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Durkheim’s sociological analysis on Suicide

Durkheim’s work on suicide was the first serious attempt by any sociologist to establish empiricism in sociology. In his theory of suicide, Durkheim attempts to examine a personal phenomenon in sociological context. He used scientific methodology in sociology and showed that real laws are discoverable in sociology as well. Durkheim in his Le Suicide, 1897 defines suicide is any case of death, caused by directly or indirectly; positive or negative action of the victim himself which he knows will produce this result. Positive actions are those actions taken by the individual to end one’s life for example consuming poison. Negative actions are in form of inaction that causes death for example starvation etc. Indirect causes are those when a person has no intention of dying though he knows that he may die as in case of armed forces etc.  Durkheim was interested in explaining differences in suicide rates among different groups. He took data from police records from various regions of Europe at different time periods. With the help of this data, he established that suicide is a social phenomenon and not an individual phenomenon. He also reviewed the existing literature on suicide and rejected the existing explanations that linked suicide to factors like imitation, stress and modernity.

According to Durkheim, suicide cannot be explained through psychological, geographical, climatic or hereditary factors and rejected existing explanations. He used data to show that there were no positive correlation between the rate of suicide and different non-social factors like temperature, insanity, race and alcoholism. He explains sociological causes of suicide by correlating suicide rates with various social factors. He proved that certain rate of suicide is normal in society with the help of statistical data. Durkheim took different social variables like marital status, locality, rural or urban, developed or under developed, religious orientation – protestant or catholic, Jews or Christians, male or female. He undertook the multivariate analysis to establish the relationship between rates of suicides and social factors. Durkheim came to the following conclusions: males have greater suicidal tendency as compared to females. Rate of suicide is found more among the bachelors as marriage protects individuals against suicide by integrating individuals into stable social relations. Underdeveloped countries have less rate of suicide than developed countries. On the basis of religion, protestants commit more suicide than Catholics. Durkheim reasoned that since protestant religion gives its members more freedom of interpretation of religion and free enquiry, they are less integrated to Church than Catholics. Some categories of people who are men, Christians and unmarried commit more suicide than women, Jews and married group. He contended that those who have a higher tendency of committing suicide are less integrated to society in one-way or the other. On the basis of above causal relationship between social variables and suicide rate, Durkheim concluded that suicide is a social phenomenon. According to him though individual may have some psychological pre-disposition but it is the impact of suicidal impulses that lead to actual suicide. On the basis of analysis Durkheim identified two types of bonds that integrate individual into the society-

Forces of integration- this result into two types of suicide associated with two states of integration –over integration and low integration.

Altruistic suicide results from over integration of an individual .It are a characteristic of traditional societies with a high degree of mechanical solidarity. For example suicide by religious cult members.

 Egoistic suicide is the result of low integration of individuals in society. Social bonds are feeble and individual feels alienated and they feel that they are not a part of society and this also means that society is not a part of the individual as well. Examples of egoistic suicide are suicide resulting from failure, success and depression. Societies that have such values that bind individuals strongly have fewer incidences of egoistic suicides. According to Durkheim, protestant Christians have higher rates of egoistic suicides than Catholics as Protestantism gives more freedom to individual. Low rates of suicides during the time of war reflect that individuals are more integrated in the wake of external threat. According to Durkheim, whereas higher rates of egoistic suicide stem from incurable weariness and sad depression, the increased likelihood of altruistic suicide springs from hope for it depends on the belief in beautiful perspectives beyond this life. 

Forces of Regulation imply control of individual by the society. There can be further types of suicide in society due to over regulation and under regulation.

Anomic suicide is when the social regulation disappears; people fail to follow the norms and values. Anomie is the result of sudden changes leading to the situations of desperation or dejection. Social regulation over individuals disappears. Such loose regulations generally occur in situation of economic boom or bust and as a result individual desires either become limitless or confused leading to state of anomie and anomic suicides. Anomic suicide is further classified as economic when there is sporadic decrease in ability of traditional institutions to regulate and fulfill social needs. Chronic economic is when there is an abolition of social regulation but failure to replace them with new ones. Acute domestic and chronic domestic are other subtypes.

Fatalistic suicide is the results of excessive control of society over an individual an act of over regulation. Oppression of individual leads to suffocation and powerlessness. According to Durkheim persons with futures, pitilessly blocked and passions, violently choked by oppressive discipline are more likely to commit such suicides. 

Durkheim acknowledges that there may be a secondary role of psychological factors too but the real cause of suicide is social. He concludes that rates of suicide are fairly consistent in different societies making it a social phenomenon linked with the nature of a particular society.