Research Paper on Durkheim

Posted on August 31, 2009

Emile Durkheim was to become one of the most influential writers in regard to the subject of suicide and its link to the state of our modern society. For centuries before his writing, suicide was regarded as a moral and psychological problem that was caused by differences inherent to the individual. Durkheim’s work was the first to imply that the study of suicide could not be based on individuals and it was crucial to create a sociological approach regarding the external causes of society itself. His work, although receiving a great deal of criticism, has provoked a change in such studies ever since, with many sociologists using an interpretation of Durkheim’s theories as the basis of their own studies.

In order to display that the crisis in our society was caused by factors external to the individuals, Durkheim systematically analysed each alternative possibility, all of which he eventually ruled out as a possible cause. He defined these alternatives as “organic-psychic dispositions and the nature of the physical environment” (Durkheim,E 1989). In studying the former of these, Durkheim wished to determine whether there existed an inclination among certain individuals towards suicide and he began by analysing the components of insanity. It was assumed by a number of theorists known as alienists that every suicide was committed by a person inflicted by insanity and that, according to Bourdin, suicide is simply a disease and special form of insanity. (Durkheim,E 1989) Durkheim continues this line of thought in order to discover what exactly is meant by such an insanity of suicide. He proposes that if suicide were to be a type of insanity then it would therefore be known as a ‘monomania’; a delirium of localised nature. It was believed that this monomania would be provoked by a violent emotional disturbance, which appears to link with the idea that suicides are usually “influenced by some abnormal passion” (Durkheim, E 1989). However, Durkheim finds fault with this theory, as he is unsatisfied of proof of existence of monomanias. He claims that although it cannot be proved that they do not exist, any type of observations that they do exist has never conclusively shown it. Furthermore, it has long since been believed that the idea of completely separate mental functions is false and that they are so completely interdependent that insanity, upon attacking one area, would without doubt affect every aspect of mental behaviour. It therefore appears that no suicidal monomania can exist and suicide cannot be “a distinct form of insanity”.

Durkheim then continues to inspect the possibility that, although suicide is not a specific form of insanity, it may be a recurring event connected with all insanities. In order to do this four categories of suicide were created including maniacal, melancholy, obsessive and impulsive suicide. The first of these describes suicide linked to sudden hallucinations, demonstrated by suicide attempts which cannot be recalled by the person in the case of a survival and when the person no longer wishes to cause harm to themselves immediately after the attempt. The second form is associated with a severely depressive state resulting in despair of life, while the third varies in that it is entirely unmotivated but just as dominant as a suicide of melancholy reasons. Finally, impulsive suicide is equally as unmotivated; however, it does not consume the person’s mind. Instead it is characterised by a sudden and forceful urge. These definitions of suicide show that a number of different types exist, some of which result from hallucinations, and others, which are the product of real perceptions. This further shows that not all types of suicide can be linked to insanity that can therefore not be identified as a cause of suicide.

Durkheim also shows that if mental disorders were the sole cause of suicide, then social conditions should have no effect on statistics. He displays that between 1858 and 1891 there were, without exception, more women than men in insane asylums. Therefore, if insanity was the cause of suicide, more women should commit suicide than men. This is clearly shown to be far from fact as “suicide is a largely male phenomenon”. (Durkheim, E 1989) Durkheim continues this point to show that, in fact, the correlation between insanity and suicide in different social conditions such as religions and age is actually non-existent and locations with the highest rates of insanity often have the lowest rates of suicide.

