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  • Created on: 07-06-11 10:22


1897: Durkheim's Suicide: A study in Sociology. This was the first major study of suicide.

Suicide had previously been seen as a PSYCHOLOGICAL act, Durkheim wanted to prove that it also had SOCIOLOGICAL explanations.

He believed Suicide was a social 'fact': There are three characteristics which define social facts:  - They are external to the individual - They constrain individuals (they shape their behaviour) - They are greater than individuals.

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Statistical Findings

1) Suicide varied between countries and is generally higher in Protestant rather than Catholic countries.  2) Although the suicide rates may have risen and fallen across Europe, the differences between countries remained the same. 3) The rise and fall of suicide rates related directly to social factors e.g. economic recession and even prosperity! 4) The suicide rate differed between groups within the same society, e.g. the unmarried and childless.

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Does Suicide Have a Structural Cause?

  • Durkheim concluded that suicide must be caused by society (structure) rather than be an individual (psychological) phenomena.
  • An example of this is that Paris has an ever changing population yet the suicide rate remains the same.
  • The French army is made up of different individuals as time goes by, yet the suicide rate stays constant.
  • Therefore the suicide rate is the effect of social forces upon individuals (a sociological explanation)

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Factors Affecting Suicide

Durkheim identifies two social facts that detemine the rate of suicide:

Social Integration: refers to the extent to which individuals experience a sense of belonging to a group and obligation to its members. In highly integrated groups and societies, individuals feel a strong bond and sense of duty towards eachother.

Moral Regulation: refers to the extent to which individuals actions and desires are kept in check by norms and values. In Durkheim's view, without regulation by socially defined goals and rules, individuals' desires and infinite and incapable of satisfaction.

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

  • Egoistic Suicide: is caused by too little integration. Most common type of suicide in modern society, caused by excessive individualism and lack of social ties and obligations to others.
  • Altruistic Suicide: is the opposite; caused by too much social integration. Involves putting others before oneself. Suicide is like a self-sacrifice.
  • Anomic Suicide: is caused by too little moral regulation. Occurs when society's norms become unclear maybe due to rapid social change, creating uncertainty in individuals.
  • Fatalistic Suicide: Caused by too much moral regulation. Can't do anything to affect their situation.Where society regulates or controls the individual eg prisoners or slaves.

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Other Positivst Approaches

Halbwachs 1930: Build on Durkheim's work, using more reliable stats and techniques. He largely agreed with Durkheim but argued that the key reason for differences in suicide rates, related to urban and rural living. Protestants were more likely to live in towns, where people are isolated and suicide relates to urban living. Sainsbury 1955: Suicide rates higher in London Boroughs, paticularly where levels of social disorganisation (divorce and illegitimacy) were highest.
Gibbs and Martin (status integration) Status integration: when our educational and occupational statuses are similar e.g. Someone with a law degree works as a lawyer, rather than as a cleaner.
When our status are not integrated (they conflict), suicide will be higher. Societies with little status integration will have higher rates of suicide. Lack of status integration may occur in times of recession for example.

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Intepretivism and Suicide: Douglas

Interpretivists focus on the MEANING of suicide for the indiciduals concerned.

Douglas criticises Durkheim on the following grounds:

  • Classification of death as suicide is done by the coroner and this can be distorted by social factors eg. It might appear that those who are highly integrated are less likely to commit suicide as family and friends might deny it was suicide or hide a suicide note. Non integrated individuals have nooone to fight against a verdict of suicide
  • Therefore social integration only affects the likelihood of a death being recorded as suicide

Douglas: Actor's Meanings and Qualitative Date

Durkheim does not consider the MEANING that suicide has for the individuals who commit it.

The meaning of suicide can vary between cultures.

Motives and meanings of suicide are culturally specific.

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Douglas: Understanding the meanings of Suicide

Step One: As suicide is unique to the individual (suicide has it's own meaning for the deceased), we should look INDIVIDUALLY at suicides. We should do this through the use of QUALITATIVE sources such as case studies, notes, diaries, indepth interviews with family and friends.

Using qualitative data overcomes the difficulties that occur when using offical stats.

Step two: we should look for patterns that are common in a number of suicides Only if patterns are found, can we begin to classify 'types' of suicide.

 Douglas that there are 5 main types of suicide. 1) Revenge suicide 2) Search for help suicide 3) Escape suicide 4) Repentance suicide (7 pounds film) 5) Self-punishment

Step three: Then relate them to wider beliefs in culture.

