Durkheim’s book ‘Suicide: A Study in Sociology’ Essay

Durkheim’s book ‘Suicide: A Study in Sociology’ was the first major sociological study on suicide, from this a debate arose and helped make suicide a huge topic in sociology. He chose suicide as it was more suited to a psychological rather than sociological explanation, he decided if he could show suicide’s link to society then the value of society would be established. Durkheim explained suicide through the relationship between the individual and society, the degree to which they were integrated into social groups and degree to which they were regulated by society.

Integration is when individuals are bound together by shared norms and values. In a strongly integrated society, people have powerful duties and obligations by each other. Durkheim believed little or no integration led to a higher chance of suicide. Regulation refers to the control society has over its members – to the degree to which society regulates their behaviour. Without it desires are limitless. Durkheim identified four types of suicide: Altruistic – level of integration is too strong This means acting unselfishly, directed by a concern for others even if this is harmful to oneself.

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An altruistic suicide is done out of a sense of duty. Egoistic – level of integration is too weak This means the individual is alone, has no ties with the outside world. Fatalistic – level of regulation is too strong This is based on the belief nothing can be done to change the situation e. g. societies with too much control over individuals Anomic – level of regulation is too weak This means vast amounts of obtainable desires; they are never satisfied with what they have.

Durkheim noticed suicide rates vary with countries, higher in Protestant rather than Catholic countries. When suicide rates across Europe rose and fell, differences between countries generally remained the same. Rise and fall related to social factors, rate rose during periods of economic recession and fell during times of war and political upheaval. Variations between groups in the same society, e. g. unmarried and childless had higher rates than married with children. Durkheim outlined the rules which sociologists should follow in order for sociology to become a science. The first and most fundamental rule is: treat social facts as things” social facts include norms, values and institutions of society. Durkheim’s methodology is sometimes described as positivist because he identifies observable social facts and correlates them with other observable fact. But Durkheim goes further and identifies social facts which cannot be directly observed. He refers to these as social currents. In his study of suicide Durkheim identified four social currents: altruism, fatalism, egoism, and anomie.

Durkheim’s methodology “involved searching for the invisible underlying causes of the relationships between things that are observed” This is a realist rather than a positivist approach, from a realist viewpoint; both the natural and social sciences operate in much the same way. In this sense Durkheim’s methodology can be seen as scientific. A criticism of Durkheim is that he paid insufficient attention to the official statistics and their reliability and validity. Statistics are reliable if coroners reach the same conclusion but this varies, one made say suicide another accidental.

Valid statistics are also unlikely as many possible suicides are left with an open verdict these are not included in the statistics. Also Durkheim sometimes failed to provide an operational definition of social facts – that is a definition which could provide quantifiable data. In ‘the social meaning of suicide’ 1967 Jack Douglas argues that the first step in studying suicide is to interpret how individuals who commit suicide define and give meaning to their actions.

Step 1 Douglas identified the following ways of discovering the meanings which victims give to acts of suicide: an analysis of a suicide note is available, an examination of diaries if kept, interviews with those who knew the victim, building up a biography of the victim, analysing the events which immediately preceded the suicide and interviews with those who have survived suicide attempts. He said the first step was essential in classifying suicides into types. Step 2 This step looks at patterns of meaning which are common to a number of suicides. Only if these are found is it possible to classify suicides into different types.

Using this method Douglas claims that the most common types of suicide include the following: Revenge suicide is seen as an act of revenge against those who have wronged the victim A search for help suicide a cry for help when all else has failed Escape suicide an escape from a life which has become unbearable Repentance suicide an act of repentance, a means of expressing sorrow for wrongdoing, and an attempt to put it right Self punishment suicide is seen as a way of punishing oneself for misdeeds – a self imposed penalty Step 3 this is where you link these patterns of meaning with the wider beliefs of the culture.

However there is contradiction in Douglas’s work, at times Douglas suggests that it is possible for researchers to discover whether a death really was suicide. If so it should be possible to produce valid suicide statistics and a valid suicide rate. And from this, it should be possible to discover the cause of suicide. Though at other times Douglas implies that suicide is nothing more than the meanings given to particular deaths. If so, there is no such thing as real, objective suicide acts or suicide rates. Atkinson states suicide is simply a meaning and there is no reality beyond that meaning.

This is sometimes known as a phenomenological approach. It argues that the phenomenon, the ‘thing’ being studied, must be studied in its own right. Atkinson examined the ways in which coroners and coroners’ officers’ classified deaths. He claims that his findings show that coroners have a ‘common sense theory’ of suicide. If the facts fit the theory, then a verdict of suicide is likely. Atkinson said coroners look for ‘primary cues’ which appear to indicate suicide, these include the following: Existence of suicide notes and/or reports of threats of suicide. Type of death, e. g. stereotypical suicides.

These include: gassing, drowning, hanging, and drug overdose. Place and circumstances of death. Secondary cues should also be taken into account; these include the history of the deceased: History of mental illness, particularly depression Disturbed childhood Recent loss – a divorce/death Few if any friends Financial difficulties Problems at work According to Atkinson if the suicide fits the typical suicide circumstances then a verdict of suicide is likely. Atkinson’s work is a valuable contribution to the study of suicide. However there are two main criticisms, first how come coroners share the same common sense theories of suicide?

Where do the meanings they use to define suicide come from? Atkinson does not explain this, for example the coroners’ theories could be derived from ideas about suicide in the wider culture. Secondly Barry Hindess 1973 argues if suicide statistics are simply based on the interpretations of coroners, then research findings are simply based on the interpretations of sociologists. In terms of Atkinson’s logic, the interpretations of coroners are neither right nor wrong, they just are, and the same applies to the interpretations of sociologists.

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