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What does Durkheim’s study suicide tell us about the role of social theory in his work more generally?
The French sociologist Emile Durkheim is often regarded as the founder of modern sociological thought. Although the actual discipline sociology was in fact established before Durkheim’s birth, in the words of one commentator he, “gave it academic credibility and influence” (Thompson, 1982; p. 11). As such, his theoretical findings and assertions continue to have considerable relevance for modern sociology and the wider study of social functions.
The purpose of this piece is to examine Durkheim’s seminal work Suicide and assess what this specific piece tells us about the role of social theory generally in his work. Above all, the discussion that follows below highlights the extent to which Durkheim considered social functions and phenomena as essential in accounting for human behaviour. Suicide was Durkheim’s third major work and is widely considered to rank as his most influential because of the manner in which he conceptualised the impact of social forces (Pope, 1976; p. 12). Thus, Suicide represents the first attempt at offering a detailed empirical basis on which to account for individual actions. Moreover, as we will see, this empirical foundation clearly highlights the extent to which social theory forms a pivotal part of Durkheim’s analysis. Now before I begin with this examination it is first necessary to outline one definitional parameter. The term ‘social theory’ is subject to a number of interpretations. As such, at the outset let me clarify for the purposes of this work that social theory in this sense denotes the theoretical frameworks which academic authorities utilise to explain social actions and social phenomena.
Published in 1897, Suicide was a wholesale assessment and case study of those who take their own lives. Now in order for us to fully appreciate the groundbreaking nature of the study and the impact social theory had upon it, it is necessary to briefly assess the theoretical assumptions that had previously prevailed on the subject of suicide.
Before Durkheim’s study was published, the issue of suicide was viewed firstly as a wholly individual act. Therefore, in terms of analytical study, the subject itself was considered to be the sole intellectual property of psychology (Taylor, 1982; p. 6). Thus, suicide was an individual act that largely occurred outside of social functions and primarily a result of individual psychological tendencies. As such, social theory or wider social activities and phenomena were not considered relevant in the study and examination of suicide (Taylor, 1982; p. 9). However, through the use of empirical study Durkheim aimed to prove that instances of suicide could be linked directly to social functioning within society as a whole.
As such, although the issue of suicide had traditionally been viewed as “an individual act affecting the individual only” which, “must seemingly depend exclusively on individual factors”, Durkheim was convinced that a social theoretical framework could be laid out to account for suicide rates in European countries (Lukes, 1985; p. 194). Let us then assess the central tenets as laid out in Suicide.
Durkheim suggested that there existed four different forms of suicide that were caused as a direct consequence of social factors. Above all, such social factors centered on two fundamental facets; social integration and moral regulation (Taylor, 1982; p. 15).
On the social integration scale Durkheim suggested there were two forms of suicide, the first being egoistic suicide. Individuals who lived in an egoistic state Durkheim considered to be seriously lacking social integration. As such, this lack of social integration meant that the social norms, values and support networks enjoyed by most people were a cause of consistent suicide rates in those who lacked such integrating factors. To support the claim Durkheim used the empirical example of unmarried people, primarily males. He discovered that unmarried people, in particular males were more likely to commit suicide because they lacked the social integrating norms which tended to bound married people to the social fabric that surrounded them (Taylor, 1982; p. 19).
Alternatively, at the opposite end of the spectrum altruistic suicide was caused as a result of too much social integration. When individuals became totally engrained into their wider social functions, they failed to see themselves in the individual perspective. As such, individuals in this state would consider the needs and requirements of the social group above that of their own individuality. As a result, individuals would be prepared to sacrifice themselves if such sacrifice came at the benefit of the wider social group. In this regard Durkheim used elite members of the military to exemplify his argument (Pope, 1976; p. 21).
On the scale of moral regulation, Durkheim outlined a further two forms of suicide; anomic and fatalistic. Anomic suicide occurs when there is an imbalance of means and needs (Taylor, 1982; p. 25). Therefore, dramatic changes in economic or social conditions could often act as a precursor to anomic suicide. However, Durkheim went further to draw classifications within anomic suicide itself. Firstly, acute economic anomie was a consequence of sporadic reductions in social regulation and provision by traditional actors. These included social forces from the period prior to industrialisation such as guilds and religious forces which had previously carried out functions of economic support. Secondly, chronic economic anomie was caused by the long term reduction of social regulation and support networks. Here Durkheim used the example of the industrial revolution as highlighting the manner in which previous forms of social regulation had been removed and not replaced. Indeed, he discovered that even the ability to accumulate wealth through new industrial processes did not produce an anti suicidal state, with evidence showing that suicides were higher among the rich than the poor (Pope, 1976; p. 57). Thirdly, at the micro social level suicide could come about as a result of sudden change and a consequent inability to adapt, for example widowhood or child bereavement. Fourthly, chronic domestic anomie referred to the manner in which the institution of marriage affected suicide rates among women. Durkheim had already discovered that unmarried men were more likely to commit suicide; however, the social limitations marriage placed upon women meant that unmarried women were less likely to take their own lives.
