DURKHEIM AND THEORY OF SUICIDE

Practice Question: Discuss distinct sociological method adopted by Emile Durkheim in his study of ‘suicide’. (20 Marks) (UPSC 2017)

Approach: Introduction, Stress how Durkheim’s theory on suicide was different from earlier research works, how was integration and regulation factored in?, list typology of suicides, criticism; Conclusion

INTRODUCTION

Le Suicide by French founding sociologist Émile Durkheim is a classic text in sociology that is widely taught to psychology students. Published in 1897, the book was the first to present a sociological study of suicide, and its conclusion that suicide can have origins in social causes rather than just being due to individual temperament was ground-breaking at the time.The text of Suicide offered an examination of how suicide rates at the time differed across religions. Specifically, Durkheim analyzed differences between Protestants and Catholics. He found a lower rate of suicide among Catholics and theorized that this was due to stronger forms of social control and cohesion among them than among Protestants.Additionally, Durkheim found that suicide was less common among women than men, more common among single people than among those who are romantically partnered, and less common among those who have children. Further, he found that soldiers commit suicide more often than civilians and that curiously, rates of suicide are higher during peacetime than they are during wars.

DURKHEIM’S GREAT LEAP

While agreeing that modernity was ultimately to blame for rising suicide rates, Durkheim took a more analytical view than did Masaryk and the moral statisticians, while explicitly rejecting Tarde’s imitation theory. Instead, he sought to understand how negative meanings and emotions were produced in individuals and groups during times of dramatic social change and how such changes made some groups more vulnerable than others to self-destruction. He provided a multifaceted theoretical scheme that privileged social explanations and dismissed, in strongly polemical terms, other popular lay and scientific explanations, such as mental illness, imitation, climate, and temperature. The result of his efforts was a fourfold typology of suicide derived from the intersection of two major axes, which he termed integration and regulation.

INTEGRATION AND REGULATION

By integration, he targeted the sense of social belonging and inclusion, the love, care, and concern that can flow (or not flow) from social ties. Well-integrated groups, he argued, enjoy stable, durable, and cohesive social ties. Individuals in such groups are supported in their lives, particularly during times of personal crisis, thereby reducing their vulnerability to suicide. Although Durkheim never explicitly defined social integration, it serves as the core insight that has dominated, and continues to dominate, sociological thinking and analysis.

Yet Durkheim was quite clear that he was also concerned with what he called regulation, the monitoring, oversight, and guidance that come from social ties. For Durkheim, individuals require moral guidance and external restraint because without them their desires and expectations will exceed their grasp, with the resulting failures and frustrations leading to continuous states of despair. Thus, regulation, as well as integration, is central to his theory, with both over- and underregulation producing suicide.

The social forces of integration and regulation interact in U-shaped fashion to form the basis for Durkheim’s fourfold typology of suicide that arises in social structures characterized by extremes.

TYPOLOGY OF SUICIDES

    • Anomic suicide is an extreme response by a person who experiences anomie, a sense of disconnection from society and a feeling of not belonging resulting from weakened social cohesion. Anomie occurs during periods of serious social, economic, or political upheaval, which result in quick and extreme changes to society and everyday life. In such circumstances, a person might feel so confused and disconnected that they choose to commit suicide.​
    • Altruistic suicide is often a result of excessive regulation of individuals by social forces such that a person may be moved to kill themselves for the benefit of a cause or for society at large. An example is someone who commits suicide for the sake of a religious or political cause, such as the infamous Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, or the hijackers that crashed the airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania in 2001. In such social circumstances, people are so strongly integrated into social expectations and society itself that they will kill themselves in an effort to achieve collective goals
  • Egoistic suicide is a profound response executed by people who feel totally detached from society. Ordinarily, people are integrated into society by work roles, ties to family and community, and other social bonds. When these bonds are weakened through retirement or loss of family and friends, the likelihood of egoistic suicide increases. Elderly people, who suffer these losses most profoundly, are highly susceptible to egoistic suicide.
  • Fatalistic suicide occurs under conditions of extreme social regulation resulting in oppressive conditions and a denial of the self and of agency. In such a situation a person may elect to die rather than continue enduring the oppressive conditions, such as the case of suicide among prisoners.

CRITICISM

Durkheim’s study of suicide has been mostly criticized internally where criticism arose within the positivist perspective. The functionalist sociologist Halbwachs  criticised that Durkheim has overestimated the role of religion in his study of suicide by exploring the factors behind the Protestants and Catholics. He suggested that urban and rural differences are also a key factor that contributed to suicide where he found that suicide rates were lower in rural area compared to urban settings. Gibbs and Martin argued that Durkheim’s concept of social integration is too vague and unclear and he did not properly define the concept of integration. He pointed out that there is no adequate operational definition of social integration mentioned in the whole text.

Most of the other thinkers like Alex Inkeles  and Johnson criticized that Durkheim only anticipated explaining the factors behind suicide sociologically where he focused on suicide as a variation among social environments rather than individual actions. Hulten and Wasserman emphasized that the suicide theory of Durkheim hardly touched on the concept of economic contribution to the increase of suicide rate. He further concluded that economic downturns have been linked to higher suicide rates by examining unemployment and suicide rate in the society.

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