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Suicide (book)

Suicide (book)

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Suicide was one of the groundbreaking books in the field of sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

. Written by French sociologist Émile Durkheim
Émile Durkheim
David Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline and, with Karl Marx and Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science and father of sociology.Much of Durkheim's work was concerned with how societies could maintain...

 and published in 1897 it was a case study
Case study
A case study is an intensive analysis of an individual unit stressing developmental factors in relation to context. The case study is common in social sciences and life sciences. Case studies may be descriptive or explanatory. The latter type is used to explore causation in order to find...

 (some argue that it is not a case study, and that this is what makes it unique among other scholarly work on the same subject) of suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

, a publication unique for its time which provided an example of what the sociological monograph should look like.


Durkheim explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants
Protestantism is one of the three major groupings within Christianity. It is a movement that began in Germany in the early 16th century as a reaction against medieval Roman Catholic doctrines and practices, especially in regards to salvation, justification, and ecclesiology.The doctrines of the...

 and Catholics, arguing that stronger social control
Social control
Social control refers generally to societal and political mechanisms or processes that regulate individual and group behavior, leading to conformity and compliance to the rules of a given society, state, or social group. Many mechanisms of social control are cross-cultural, if only in the control...

 among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration
Social integration
Social integration, in sociology and other social sciences, is the movement of minority groups such as ethnic minorities, refugees and underprivileged sections of a society into the mainstream of societies...

 while Protestant society has low levels. There are at least two problems with this interpretation. First, Durkheim took most of his data from earlier researchers, notably Adolph Wagner
Adolph Wagner
Adolph Wagner was a German economist and politician, a leading Kathedersozialist and public finance scholar and advocate of Agrarianism...

 and Henry Morselli
Henry Morselli
Henry Morselli was an Italian physician and professor at the University of Turin, best known for the publication of his influential book, Suicide: An Essay on Comparative Moral Statistics , claiming that suicide was primarily the result of the struggle for life and nature's evolutionary...

, who were much more careful in generalizing from their own data. Second, later researchers found that the Protestant-Catholic differences in suicide seemed to be limited to German-speaking Europe
German-speaking Europe
The German language is spoken in a number of countries and territories in West, Central and Eastern Europe...

 and thus may always have been the spurious reflection of other factors. Despite its limitations, Durkheim's work on suicide has influenced proponents of control theory
Control theory (sociology)
Control Theory in sociology can either be classified as centralized or decentralized or neither. Decentralized control is considered market control. Centralized control is considered bureaucratic control...

, and is often mentioned as a classic sociological study.

Durkheim established that:
  • Suicide rates are higher in men than women (although married women who remained childless for a number of years ended up with a high suicide rate)
  • Suicide rates are higher for those who are single than those who are married
  • Suicide rates are higher for people without children than people with children
  • Suicide rates are higher among Protestants than Catholics and Jews
  • Suicide rates are higher among soldiers than civilians
  • Suicide rates are higher in times of peace than in times of war (the suicide rate in France fell after the coup d'etat
    Coup d'état
    A coup d'état state, literally: strike/blow of state)—also known as a coup, putsch, and overthrow—is the sudden, extrajudicial deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment—typically the military—to replace the deposed government with another body; either...

    of Louis Bonaparte
    Louis Bonaparte
    Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, Prince Français, Comte de Saint-Leu , King of Holland , was the fifth surviving child and the fourth surviving son of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino...

    , for example. War also reduced the suicide rate, after war broke out in 1866
    Third Italian War of Independence
    The Third Italian War of Independence was a conflict which paralleled the Austro-Prussian War, and was fought between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire.-Background:...

     between Austria and Italy, the suicide rate fell by 14% in both countries.)
  • Suicide rates are higher in Scandinavian countries
  • the higher the education level, the more likely it was that an individual would commit suicide, however Durkheim established that there is more correlation between an individual's religion and suicide rate than an individual's education level; Jewish people were generally highly educated but had a low suicide rate.

Types of suicide

Durkheim defines suicide as follows:
He also distinguished between four subtypes of suicide:
  • Egoistic suicide reflects a prolonged sense of not belonging, of not being integrated in a community, an experience, of not having a tether, an absence that can give rise to meaninglessness, apathy, melancholy, and depression. It is the result of a weakening of the bonds that normally integrate individuals into the collectivity: in other words a breakdown or decrease of social integration
    Social integration
    Social integration, in sociology and other social sciences, is the movement of minority groups such as ethnic minorities, refugees and underprivileged sections of a society into the mainstream of societies...

    . Durkheim refers to this type of suicide as the result of "excessive individuation
    Individuation is a concept which appears in numerous fields and may be encountered in work by Arthur Schopenhauer, Carl Jung, Gilbert Simondon, Bernard Stiegler, Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson, David Bohm, and Manuel De Landa...

    ", meaning that the individual becomes increasingly detached from other members of his community. Those individuals who were not sufficiently bound to social groups (and therefore well-defined values, traditions, norms, and goals) were left with little social support or guidance, and therefore tended to commit suicide on an increased basis. An example Durkheim discovered was that of unmarried people, particularly males, who, with less to bind and connect them to stable social norms and goals, committed suicide at higher rates than married people.
  • Altruistic suicide
    Altruistic suicide
    Altruistic suicide is suicide committed for the benefit of others. Falling on a grenade is one such example. Émile Durkheim notes that tribal people sometimes see it as their duty to commit suicide, as when a wife kills herself after her husband dies, or a man kills himself in old age; but Durkheim...

