalance of two social forces; social integration and moral regulation.
Egoistic suicide according to Durkheim resulted from too little social
integration. Those individuals that didn’t have sufficient social groups and well
defined values, traditions and norms were left with little social support or
guidance and, therefore, tended to commit suicide on an increased basis.
These types of people would include some unmarried people, especially
The second type, altruistic suicide, on the other hand, was a result of
too much social integration. Their defining trait was self sacrifice, where the
individuals were so integrated into various social groups that they lost sight of
their own individuality and became willing to sacrifice themselves to the
groups interests, even if that meant taking their own life. An example of this
type of suicide is the kamikaze pilots and members of military forces.
The third type, anomic suicide is when an individual is insufficiently
regulated by society or they experience sudden changes or experiences in
their life, which result in an inability to adapt. For example, those who are
widowed or win the lottery. This type of suicide was of particular interest for
The final type, according to Durkheim was fatalistic suicide, which is
one in which the individual is excessively regulated by social circumstances in
which individuals find themselves. For example, slaves.
Egoistic and anomic suicides are mainly found in industrial societies, in
social structures which are characterised by an absence of strong regulative
norms and lack of integration.
Through his study of suicide, Durkheim found that statistics relating to
insanity and suicide were more frequent in urban areas than rural areas and
these rise and fall together year by year. However, other matters suggest that
there is no strong link, for example, the number of women in mental
institutions is slightly higher than men, but women in the population as a
whole, only contribute to 20% of the suicides.
The insanity rate of Jews was above average, but the suicide rate,
however, was very low. Catholics exhibit a slightly less than average insanity
rate and commit suicide much less often.
Suicide seemed to increase with age and insanity appeared to increase
between the ages of 30 and 45 years. Increased suicide rate and increased
insanity were often found together. However, some countries with low suicide
have a high level of insanity. He found no consistent rate between the amount
of alcohol consumed and suicide.
By carefully correlating these results statistically with other factors, he found
that the rate of suicide is not consistently related to factors such as race,
heredity, climate, imitation etc. Having disposed of non social causes to his
satisfaction, he felt that he had successfully made the case that variations in
the rate of suicide were due to social causes.
Durkheim felt that his study of suicide had discovered the structural forces
that caused egoism and anomie, and these forces were natural results of the
decline of mechanical solidarity and the slow rise of organic solidarity due to
the division labour and industrialism. He also found that the forces mentioned
above affected all social classes.
Durkheim’s sociological explanation was not designed to account for
individual suicides. This has led critics to point out that both the rate of suicide
and the specific individual act must flow from the same cause and, therefore,
Durkheim’s account must be, both an explanation of the collective as well as
the individuals act of suicide. He stated that psychology studies the question
as to who commits suicide and sociology studies the social currents that
determine suicide as a collective force.
Durkheim’s repeated insistence that sociology is a science with its own,
irreducible ‘reality’ to study led him to adopt a language that was both highly
metaphorical and misleading. This is the first evident in ‘the division of labour’,
where abundant biological metaphors that continually suggest that society is
‘like’ an organism in a variety of ways. Suicide combines the worst elements
of ‘electrical currents s’ and ‘physical forces’ and this language makes it
difficult for Durkheim to speak about the way in which individual human beings
perceive, interpret and respond to ‘suicido-genic’ social conditions.
It could also be argued that Durkheim’s central explanatory hypothesis that
social conditions fail to provide people with the necessary social goals and
rules at an appropriate level of intensity and their socio-psychological health is
impaired and then the most vulnerable amongst them commit suicide. This,
however, raises far more questions than it does answers. Such as socio-
psychological health? And isn’t socially determined, and therefore, relative to
the particular society or historical period in question/ and many others.
Durkheim’s macro-sociological explanations all presuppose some social-
psychological theory, whose precise nature is never made explicit.
The collection of suicide statistics itself is highly problematic, many social
groups, for religious and social reasons tend to under-report suicide. The
statistics on which Durkheim relied on were inherently biased by official
definition and method of classification, but, nevertheless, unproblematically
integrated into his general theory.
In my opinion, Durkheim’s study of suicide, although it did have many critics,
did reasonably well in demonstrating the decisive importance of social factors
in life and also in demonstrating some of the most intimate aspects of our
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Thomas, Kenneth. 1982. Emile Durkheim. London: Travistock publications