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·         Durkheim believed that he could show that suicide had social causes and that this would prove that sociology was distinct and genuinely scientific discipline. While Durkheim accepts that some individuals may be psychologically more predisposed to suicide than others- e.g. as a result of depression- he rejects the view that psychological factors can explain the differences in suicide rates of whole groups or societies.

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Suicide rates as social facts..

·         In Durkheim's view, our behaviour is caused by social facts- social forces found in the structure of society. Social facts have three features; 1. They are external to individuals; 2. They constrain individuals, shaping their behaviour and 3. They are greater than individuals- they exist on a different 'level' from the individual.

·         For Durkheim, the suicide rate is a social fact. Using quantitative data, Durkheim analysed the suicide rates for various European countries over a period of several decades in the 19th Century. He noted four regular patterns:

1.    --  Suicide rates for any given society remained more or less constant over time.
- When the rates did change, this coincided with other changes e.g. the rates rose at times of economic depression.
- Different societies had different rates.
- Within a society, the rates varied considerably between different social groups e.g. Catholics had lower rates than Protestants.

·         For Durkheim, these patterns were evidence that suicide rates could not simply be the result of the motives of individuals. Durkheim explains the suicide rate as the effect of social facts or forces acting upon individuals. In different groups and societies, these forces act with different degrees of intensity, resulting in different suicide rates.

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Durkheim's four types of suicide..

Durkheim identifies two social facts that determine the rate of suicide:
- Social integration refers to the extent to which individuals experience a sense of belonging to a group and obligations to its members.
- Moral regulation refers to the extent to which individuals' actions and desires are kept in check by norms and values.

·         Durkheim argues that suicide results from either too much or too little integration or regulation. This gives a fourfold typology (classification system) of suicide:

1.    Egoistic suicide is caused by too little social integration. Durkheim argues that this is the most common type of suicide in modern society.

2.    Altruistic suicide is the opposite of egoistic suicide and is caused by too much social integration. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness and involves putting others before oneself. E.g. suicide bombers - religion put first

3.    Anomic suicide is caused by too little moral regulation. Anomic suicide occurs where society's norms become unclear or made obsolete by rapid social change. E.g. Wall Street Crash led to depression then suicides.

4.    Fatalistic suicide is caused by too much moral regulation. Fatalistic suicide occurs where society regulates or controls the individual completely- where individuals find their 'futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently checked by 'oppressive discipline', crushing all hope. E.g. slaves and prisoners.

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Suicide and type of society..

·         Modern industrial societies have lower levels of integration. Individuals' rights and freedoms become more important than obligations towards the group. This weakens social bonds and gives rise to egoistic suicides.

·         Traditional pre-industrial societies have higher levels of integration. This group is more important than the individual and this gives rise to altruistic suicide.

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Positivist approaches

Later positivist approaches

·         Gibbs and Martin argue that Durkheim does not operationalise his concept of integration (define it in such a way that it can be measured). They go on to define integration as a situation where there are stable and lasting relationships. They argue that these end to occur when an individual has status integration- compatible statuses that do no conflict with one another.

·         Other aspects of Durkheim's study have also been criticised. E.g. it is argued that the statistics he used were unreliable and incomplete- in the 19th century, medical knowledge of the causes of death were limited and autopsies rarely performed. Also, many countries lacked the administrative system needed to collect and compile reliable statistics on a national basis.

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Interpretivism and suicide - Douglas..

Douglas is interested in the meaning that suicide has for the deceased, and in the way that coroners label deaths as suicides, taking a largely interactionist approach. He criticises Durkheim's study of suicide on two main grounds.

1. The use of suicide statistics - The decision to classify a death as suicide is taken by a coroner and influence by other social actors, and this may produce bias in the verdicts reached. Douglas argues that this may explain the patterns that Durkheim found. E.g. The finding that a high level of integration leads to lower suicide rates can be explained by the fact that well integrated individuals may have friends or relatives who might deny that the death was a suicide out of their own feelings of guilt.

2. Actors' meanings and qualitative data - Douglas criticises Durkheim for ignoring the meanings of the act for those who kill themselves and for assuming that suicide has a fixed or constant meaning. In particular, Douglas notes that the meanings of suicide can vary between cultures.

·         Douglas also rejects Durkheim's aim to categorise suicides in terms of their social causes. Instead we must classify each death according to its actual meaning for the deceased. To do this, we must use qualitative methods e.g. case studies. From this we can build a new typology of suicidal meanings.

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·         Although Douglas did not carry out any case studies himself, he suggests that in Western societies the social meanings of suicide include escape, repentance, revenge etc. However, he points out that suicide may have different meanings in different cultures e.g. religious ones such as transformation of the soul (getting to heaven).

·         The analysis of suicide notes and so on would allow us to 'get behind' the labels that coroners attach to cases and discover the real meanings of the death for the person involved. From this we could get a better idea of the real rate of suicide.

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Criticisms of Douglas..

·         Douglas produces a classification of suicide based on the supposed meanings for the actors. However there is no reason to believe that sociologists are any better than coroners at interpreting a dead person's meanings.

