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Using material from Item A and elsewhere assess the different sociological explanations of suicide. (21
Sociologists have explained the suicide phenomena in different ways. For example, while positivists
sought to achieve a scientific explanation of suicide, interpretivists sought to demolish it by focusing on
the meaning of suicide to those involved and the meanings they attach to it.
Durkheim used the positivists approach to explain the suicide phenomena. According to him, our
behaviours are caused by social facts norms and values that exercise a social constraint which
surpasses an individual. He argues that suicide is a social fact. Using quantitative data from official
statistics, Durkheim analysed the suicide rates for various European countries and noted four regular
patterns. The suicide rate for any given society remained more or less constant over time. When the
rates of suicide did change, they coincided with other changes for example they fell during war times
but rose during economic depression or prosperity. Different societies had different suicide rates. Within
a society, the rates varied constantly between social groups for example Catholics had lower rates that
Protestants. He identified the two social facts that determined suicide as social integration the extent to
which an individual feels a sense of belonging to a group and obligation to its members and moral
integration the extent to which an individual's actions and desires are kept in check by society's norms
and values. Therefore, Durkheim concluded that these patterns were evidence that suicide rates
couldn't simply be the result of the motives of individuals.
However, Durkheim's study has been criticised for using unreliable and incomplete statistics. This was
so because medical knowledge was limited in the 19th century and autopsies were rare. Similarly, most
countries lacked the sophisticated modern administrative system needed to collect and complete
reliable statistics on a national basis. As a result, because the study lacked reliability, it becomes
difficult to conclude that suicide is caused by social facts as Durkheim had suggested.
Douglas (1967) has also criticised Durkheim's suicide study for ignoring the meanings of the act for
those who kill themselves and for assuming that suicide has a fixed or constant meaning. He argues
that the meanings of suicide can vary between cultures and the motives and meanings must be
understood within their own social and cultural context. This means that Durkheim's attempts to
compare rates across cultures are faced with problems.
Douglas also criticises Durkheim for aiming to categorize suicide in terms of their social causes. He
argues that death should be classified according to its actual meaning and to do this, qualitative
methods should be used to analyse the possible causes of death. That way, we can build up a
classification of suicide meanings.
As Douglas takes the interpretivist approach, the interpretivist explanations of suicide aim to study
suicide in a nonscientific manner unlike the positivist explanations. They reject using statistics to look
at why people commit suicide and prefer to try and understand the meanings behind why they would
commit suicide which they believe isn't coherent through statistics.
According to Douglas, the decision to classify death as a suicide is taken by a coroner, and so the
coroner's verdict is based on interpretation. Nevertheless, the coroner's decision could be subjective so
therefore we cannot exactly argue that the coroner's decision is fully accurate. He suggested that there
are different types of suicide based on the meaning and reason for the death. For example, in some
societies, Eskimos were expected to kill themselves in times of food shortages.
Atkinson (1978) takes a different approach as he rejects the idea of coroners being able to objectively
classify suicides because the facts are social constructions therefore criticizing the interpretivists
approach. Although he accepts Douglas' point that official statistics simply reflect the constructs or
labels coroners give to deaths, he rejects the view that we cannot get behind these statistics and
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All we can study is how people make sense of their world
which means studying how the living comes to classify a death as a suicide. He focuses on how
coroners classify death and suggests that qualitative methods such as informal interviews and
observations might be used.…read more