The second type of suicide caused by moral regulation was found to be fatalistic suicide as that undertaken by people with unrewarding lives such as slaves. However, Durkheim dedicated little time to this form, arguing that it bore little relevance in the modern social context. As such, it is possible to see the various characteristics and facets which Durkheim outlined as the essential forms of suicide in modern society. So then, to what extent does the above discussion personify a tendency towards social theory within Durkheim’s analysis?
Even the most basic examination of Suicide clearly shows the manner in which Durkheim considered social functions and factors to be essential in affecting individual outlooks and outcomes. His study of suicide rates and occurrences found that suicide was more likely in Protestants than Catholics because the latter enjoyed greater levels of social integration (Nisbet, 1975; p. 78). As such, the importance of social factors in Durkheim’s analysis is obvious.
This preoccupation with social forces tells us a considerable amount about how Durkheim conceptualised social theory and its relationship to social functions. For Durkheim, social theory acted as the ultimate method in explaining the manner in which social functions work and the impact they have on individuals within the social framework. However, his analytical methods are unique for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Durkheim’s variant of social theory is essentially scientific in nature. As such, this combination of scientific and empirical analysis allowed him to determine that society was formed on the basis of clear and distinct structures (Abrahamson, 1978; p. 79). Understanding the nature and characteristics of these structures would then allow the sociologist to develop a social theory capable of directly accounting for individual actions in the social context. As such, Suicide represents the first clear outline of Durkheim’s vision of Functionalism. This brand of social theory highlighted the manner in which structural foundations form the basis of society and that society is made up of inter dependent forces that interact and impact upon one another. Each inter dependent force is reliant on the others in order for social functions to continue (Abrahamson, 1978; p. 87). As such, Suicide outlined in clear and certain terms how different social phenomena are reliant upon others and how this affects social outcomes as a whole. Institutional frameworks such as the economy, family and political systems all act as integral parts of the social structures on which society is based. Thus, when such structures fail in their aims there is a consequent impact upon wider social functions and individual experiences. Durkheim’s examination of suicide highlighted a number of examples of where such social functions can breakdown. The consequent result in his analysis just so happens to be tendencies toward suicide and indeed his study shows how structural foundations directly impact upon individual social experience. Suicide shows how fluctuations in structural factors like the family or economy play a direct and unequivocal role in fostering the desired climate for tendency toward suicide.
Moreover, although the use of suicide as the focus of analysis provides a useful analytical point of reference, quite logically it is possible to adopt similar social theoretical positions in relation to a whole host of other social phenomena (Abrahamson, 1978; p. 103). As such, Suicide essentially acts as a precursor to functionalist conceptions and therefore forms an essential part of Durkheim’s basis of social theory. Moreover, Durkheim’s assessment must also be considered within the polarised political atmosphere of late nineteenth century Europe. Indeed, as Luke’s (1985; p. 198) points out, “Durkheim’s notion of egoism and anomie were rooted in a broad discussion… [on] social disintegration and the practical measures needed to avoid it”.
As such, Suicide represents an essential turning point, not only in Durkheim’s development of social theory, but in sociological thought in general. Moreover, in the process of compiling Suicide Durkheim discovered that there existed an organic solidarity between human beings that derived from their equal relationship to structural forces (Abrahamson, 1978; p.15). As such, he was able to conclude that structural forces affected all social classes. Although the characteristics differed from one class to another in terms of the impact felt from structural change, the social theory he established nonetheless highlighted the essentially organic nature of society in general. Society can be likened to that of an organic organism because of the way in which it is formed from separate but nonetheless related parts. As the human body is made up of separate organs that are independent yet reliant upon one another, so to society relies on interconnected structures in order to function effectively.
Therefore, unlike his theoretical predecessor Marx, Durkheim’s social analysis is capable of adapting to changing circumstances (Nisbet, 1975; p. 97). Although a detailed and scientific explanation of social phenomena is provided by both Marx and Durkheim, the latter’s focus on an organic based social theory allows for development beyond the initial area of focus.
In conclusion, the essential characteristics of Durkheim’s study of suicide have been highlighted in detail. What is clear is that in his analysis Durkheim attempted to offer a reassessment of how wider social factors impact upon the life outcomes of the individual. Indeed, Suicide represents a succinct examination of social forces and their encompassing potential. Moreover, this seminal work represents one stage of a general progression that saw Durkheim outline a clear set of principles of social theory. As such, the social theory concepts that he developed during the course of his academic life had an enormous impact upon sociological thought and wider social science in general. Indeed, although theoretical assumptions such as functionalism have come under sustained attack in the light of post modernist thought, they nonetheless still remain an effective empirically based method of conceptualising the world in which we live. As such, Durkheim’s unparalleled position as a leading member of sociological academic output is likely to remain unchanged for some time to come.
Abrahamson, M. (1978). Functionalism, Englewood: Prentice Hall.
Lukes, S. (1985). Emile Durkheim, His Life and Work: an historical study, Stanford: Stanford University.
Nisbet, R. (1975). The Sociology of Emile Durkheim, London: Heinemann, 1975.
Pope, W. (1976). Durkheim’s Suicide: a classic analysed, Chicago: Chicago University.
Taylor, S. (1982). Durkheim and the study of Suicide, London: Macmillan.
Thompson, K. (1982). Emile Durkheim, London: Taylor and Francis.