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Critically Evaluate Durkheim’s Sociological Approach to the Analysis of Suicide

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    Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, is often acclaimed as being one of the key pioneers of the academic discipline, sociology. Durkheim is perhaps most renowned for his publications of controversial monographs, which conveyed the methods and subjects of, in his time the new science of sociology. His work was translated into English and is still in print today, this displays just how fundamental his studies are in the field of today’s sociology.

    Durkheim is also well known for the establishment of social theory, which can view sociological subjects in an empirical manner like natural sciences. Durkheim was seen as a positivist, he believed that human society follows laws the same as how science does using empirical evidence and testing. After his text on the rules of sociological method, he tackled the subject of suicide as an example of how a sociologist can study any subject that seems personal without a social aspect. Durkheim’s aim was to examine and explain people’s tendency toward suicide.

    Suicide, which Durkheim defined as ‘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 1952:44) is a prime example of how an individual can relate and react to society as a whole. Durkheim chose the topic of suicide to prove that sociology, could explain acts which seemed to be the very opposite of social. Durkheim hoped that by providing a well-documented and largely cerebral study he could secure the status of sociology within sciences. He decided on suicide as it showed the necessity for and value of sociological explanation.

    Suicide was seen to be subject to external social factors (even though it may be seen as an individual and private act) and therefore required a sociological explanation. Durkheim begins his theory of society with an overal perspective of the whole society. In his work ‘The devisions of labour in society’ (1984), he says there are two ways which can be seen to bind society together; Mechanical solidarity inherited from the earliest form of society, where individuals in society have similer ways of life and are joined together by the collective conscience.

    Along with organic solidarity, idividuals are seen as more complex in their way of life. Durkheim saw suicide as a personal act, which represented a failure in social solidarity. In his study of suicide the ‘collective conscience’ acts as a regulator of individuals dreams and desires, therefore controlling society. Durkheim’s seminal monograph Suicide (1952), was a case study where he looked into suicide rates amongst differing social categories, by examining suicide statistics in different police districts. It was a unique publication for its time, which showed his example of what the sociological monograph should look like.

    This work was seen to pioneer modern social research, as his theory was among the first attempts within sociology to combine theoretical and empirical approaches. Durkheim’s method was a scientific one due to his sociological view. He had defined the problem he wanted to study, as suicide rate, which could be seen as the dependent variable in scientific work. Durkheim believed that the other main component for his study was social factors, in particular; religion, marital status, economic condition, and military/civilian status, as he believed they all had a direct affect on suicide rates, these factors are seen as the independent variable.

    Durkheim like academics carrying out scientific studies created his hypothesis on the study, which was that suicide rates would vary depending upon the social factors listed above. While most commonly Durkheim is seen as a positivist with his scientific methodology, the more recent evaluations have argued him to be a realist with some extreme positivists attacking his approach. Even though they share Durkheim’s general view and method, they question some aspects of his process. Durkheim approaches the study of suicide in a positivist manner in that he is searching for ‘real laws’ in much the same way as natural science does.

    However Durkheim was attempting to identify law’s that are not measurable or observable therefore he is seen to adopt a more realist approach. Realists argue that the causes of the things we observe lie in the base structure and the processes that cannot be observed. Where as positivists study work which can be viewed and measured, in his work he talks about suicidal forces but as these can not be seen it can be criticised from a positivist view as they cannot be falsified, they can not be disproved.

    Sociologist from a different sociological approach, for example interpretivist sociologists would reject his work altogether, as they disagree with the scientific approach, and place more importance on the meaning in human action. They argue humans do not have an automatic response to stimuli, they have free will to think and therefore act however they like. Thus, the behaviour can reflect an individual’s interpretation to the significance of the external stimuli.

    This view is the opposite of what Durkheim studied as it says people will act differently to stimuli and will not all go out and commit suicide, when put in a particular situation. Another example of a suicide study, from a different approach would be Jacobs (1967) he believed too that Durkheim’s approach does not give enough meaning behind the act of suicide. Jacobs (1967) research shows clarity alongside reasoned intent of suicide, he studied a more interpretivist approach, using secondary data too he analysed 112 suicide notes.

