Positivism: Durkheim's Study

  • Created by: nelliott
  • Created on: 10-05-21 09:28

Durkheim's Study of Suicide

• First major study of suicide

• Chose it to prove sociology had value

• If he could prove suicide was related to society, he could prove sociology was a nice field of research

• He examined 19th century suicide statistics across several European societies and observed three trends:

  • that suicide rates remain constant and predictable over time
  • that they remain constant between societies
  • that they remain constant between social groups within the same society
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Durkheim's Results

• He concluded that the suicide rate was not the result of individuals using their free will and choosing to kill themselves

• Instead, he hypothesised that the suicide rate was a social fact 

• Suicidal behaviour was shaped by the nature of the society to which the individual belonged

• Specifically, by its level of social integration and moral regulation

• He argued the main type of suicide, he called ‘egoistic’, was caused by too much individualism

• Society failed to integrate individuals into society

• He saw religion as playing a big role in whether individuals were sufficiently integrated or not

• E.g., he argued that the Catholic sense of community was more powerful than that encouraged by the Protestant religions and therefore Catholics had a stronger sense of belonging to a society, with Protestants being more likely to commit suicide

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Atkinson's Critique

• This study was an interpretivist critique of Durkheim’s positivist study of suicide

• He was very critical as Durkheim had failed to realise the statistics of suicide were socially constructed

• They are a result of an interaction between the victim, their relatives and friends, and most importantly a legal official called a coroner whose function is to interpret how people have died and to officially apply one of the five possible labels:

1. Natural causes




5.The open verdict

• Based on the evidence available, thereby creating an official death statistic

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Atkinson & Coroners

• If a corner suspects intent to die, they will look for various clues, such as a suicide note and will look closely at how and where the person died using their previous experience and interpretation of suicidal action

• However, most coroners will interact with friends and relatives to work out the frame of mind of the deceased person.

• They will look for clues in the person’s biography that might have motivated such action, such as redundancy, death of a loved one and so on

• Atkinson notes that it is at this stage that relatives can influence a coroner’s final decision by insisting that the victim was not depressed

• Atkinson agues Durkheim’s methodology was flawed because he failed to recognise the statistics were socially constructed by coroners who come to their decision because of interacting with the friends and relatives of the deceased and interpreting the dead person’s actions and intentions.

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