Durkheim then examines alcoholism as a possible cause as it is a condition linked to many other social and moral problems. However, this seems unlikely, as alcoholism is most common among the lower classes where suicide is connected to the opposite. Also, using the example of France, it appears that not only alcoholism but also all diseases and crimes connected to it are of completely different locations on the country’s map to those of suicides. This therefore concludes, for Durkheim, “no psychopathic state bears an indisputable relation to suicide”. (Durkheim, E 1989)

The next stage in Durkheim’s analysis regards those psychological states considered to be normal rather than those previously discussed. He begins with the concept of race for which he reluctantly uses the definition of Morselli in order to allow analysis of the concept, despite his warning of the difficulty of sociologically defining race. The four groups defined by Morselli were placed in descending order according to the number of suicides per group. Therefore the Germanic people were discovered to have the highest suicide rate, and then the Celto-Romans and the Slavs were identified to have the lowest rate (The fourth group were regarded as too small to assess). (Durkheim, E 1989) Despite this, it was noted that great differences actually existed within these categories and all people among them were not of uniform tendency towards suicide. It was then thought that perhaps the idea of nationality would be a more suitable category than that of race. However, in order to accurately study this it is crucial to study an environment of mixed ethnic origins so that the cause may not simply be a distinct nature of a specific civilisation. This displayed that in many countries, the suicide rate was greater when there was a lower German influence, despite the fact that they were the nationality thought most likely to commit suicide. It therefore appears that a certain nationality such as the Germans does not commit suicide due to something inherent in their ‘race’ but rather as a result of the environment in which they live.

It must also be considered that suicide could be inherited among families. Records show that suicides tend to recur in generations of the one family in alarming numbers. However, Durkheim points out that investigations of such situations have usually involved families touched by insanity as so it may therefore be due to the transmission of insanity, of which suicide is a “frequent but accidental symptom” rather than suicide itself. (Durkheim, E 1989). Also, suicides among families are often the result of the inclination towards reproducing the act of a loved one, demonstrated by the identical method frequently applied among families and groups. Finally, Durkheim states that if suicide were hereditary, this would not account for the difference in suicide rates between opposite sexes.

Another factor which is often claimed to provoke suicide is what Durkheim called the “cosmos factors” which are alterations in climate and season. The suggestion of climate can immediately be ruled out as it can be clearly shown from the distribution of suicides across the globe, that high suicide rates can occur in all climates and countries such as Italy, who’s climate has not altered, though they have witnessed great changes in their suicide rates.

Durkheim does, however, seems to accept that attributing suicide rates to changes in season should be given some credit. Despite common assumptions, suicides are found by statistics to be more common among the warmer months of March to August, without exception in any country. (Durkheim, E 1989) Morselli’s studies showed that, even more specifically, more suicides where found to occur in the summer. However, the conclusions drawn from this data varied among theorists. Morselli concluded that temperature was therefore positively correlated to suicide and this was due to greater levels of energy. Durkheim disputes this, reasoning that the different examples of suicide show that it can result from situations opposite to those of increased energy. He alternatively believed that the correlation is due to increase in daylight in the summer. More suicides are actually known to be committed in the daylight which, according to Durkheim, is because “this is the time of most active existence,…, when social life is most intense” (Durkheim, E 1989). Also, the variation in suicide rates throughout the year are more pronounced in rural areas than urban which Durkheim attributes to the higher alternations in levels of production, and therefore human relations, in rural areas, which are obviously much higher in summer months. Therefore, although Durkheim is accepting a cosmic factor as a possible cause for suicide, it is because he links this cause to societal changes and collective life.
The final factor left for Durkheim to assess is that of imitation. Imitation, by definition, is the transfer of an act from one person to another without the requirement for any form of bond between the persons involved. It can therefore only be an individual act which would, if connected to the suicide rate, imply a pathological cause of suicide rather than societal. Durkheim rejects this idea, however, claiming that if imitation or contagion were to be the cause of suicide, there would be central geographical points, which had the highest suicide rates, and suicides would gradually diminish in a concentric pattern around them. However, in studying the statistics, this can clearly be shown to be incorrect, as many areas of low suicide rates can exist next to areas of the highest rates.

Durkheim was therefore able to conclude that the cause of suicide was not inherent to the individual and must therefore be caused by the external, in other words, the society. Durkheim believed that society affected the individual in two ways; firstly by integration and creating “purposes and ideals” and secondly by “moderating their desires and aspirations” which had the potential to be infinite. Drawing from this, he divided suicide into a number of social categories.