    He thought to get the information needed to fully understand, you have to put yourself in the mind of the individual committing suicide. With this view, Durkheim’s sociological approach would not be as affective. Durkheim’s method for his approach to suicide was one which he could observe and analyse multiple statistical variables on the topic. He compared various social factors against known events. Sociologists have used the idea that although many things are not directly observable, they still do exist, and therefore the use of indicators helps measure them.

    Durkheim used the indicator of official suicide rates statistics, for measurements in his study, which he then analysed. His method is exemplary in showing how to test a hypothesis, reject incorrect explanations and to sort through a large number of possibilities. Durkheim uses a theory which he came up with known as, argument by elimination ‘in which alternative explanations of a given phenomenon are systematically rejected in a way which is clearly meant to lend authority to the sole remaining candidate’ (Lukes 1985:31).

    He sorts through the data and evidence to unveil the factors which are seen to be most related to suicide, whilst noting that the relation between the data and the suicide rates is not just the explanation. Durkheim therefore searches for social causes, which are expressed through these. The cause is social, whilst the empirical patterns are simply a means of finding the cause. Durkheim’s work could be criticized as using insufficient rigorous methods, his work was not positivist enough. Interpretivist sociologists however, would reject this use of official stats used in Durkheim’s work ompletly and would say that the statistics are socially constructed. They are created from a process of negotiation, interpretation, and decisions made by various officials. Therefore, they do not accurately measure patterns. His method could also be critiqued as official statistics can raise problems with validity and reliability. Validity is likely to be weakened, as it is possible for the under-recording of the true rate of a topic with such stigma, like Durkheim’s topic of suicide. With reliability, there may be problems with the comparisons of different regions data, as there are differing determinations of suicidal intent.

    In ‘The comparability of suicide rates’, Atkins et al (1971) did their own study so they could prove the inaccuracies of relying on the interpretation. They had four English and five Danish coroners assess forty cases. Here they found the Danes much more likely to decide on a suicide. This can look straight away as if there is a higher suicide rate in Denmark, when it actually was proved to just come down to the differing rules of reaching a verdict. The Danes can pronounce a suicide when on the balance of probabilities the more likely option is suicide, whereas the English have to find definite suicidal intent.

    This study takes away reliability in Durkheim’s work as his use of statistics were from different regions, which may have had different regulations. Atkins (1971) also criticizes Durkheim for his use of official statistics on a subject matter such as suicide. Atkins argues the official statistics Durkheim used in his study reflect the coroners’ opinion rather than reality. Durkheim’s findings with regard to religion, found that it did directly associate with suicide in that Protestant communities have higher suicide rates when compared with Catholic ones.

    From viewing the doctrinal statements concerning suicide, where they are all regarding it as negative, Durkheim observes that suicide is condemned pretty much equally in each of these religions. For that reason, Durkheim believes it is the social organisation and collective conscience, which differs between the two religions. This shows the causes in suicide rate is the social solidarity and not the act of religion itself. Durkheim argues that the most important factors concerning the differences in suicide rates in society are the degrees of integration and regulation by it.

    Integration ‘degree to which collective sentiments are shared’ (Ritzer 1992:90), Regulation ‘the degree of external constraints on people’ (Ritzer 1992:90). In Durkheim’s work he talks about ‘Table 1-Stability of Suicide in the Principal European Countries (absolute figures)’ From which he analyses ‘a rise suddenly appears which, after repeated vacillation is confirmed, grows and is at last fixed. ’ (Durkheim 1952:47) refering to suicide he links this rise to a few social factors in the countries at the time; war, government change and commercial revolution.

    Each of these are examples of social movements, and could therefore be considered social currents in the social order, which has an impact within society and therefore social integration. Durkheim noted that the explanations he found must be social in nature and not completely related to the natural factors. Instead, the natural factors must affect some social aspects that are related to suicide. With his findings in the weather he rightly says ‘If voluntary deaths increase from January to July it is not because heat disturbs the organism, but because social life is more intense’ (Durkheim 1952:121-122).

    He observes in a realist way, that it is the affect stimuli has on social currents and in turn the affect that will have on integration, rather than a direct affect of stimuli to integration. Durkheim claims that tendencies all depend on social causes and therefore must be a collective phenomenon, with the degrees of integration and regulation into society as ether too high or too low. If the commitment to a social group was, too small it was likely to produce egoistic suicide.

