Durkheim’s 1897 theory on suicide was the leading and most dominant in sociology up until the 1960’s. Durkheim attempted to prove that sociology could provide an explanation for an act that seemed to be the opposite of what was considered ‘social’. Durkheim provided a scientific approach on suicide and his use of a ‘realist’ methodological approach in his study is drawn from the belief that natural sciences are appropriate for analysing society. His theory centres on the idea of social integration and cohesion but many of the criticisms he faces are because of his lack of evidence and exploration of these concepts.
Durkheim argued that suicide rate is determined by how far individuals are integrated into a particular society, the greater level of social integration, the more harmonious an individual or society is. Durkheim suggested that the individuals who feel most closely integrated into society are those with close relationships with others (family). He further argued that a high degree of status integration was linked to whether an individual was compatible with the close society around them.
He gave the example that if an individual is married and the majority of their work colleagues are married they will feel more integrated than if the minority were married. However, Douglas challenges Durkheim’s theory on suicide rates. He stated that it is coroners who must decide whether a death classifies as a suicide. He argues that coroners can be influenced by a person’s family who will ‘fight’ for them. A well integrated person, with close family ties is less likely to commit suicide as their family can argue against their death being classified as a suicide and instead ‘accidental death’.
This is because suicide is often seen as a ‘social disgrace’ and in some religions a mortal sin. Douglas’ theory strongly challenges Durkheim’s definition of suicide rate and instead suggests that the role of a coroner and family of the deceased are perhaps more significant. Furthermore Douglas criticises Durkheim for simply defining suicide as simply the act of killing oneself. He instead, argues that suicide has different motives and meanings to each individual.
He suggested that those who commit suicide may define their actions in at least four ways; Transforming of self, Transforming oneself for others, Achieving fellow feeling and Gaining revenge. Douglas stated that there is no single act that can be termed suicide since the meanings individuals place on their acts are so different. Douglas concludes that suicide needs much greater explanation as to its meaning than Durkheim provided. Durkheim’s main argument was that there were in fact four different types of suicide; Egoistic, Anomic, Altruistic and Fatalistic.
He stated that an Egoistic type of suicide involved an individual not well integrated into a society. He links this mainly to religious society when he found high suicide rates in protestant countries. Durkheim argued that, compared to Catholic societies, who have traditions and a close community, Protestant communities were reverse, with focus on personal belief and were not bonded or integrated together. He believed the victims of Egoistic suicides usually had few family relationships and were often unmarried and childless.
However, in Catholicism as suicide is seen as a mortal sin suicide rates would arguably be lower due to this factor. Durkheim linked this type of Egoistic suicide with Anomic suicide as he believed they both occurred in industrial societies. Durkheim defined Anomic suicide as how well a society neglects an individual. He stated that when the social norms and values were disruptive and social change occurred, (Anomie) suicide rate increased. Durkheim’s final two types of suicide can be linked in that they are more likely to occur in Pre-industrial society.
Durkheim stated that Altruistic suicide occurred when a well-integrated individual sacrificed their live for others, or self sacrifice for a cause. An example of this would be a suicide bomber. Finally, Fatalistic suicide was when an individual’s life was too controlled; Durkheim stated that it was “suicide of persons pitifully blocked”. However, functionalist sociologist Halburach mainly supported Durkheim’s theory but disagreed with the view of religious significance. He found the differences between Urban and Rural areas more important.
Halburach found that suicide rates were higher in urban areas, especially in the holidays. Additionally, Gibbs and Martin criticised Durkheim for not properly defining the concept of integration and they objected to the idea that integration could be measured. Furthermore, like Durkheim, Taylor had his own theory of types of suicide. The four types included Submissive, Thamatation, Sacrifice and Appeal suicide. Taylor argued that Submissive suicide was when a person who is certain their life is over, (e. g. terminal illness) and chooses to commit suicide to end their physical suffering.
He stated that this type of suicide was always successful. Taylor’s second type of suicide was Thamatation, where a person is unsure of themselves and in this case suicide attempts are more of a ‘gamble’ with the individual more likely to have previous or further suicide attempts. Taylor labelled Thamatation and Submissive suicide as Ectopic. Finally, Taylor categorised his last two types as Symphysic. The first he related to as sacrifice suicide, when an individual blamed others for their situation and in particular left this blame in form of suicide notes or letters.
Taylor’s last type of suicide is appeal suicide. He described this type as being when an individual is uncertain of what others think of them. Taylor stated that in this case, suicide was a cry for help and an act of hope. It was an act of desperation mainly to see others responses rather than an actual intended suicide attempt. Durkheim’s Realist approach argues that the natural sciences often have to use ‘indicators’ for the things that are known to exist but which are not directly observable in themselves.
Natural scientists must therefore use some other indicator that is measurable and is an accurate representation of the immeasurable concept. Sociologists have developed this idea in the study of society and argue that, although many things are not directly observable, they still exist and that there are indicators that can be used to measure them. The indicators that Durkheim uses are the official suicide rates. Durkheim used the official suicide statistics of Europe and a method called Multivariate analysis.
This consisted of comparing the incidence of various social factors with the known incident of a particular event, in this case suicide. He therefore studied the statistics of suicide that he collected from death certificates and other official documents. However, J Maxwell Atkinson criticises Durkheim’s use of official statistics. Atkinson was concerned with how a death is categorised as a suicide. He carried out interviews and observations with coroners and discovered that such things as the location and circumstances of death, mode of death, life history and whether a suicide note was left to be vital ‘clues’ in a coroners decision.
Therefore, Atkinson instead argued that suicide was an interpretation of a situation that is interpreted (by the coroner) in a certain way. Furthermore, Atkinson believed that Durkheim had failed to understand suicide as a social construct. He argued that before a death can be classified as suicide, a coroner must carry out an inquest and on the basis of this, the death is classified as suicide or not. Atkinson argued that the official statistics therefore reflect coroners’ decisions rather than any underlying reality.
Overall, Durkheim’s main argument centres around the basis that suicide rate is determined by how well integrated a person is, with an individual who is less well integrated more likely to attempt or commit suicide than a person who has close ties with society. However, Durkheim faces many criticisms, in particular from Interpretivist sociologists who argue that his analysis of suicide depends upon the concept of social integration and cohesion but never truly provides a clear, set definition of it, nor is there any obvious method of measuring it.
Durkheim’s theory however, is fundamental to the sociological understanding of suicide and should not be altogether dismissed although it is clear he has little methodological or theoretical evidence as he relies heavily on official statistics. Both Douglas’ and Atkinson’s criticisms are valid and their approaches support the development of the sociological study of suicide, but I believe Durkheim’s study on suicide is fundamental to the understanding of the sociology of suicide.