    : is characterized by a sense of being overwhelmed by a group's goals and beliefs. It occurs in societies with high integration, where individual needs are seen as less important than the society's needs as a whole. They thus occur on the opposite integration scale as egoistic suicide. As individual interest would not be considered important, Durkheim stated that in an altruistic society there would be little reason for people to commit suicide. He stated one exception, namely when the individual is expected to kill themselves on behalf of society – a primary example being the soldier in military service.
  • Anomic suicide: reflects an individual's moral confusion and lack of social direction, which is related to dramatic social and economic upheaval. It is the product of moral deregulation and a lack of definition of legitimate aspirations through a restraining social ethic, which could impose meaning and order on the individual conscience. This is symptomatic of a failure of economic development and division of labour to produce Durkheim's organic solidarity. People do not know where they fit in within their societies. Durkheim explains that this is a state of moral disorder where man's desires are limitless and, thus, his disappointments are infinite.
  • Fatalistic suicide: the opposite of anomic suicide, when a person is excessively regulated, when their futures are pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline. It occurs in overly oppressive societies, causing people to prefer to die than to carry on living within their society. This is an extremely rare reason for people to take their own lives, but a good example would be within a prison
    A prison is a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Imprisonment or incarceration is a legal penalty that may be imposed by the state for the commission of a crime...

    ; people prefer to die than live in a prison with constant abuse and excessive regulation that prohibits them from pursuing their desires.

These four types of suicide are based on the degrees of imbalance of two social forces: social integration and moral regulation. Durkheim noted the effects of various crises on social aggregates – war, for example, leading to an increase in altruism
Altruism is a concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of 'others' toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism is the opposite of...

, economic boom or disaster contributing to anomie
Anomie is a term meaning "without Law" to describe a lack of social norms; "normlessness". It describes the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community ties, with fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. It was popularized by French...



Durkheim's study of suicide has been criticized as an example of the logical error
In logic and rhetoric, a fallacy is usually an incorrect argumentation in reasoning resulting in a misconception or presumption. By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener or interlocutor , or take advantage of social relationships between people...

 termed the ecological fallacy
Ecological fallacy
An ecological fallacy is a logical fallacy in the interpretation of statistical data in an ecological study, whereby inferences about the nature of specific individuals are based solely upon aggregate statistics collected for the group to which those individuals belong...

. Indeed, Durkheim's conclusions about individual behaviour (e.g. suicide) are based on aggregate statistics
Aggregate data
In statistics, aggregate data describes data combined from several measurements.In economics, aggregate data or data aggregates describes high-level data that is composed of a multitude or combination of other more individual data....

 (the suicide rate among Protestants and Catholics). This type of inference
Inference is the act or process of deriving logical conclusions from premises known or assumed to be true. The conclusion drawn is also called an idiomatic. The laws of valid inference are studied in the field of logic.Human inference Inference is the act or process of deriving logical conclusions...

, explaining micro
Microsociology is one of the main branches of sociology, concerning the nature of everyday human social interactions and agency on a small scale. Microsociology is based on interpretative analysis rather than statistical or empirical observation, and shares close association with the philosophy of...

 events in terms of macro
Macrosociology is an approach to the discipline which emphasizes the analysis of social systems and populations on a large scale, at the level of social structure, and often at a necessarily high level of theoretical abstraction. Microsociology, by contrast, focuses on the individual social agency...

 properties, is often misleading, as is shown by examples of Simpson's paradox
Simpson's paradox
In probability and statistics, Simpson's paradox is a paradox in which a correlation present in different groups is reversed when the groups are combined. This result is often encountered in social-science and medical-science statistics, and it occurs when frequencydata are hastily given causal...


However, diverging views have contested whether Durkheim's work really contained an ecological fallacy. Van Poppel and Day (1996) have advanced that differences in suicide rates between Catholics and Protestants were explicable entirely in terms of how deaths were categorized between the two social groups. For instance, while "sudden deaths" or "deaths from ill-defined or unspecified cause" would often be recorded as suicides among Protestants, this would not be the case for Catholics. Hence Durkheim would have committed an empirical rather than logical error. Some, such as Inkeles (1959), Johnson (1965) and Gibbs (1968), have claimed that Durkheim's only intent was to explain suicide sociologically within a holistic
Holism is the idea that all the properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone...

 perspective, emphasizing that "he intended his theory to explain variation among social environment
Social environment
The social environment of an individual, also called social context or milieu, is the culture that s/he was educated or lives in, and the people and institutions with whom the person interacts....

s in the incidence of suicide, not the suicides of particular individuals."

More recent authors such as Berk (2006) have also questioned the micro-macro relations
Structure and agency
The question over the primacy of either structure or agency in human behavior is a central debate in the social sciences. In this context, "agency" refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure", by contrast, refers to the recurrent...

underlying Durkheim's work. For instance, Berk notices that
Jennifer M. Lehmann critiques Durkheim's major works such as Suicide from a feminist, Structuralist Marxist, multiculturalist perspective, and a Deconstructionist method, in Deconstructing Durkheim (Routledge 1993); Durkheim and Women (University of Nebraska Press 1994); and chapters and articles in Sociological Theory (1990); Current Perspectives in Sociological Theory (1991); American Sociological Review (1995); and American Journal of Sociological Theory (1995).

External links