    Egoistic suicide was one of Durkheim’s categories for suicide, which reflects an extended period where the individual has a feeling of not belonging, being not integrated enough in a community, which can lead to a feeling of meaninglessness, and depression. If there is too much commitment, it is more likely to produce altruistic suicide. Altruistic suicide is characterized from an internal feeling of being too overwhelmed by a group, or belief. ‘Egoism and Altruism represent opposite ends of the integration continuum’ (Pope 1976:238) whilst both describing levels of collective conscience.

    Fast social change, and environments, which were unstable, Durkheim found, were likely to lead to what he names anomic suicide. Anomic suicide reflects a person’s confusion and lack of direction. Durkheim’s final category of suicide was fatalistic suicide where an individual is excessively regulated where their futures and passions are oppressed by a discipline. ‘Anomie and fatalism are the two extremes on the regulation continuum. ’ (Pope 1976:238). These four types are based on degrees of the imbalance of two social factors: Social integration and regulation.

    Douglas studied suicide too however with a different sociological approach. He believed suicide needed much greater detail attached to its meaning and that it cannot all be linked together as Durkheim thought. Douglas came up with his own theory of how individuals should be classified. He came up with the following groups; Transforming the self, Transforming oneself for others, Achieving fellow feeling, and Gaining revenge. Douglas saw Durkheim’s statistical approach to the analysis of suicide comparisons as valueless because he sees it as wrong to class them all as the same phenomenon.

    The scientific method Durkheim used for his analysis is seen to be useful even today. Many sociologists have been heavily influenced by Durkheim’s work on suicide and have since done studies on suicide that are in part a reaction to Durkheim’s work, a number rejecting his approach, believing scientific studies are wrong and it is all about the meaning behind the action. Others show how his work was successful in explaining suicide whilst some have tried to improve and develop his theory.

    While not everyone agrees with Durkheim’s methodological solidity, a number still see it as a watershed of sociology and as a starting point for following work in social sciences. Although sociologists have differing views on how accurate Durkheim was with his research into suicide, his work still stands as a landmark on how theory and empirical evidence can be successfully combined. ‘Durkheims work on suicide has been cited as evidence that modern life disrupts social cohesion and results in a greater risk of morbility and morality- including self-destructive behaviours and suicide’ (Kushner and Sterk 2004:1139).

    With suicide, Durkheim’s findings are used to analyse the topic, researchers use his types of suicide categories to help explain and understand the phenomenon. Generally, his method is exemplary in providing academics with a scientific process of understanding the social factors that are associated with phenomena by using patterns found in data. Durkheim’s analysis of the trends themselves, found that they are not the cause but are indicative of a cause, and a social explanation must still be established.

    Positivism is involved in Durkheim’s sociological approach to the analysis of suicide, as he is looking for something that is observable and measurable, however his analysis is also seen to be from a realist view as the statistics indicate something else, the level of solidarity or lack of it. His use of official statistics has led him to be labelled and criticized as a positivist, whilst the view he is a realist points quite clearly to the idea that Durkheim saw the suicide rate statistics as indicators of deeper structures in society. Durkheim provided sociology with a comprehensive understanding of suicide, which can be modified or built on, but has in principle a solid grounding.


    -Atkins, J. M. (1971) ‘Social Reactions to Suicide: The role of coroners definition’s’, in S. Cohen (eds) Images of deviance, Harmondsworth: Penguin. -Douglas, J. D. (1971) The Social Meaning of Suicide, Princeton, N. J: Princeton university press. -Durkheim, E. (1952) Suicide: A study in sociology, London: Routledge Kegan Paul. -Durkheim, E. (1982) The Rules of Sociological Method, New York: Mc Graw-Hill. -Durkheim, E. 1984) The Division of Labour in Society (English translation by W. D. Halls), UK: Macmillan publishers Ltd. -Jacobs, J. (1967) ‘A Phenomenological Study of Suicide notes’, Social Problems, vol. 15, no. 1, pp 60-72. -Kushner, H. And Sterk, C. (2004) ‘The limits of social capital: Durkheim, Suicide and Social Cohesion’, American Journal of Public health 2005, vol. 95, no. 7, pp 1139-1143. -Lukes, S. (1985) Emile Durkheim, his life and work, Stanford: Stanford university press. -Pope, W. (1976) Durkheim’s Suicide- A Classic Analyzed, United States: University of Chicago press -Ritzer, G. (1992) Emile Durkheim, London: Tavistock publications.

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