Firstly, Egoistic suicide was the result of insufficient integration into society and therefore the pursuit of individualism. Durkheim regarded religion as a major factor in this situation. Catholicism provides its society with a strict and invariable set of traditions that are set in place by a “hierarchical system of authority”. Durkheim associates this strict religion with the low suicide rate that exists among Catholics. He contrasts this with the protestant religion that is open to far greater interpretation and promotes a greater individual freedom. This highlights the basis of egoism, as the individual is without satisfactory inclusion into collective life. The suicide rate of Protestants is much higher which Durkheim believes is the result of this. The exception to this is in England; however, the protestant church here is the only to have a hierarchy and is therefore most similar to Catholicism. Furthermore, the Jewish society are subject to even stricter traditional beliefs which is reflected in their even lower suicide rates.

The taste of individualism and “free enquiry” created by Protestantism is necessarily linked with the desire for learning and knowledge as “knowledge is free thoughts only means of achieving its purposes”. (Durkheim, E 1989). Durkheim believes that Protestants should therefore have a higher desire to learn and that this desire should correlate with the suicide rate. Protestants in general are better educated than Catholics. To further emphasise this, Protestant countries can be compared with each other which shows that the higher the quality of education (based on low illiteracy rates), the higher the suicide rate. This also correlates with the fact of men committing more suicides than women, as, worldwide; women are generally less educated than men.

Durkheim also believes that the moderating effects upon suicide of consistency and collective practices can also be related to the family. It was believed by many that marriage and family actually increase the inclination to suicide. However, this opinion is found to be based on poor information. If the statistics only include those of marrying age and categorise these people into specific age group, it can then be seen that marriage actually decreases suicide attempts. This can be due to a number of factors. Firstly, the domestic environment and the collectivity of family life may reduce the tendency to suicide. Also, those who do not get married may be more likely to commit suicide due to their position in society through lack of marriage. It cannot, however, be described as something which is inherent in the type of people to marry as the act of marriage is clearly open to everyone and although the insane are perhaps excluded, they do not account for a big enough proportion to alter the statistics.

Finally, with regard to egoistic suicide, Durkheim links suicide rates to political struggle and upheaval. Despite political upheaval often being regarded as a cause of rising suicide rates, Durkheim notes that it may, in fact have the opposite effect and that the statistics will show this. To rule out the possibility that this may be caused simply to poor administration of deaths during wartime, Durkheim claims that this would only apply to men who die while partaking in the army. However, this does not account for the reduction in suicides of women that can be noted in many incidents. The conclusion therefore drawn from this is therefore that the suicide rate reduces in times of social or political upheaval as action is concentrated “towards a single end” creating a “stronger of integration of society” (Taylor, S 1989) Durkheim therefore provided a strong argument of how “suicide varies inversely with the degree of social integration of the social groups of which the individual forms part” (Taylor, S 1989.

Durkheim then progresses to his second category, known as altruistic suicide, which he claims is the result of excessive social integration”. If a man is to become extremely involved with the ‘collective society’, he is likely to forget the importance of the self and will value his life very little in comparison to the common good of society. Durkheim uses many examples to show the existence of this in ancient societies, such as wives and servants feeling compelled to commit suicide on the death of their husbands and masters. Furthermore, in ancient Greece, men would rather end their own lives that live in illness or old age and this act of suicide would actually be rewarded by their society by a funeral of great honour. (Durkheim, E, 1989) This therefore symbolises the effects of society and its values on the suicides of its people. The extent of this is demonstrated by the fact that none of these suicides are obligatory but any alternative option would rarely be chosen, showing the sheer subordination of the individual to society.

