Outline And Evaluate Durkheims Theory Of Suicide

Word Count: 1533 |

Durkheim published his acclaimed book Suicide: a study of sociology. Many subsequent studies since of suicide have been due to his book. Others have tried to prove that Durkheim’s theory was successful in explaining suicide and consequentially tried to improve them, whilst others reject his theory completely.

Emile Durkheim applied his scientific method to social facts in his study of suicide. Durkheim believed that suicide was the most personal act anybody could take. He believed that he could show that the most individual act could be linked to psychology, had social causes, which validated the power and worth of sociology.

Durkheim believed that society had two functions: social integration, this is the beliefs attitudes values and behaviour patterns are shared amongst people in a social group. Moral regulation the way in which society regulates individuals, the norms and values which constrain people’s behaviour. He believed that when these functions break down, the individual could not control the environment they live in and are left to their own devices. He called this anomie (society in which individuals do not have any firm guidelines about the way to behave with each other.) (Lawson and Garrod 1996).Social change could create anomie, such as closure of large factories causing high unemployment. Thus possibly creating a link leading to suicidal tendencies.

Durkheim hypothesised, that suicide varied between the groups and examined its empirical validity. He did this with detailed statistics that he called social facts that could be used to find the sociological causes on suicide. He claimed he would be able to establish a correlation between suicide and the social relations. Durkheim hypothesis was that suicide would be highest amongst young men, single people and Protestants.

He collected information on suicides: where they lived how old they were, which religion, the social class, what kind of work history they held, their income, wealth and what sex they were etc…
Durkheim noted that more suicides were committed by protestants he found that Bavaria hade the fewest suicides where its religion is mainly catholic.

He defined four types of suicide:

Altruistic (where they see death as deliverance) for example where the Hindu widow who throws herself onto the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. So she will not be a burden to her family since she is alone or soldiers who sacrifice themselves for fellow soldiers.

Fatalistic (this was not documented much by Durkheim) examples of this is people who feel choked by oppressive disciples.

Egotistic (a sense of meaninglessness) single people, married people and Protestants are more likely to be in this group.

Anomic (an abrupt shift in the individual’s circumstances) such as unemployment, marital breakdown, college students stressed when taking exams. Men mostly commit this type of suicide.

His findings concluded with men committed suicide more than women did, Protestants more than Catholic’s, middle aged and the unemployed. Therefore, if you are male, middle aged, a protestant and unemployed the future is not good!

The word suicide covers a wide range of behaviours these include:

Completed suicide-where the person dies because of self-destructive act.

Attempted suicide-where the person survives the act.

Suicidal ideation-where the person thinks about suicide plans it but does not put the thoughts into action.

Halbwach (1930) a student of Durkheim agreed with Durkheim but argued that Durkheim reiterated the importance of religion in order to determine the suicide rate. He claimed that people who lived in urban or rural areas had more impact on suicide rates than those of Catholics or Protestants.

Durkheim’s theory was criticised by Douglas (1966) and Atkinson (1978) they say Durkheim assumed his interpretation on suicide was correct. Douglas (1966) in his book The Social Meanings of Suicide argues that although taking your life as suicide, it ignores that suicide had different meanings to other people. He stated that people who committed suicide could be defined in four ways:

As a meaning of transforming-where, the person commits suicide as a gaining release from the cares of the world and entering paradise. For example, mass suicides by religious cults.

As a means of transforming oneself for others-where suicide tells others how profound one’s feelings are on a particular issue. For example causing death through dangerous driving may commit suicide as means of repentance.

As a means of achieving fellow feeling-this is where the person is asking for sympathy. For example where the person wants to be found.

As a means of gaining revenge-where the person places the blame for their death on other. For example leaving a note accusing others of failing the person in a particular way.

This means that there is no single act which can be determined as suicide as the meaning are different to people, deeming Durkheim’s theory as untrustworthy.
He points that whether a sudden death is in the coroner’s eyes suicide. The family and friends of the deceased often sway his decision. People who live in close-knit communities would deny a suicide, simply because they feel or do not want to believe that the person would not take their own life. In the same way, Catholics would not want it to be documented as suicide, because suicide is a mortal sin.

Atkinson (1971) however rejects Durkheim’s positivist method, although he accepts suicide rates do exist. He focused on methods used by coroners and how they categorized death. He argues that coroners have a common sense theory. This is when the information collected about the death fits the circumstances, thus determine the verdict of suicide. The coroners have four types of questions and evidence gathered in reaching this verdict.

Was a note left or the threat of suicide voiced? However, in only 30 % of suicides a note may have been discovered, many more may have been written and removed by family or friends because of what it contained.

The way they died, a car crash for example, may not be linked to suicide, whereas hanging or overdosing may.

The location of the death and circumstances, in the case of gassing if the doors and windows had been sealed shut then a suicide verdict would be recorded.

The social integration such as their mental state, where they lived, how old they were, which religion, the social class, what kind of work history they held, their income, wealth and what sex they were just as Durkheim did.

Hindess however attacked the interpretists approach to the statistics used. If statistics can be criticized as being no more than interpretations from the coroners then the studies from Atkinson can be criticized as an interpretation from the said sociologist.
As there is no way of using the accounts from the coroners how they reach their decisions as valid. He states that their work is theoretically worthless.” A manuscript produced by a monkey at a typewriter would be no less value”. (Quoted in Haralambos and Holborn 2000).

In conclusion, those who strongly associated with either, a quantitative or qualitative approach have not necessarily stuck with their own theory. They have either edited or strayed away from the facts regarding suicide. Durkheim’s theory based on statistics is flawed he based his findings mostly on men which is not statistically correct, yet Halbwach generally agreed but disagreed with his research methods concentrating on urban and rural apposed to catholic and protestant rates of suicide. However, Douglas used different perspectives in his evaluation. He concluded that you must have a reason and there are different ways to foresee suicide. Whereas Atkinson argues the actions of the coroner determines whether it was suicide or not.

Suicides become suicides because of the label attached to it, we never really know if the death was actually suicide or not because we do not always have the facts. We all have our own interpretation of suicide and attempted suicide, what makes a person take their own life, with different circumstances and different reasons surrounding it.


Douglas, J.D.1967. The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, E.1970.Suicide: A Study in Sociology, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (orig.pub.1897)

Haralambos and Holborn, 2000, Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Collins

Jones, P.1993.Studying Sociology-Sociological Theories and Research Practices.Collins

Kirby. (Ed) 2000.Sociology in Perspective AQA Edition. Heinemann

Lawson and Garrot, 1996.Complete A-Z Sociology handbook.Hodder and Stoughton

Moore, S.1996.Investigating Crime and Deviance Second Edition.Collins





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