·         Douglas is inconsistent, sometimes suggesting that official statistics are merely the product of coroners' opinions. At other times, he claims we really can discover the causes of suicide- yet how can we, if we can never know whether a death was a suicide and all we have is coroners' opinions?

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Atkinson: ethnomethodology and suicide..

·         Ethnomethodology argues that social reality is simply a construct of its members.The sociologist's job is to uncover what this knowledge is and how we use it to make sense of the world.

For Atkinson, we can never know the real rate of suicide, since we would have to know for sure what meanings the dead gave to their deaths, which is impossible. Therefore it is pointless trying to discover the 'real rate'.  As Atkinson puts it, the only task for sociologists is to discover, 'How do deaths get categorised as suicide?'


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Atkinson case study..

       Atkinson therefore focuses on how coroners categorise deaths. Using a range of qualitative methods, including conversations with coroners, he concludes that coroners have a commonsense theory about the typical suicide. This includes what kind of person commits suicide, for what reasons, what is a typical mode or place of death and so on. Atkinson argues that coroners' commonsense theories lead them to see the following types of evidence as relevant:

·     -  A suicide note or suicide threats prior to death.
- Mode of death- e.g. hanging is seen as 'typically suicidal'.
-  Location and circumstances- Death by shooting is more likely to be recorded as suicide if it occurs in a deserted lay-by than when out with a hunting party.
-  Life history- A disturbed childhood or mental illness or a difficult personal situation (e.g. divorce) are seen as likely causes of suicide.

·         Atkinson concludes that coroners are engaged in analysing cases using taken-for-granted assumptions about what constitutes a 'typical suicide'. A verdict of suicide is simply an interpretation of a death based on these taken-for-granted assumptions. If correct, this poses serious problems for Durkheim that treat statistics as facts- because all they are doing is spelling out the coroners' theories about suicide.

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Evaluation of Atkinson..

·         Structuralists such as Hindess criticise ethnomethodologists' approach as self-defeating. Atkinson's view that the only thing we can study about suicide is coroners' interpretations can be turned back on him. If all we can have is interpretations of the social world, rather than objective truth about it then ethnomethodologists' own accounts are themselves no more than interpretations.

·         However, most ethnomethodologists accept that their accounts are merely interpretations. Unlike positivists, who claim to produce objective, scientific accounts, they do not claim that their interpretations are superior to those of the people they study.

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Taylor: realism and suicide..

 Taylor argues that suicide statistics cannot be taken as valid.He also believes that we can explain suicide. He believes we can discover real patterns and causes, although unlike positivists, he does not base his explanation on suicide rates. Instead he adopts a realist approach. This aims to reveal underlying structures and causes. 

Types of Suicides: The first two types are inner- or self-directed suicides, where the individual is psychologically detached from others. Because of this, the suicide attempt is a private, self-contained act.

1.    - Submissive suicides, where the person is certain about themselves e.g. they may know they have no future or no reason to go on(e.g. terminal illness).
- Thanatation suicides, where they are uncertain about themselves e.g. they may be uncertain about what others thing of them. Their suicide attempt involves risk taking.

The other two types are other-directed suicides, where the individual has an overwhelming attachment to some other person(s). These suicides are not self-contained, but a way of communicating with others. 

3.    - Sacrifice suicides, where they are certain about others and know they have to kill themselves. Like submissive suicides, their attempt is deadly serious. Usually, either they or the other person has done something that makes it impossible for the individual to go on living e.g. betrayal through affair.
- Appeal suicides, where the person is uncertain about others. They have doubts about their importance to the other an attempt suicide to resolve the uncertainty. The attempt is a form of communication that seeks to change the other's behaviour.

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Evaluation of Taylor..

·         Taylor's theory is based on his interpretations of the actors' meaning and there is no way of knowing if these are correct, especially in the case of those whose attempts succeeded. Also, individual cases may involve a combination of motives and be difficult to categorise.

·         Taylor's small sample of case studies, while useful in giving insight into motives, is unlikely to be representative of suicides in general.

·         Unlike Durkheim, Taylor has not connected the four types to wider society. However, there are similarities between the two:

1.    Taylor's ideas of certainty and uncertainty parallel Durkheim's notions of fatalism and anomie respectively.

2.    Taylor's self-directed and other-directed suicides parallel Durkheim's egoistic and altruistic suicides respectively.

·         Nevertheless, his theory is original and useful in explaining some of the observed patterns of suicide. It also deals with both failed and unsuccessful suicide attempts.

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Examples and Stats...

Channel 4 News June 2011: Teacher suicide rates rises by 80%
Too much stress from rigorous classroom inspections, "unmanageable" paperwork, government targerts has driven to point of suicide. "the demand for job goes up, control they have goes down..".

The Guardian 2011: Sharp increase in suicide rates in Northern Ireland
Risen by 64% in last decade - most young men in 15 to 34 age group. Theories include the long-term entrenched deprivation in some communities and issues of identity in "post-conflict" society.

Daily Mail 2012: Suicides in Greece rise by a 1/3 as financial crisis takes its toll.

June 2007: Inside the mind of a Suicide Bomber..
Bombers are motivated by a simple cost-benefit analysis - benefits are perceived to be so great for the membership of the group that they outweigh the cost.

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