These traditional cultures can, however, be rarely displayed in our contemporary society. Durkheim believes that they now take a different form that is encapsulated in our armies. There can be a number of reasons attributed to the high suicide rates among the army. It would be often said that it relates back to marriage and the high rates of unmarried men in the army account or this. However, if the suicide rates of unmarried men are compared with those of the army, it can be seen that the rates of the army are still much higher and further explanation is therefore required. Durkheim carefully studied all available statistics to show that the men most likely to commit suicide in the army were those best suited to its lifestyle and requirements and those who are most keen to partake. Durkheim therefore concludes that the cause can relate only to the lack of value that a trained soldier is required to place on his own life, therefore leading him to obey any command without self-consideration. Theorists such as Esquirol, however, rejected this claim, maintaining that deaths of such honour and nobility should not be considered as suicide. Durkheim responds that this is a problematic view, which undermines the similarity between many forms of suicide, and he concludes, “Every sort of suicide is merely the exaggerated or deflected form of a value”. (Lukes, S, 1967)

Finally, anomic suicide is, for Durkheim, the form most associated with modern society. Rather than involving a lack of integration into society, it refers to a lack of constraint to an individual’s activity. Durkheim claims that, in times of economic crisis, both of depression and prosperity and depression, the suicide rate will generally rise. His conclusion from this is that, as the cause cannot be either poverty or wealth as both have the similar effect, it must be the actual fluctuation of situation. The result of this is that “norms that had previously regulated their (people of the society) conduct are no longer appropriate to their changed conditions of life”. (Taylor, S 1989) This condition can either be ‘acute’, and cause only small fluctuations, or it can be ‘chronic’, which, in Durkheim’s opinion, is the state of our modern society. This contemporary position results in a severe lack of regulation and individuals begin to compete against each other, as the collective life is lost. A development of hostility occurs, especially between “labour and capital” and the increasingly specialised division of labour results in a further decrease of social solidarity. (Durkheim, 1984) Thus, these individuals, in this individualist struggle, are in constant need to gain more from life and they develop insatiable desires. The constant state of dissatisfaction, which is the consequence of this, would be the obvious creator of tendencies towards suicide.

It is therefore clear that Durkheim provided a careful and systematic account of what he believed to be a social crisis rather than a psychological one. His study has provided future sociologists with a new perspective on such issues that has shaped their own investigation. However, despite his importance, Durkheim and his study of suicide and society has not been without criticism. Firstly, Durkheim’s study is based largely on facts represented by the actual Suicide Rates. However, the validity of these rates is highly questionable. As the suicide rates are themselves produced by individuals, they rely heavily on personal judgement rather than fact. Much of this judgement is also based on the opinions of people connected to the event such as family who may wish to alter facts in order to retain dignity of their loved one or themselves. Also, in economic terms, families may wish to avoid suicide verdicts for insurance reasons. Furthermore, Durkheim placed great emphasis on the importance of religious groups in the variations in the suicide rate. However, his reasoning may not be entirely accurate as Catholics, for example, may wish to disguise suicides in order to retain the respect of their religion.

Durkheim’s theory was also greatly based on the influence of social goals. He did not however, consider that different types of goals may exist and that many of these may be “non-integrative” (Lukes, S, 1967). Therefore, he failed to realise that the absence of social goals that he described, such as anomie, may in itself be a form of goal of norm.

Also, Durkheim fails to account for intentionality or why certain people commit suicide. His devotion to considering official suicide rates meant that the intentionality could not be considered as no direct evidence could be available to determine this after the event. Durkheim claimed that suicides were completely random and that the social reasons affected everyone with the same force and those who ended their lives were simply hit at their weak points. (Taylor, S 1989) However, this very claim suggests that some level of psychological difference must exist between individuals for this to have such an effect.

It can therefore be determined that, despite the importance of Durkheim’s work, it has a great number of faults and criticisms. He carefully rules out what seems to be any possibility of suicide being the product of anything non-social, but the conclusions which he reaches appear to be incomplete and somewhat contradictory. Therefore, although he has clearly demonstrated that suicide is significantly affected by society, and its norms and values, there must be a pathological element that determines the precise individuals that are the victims of such effects. It is consequently obvious why many who have studied similar issues since, accept many of Durkheim’s theories but generally reject his dismissal of individual differences and his emphasis of social currents.

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