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Criticisms of Douglas

Douglas is critical of coroners who label death as suicide, BUT, are sociologists any more qualified to label meanings behind suicide than a coroner is to classify death?

Sainsbury 1968 found that immigrant groups in the USA showed similar suicide rates to people in their own country. Therefore, there must be something about these groups that cause them to commit suicide, rather than it being a result of the coroner's label.

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Atkinson: Ethnomethodology/Phenomenology & Suicide

Ethnomethodology: Society is merely a construct of it's members. The individual shapes society and we must look at how we make sense of the world and how this determines our behaviour.

Atkinson AGREES with Douglas that official stats are merely the product of coroner's opinions and are therefore not of use (criticising Durkheim's research)

Atkinson DISAGREES with Douglas that we should find out the meaning of suicide from the individual, based on qualitative date such as letters. Atkinson believes that we will never really find out why a person commits suicide

For Atkinson, the only thing to look at is how and why the living classify death as suicide.

Atkinson focuses on HOW coroners categorise deaths (police, doctors and relatives play a part)

He uses a range of QUALITATIVE METHODS, including conversations with coroners, observations of inquests and examination of court records.

Atkinson concludes that there is a 'commonsense theory' bout the type of people that commit suicide, if a case fits their 'commonsense' theory then they catergorise as suicide

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Atkinson Commonsense theory

Atkinson concludes that there is a 'commonsense theory' bout the type of people that commit suicide, if a case fits their 'commonsense' theory then they catergorise as suicide

The death is more likely to fit the ‘common sense’ theory of suicide if:

There is a SUICIDE NOTE The METHOD of death is typically suicidal e.g. hanging. Drugs & drowning are less clear. The LOCATION and CIRCUMSTANCES suggest suicide e.g. Death by shooting in a house rather than on a hunt is more likely suicide. The victim has a LIFE HISTORY of mental illness, disturbed childhood etc. Conclusions: Suicide is therefore an interpretation of death based on taken for granted assumptions about suicide (supports Douglas). Durkheim should not treat suicide stats as ‘facts’ as they just reflect the coroners understanding of a typical suicide.

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Taylor: Realism and Suicide.

Agrees with interpretivists that suicide stats are not valid or useful. In a study of 32 people hit by London tube trains, just over half were given a suicide verdict, although there was no conclusive evidence of suicide. Taylor found that coroners looked for a history of mental illness and indications of suicidal intent when classifying a death as suicide.  Taylor AGREES with the positivists as he believes that we can explain suicide as having structural causes, although he DISAGREES with the use of official stats. -Taylor AGREES with Douglas that to understand reasons for suicide, individual case studies should be used to discover the victim’s intentions and their immediate social situation. Defining Suicide Taylor argues that not all people who attempt suicide intend to actually kill themselves...they are merely trying to communicate. Therefore we should define suicide as: “any deliberate act of self-damage or potential self damage where the individual cannot be sure of survival”

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Taylor's 4 types of suicide.

Suicide is most likely when: •A) a person has complete certainty about themselves or others.

B) a person has complete uncertainty about themselves or others. The first two types of suicide are SELF-DIRECTED or ‘EPTOPIC’. They are self-contained.

1) Submissive suicides: where a person is CERTAIN about themselves and know they have no reason to go on. Their suicide attempt is deadly serious.

2) Thanatation Suicides: where an individual is UNCERTAIN about themselves. For example, they may be uncertain about what others think of them. Their suicide attempt is a risk they may or may not survive. The other two types are OTHER-DIRECTED (towards another person to whome they are overwhelmingly attached). Also known as SYMPHYSIC. The other person gives them reason for living. 3)  Sacrifice Suicides: Where a person is CERTAIN about others and know they have to kill themselves. The suicide attempt is serious as the other person has done something to make it impossible for them to go on living e.g. affair. They are trying to communicate blame to the other person. 4) Appeal Suicides: Where the person is UNCERTAIN about others feelings towards them. Suicide is an attempt at resolving the uncertainty. They are communicating to try and change a person’s behaviour. They are ‘acts of despair and of hope’ that they will die but also change for the better.

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Evaluation of Taylor

Sociologists will never know if they have interpreted the meaning of suicide correctly. Sometimes people might have a variety of motives for suicide and so reasons will be difficult to categorise. Taylor’s certainty and uncertainty categories mirror Durkheim’s fatalism and anomie. Self directed and other directed suicides mirror egoistic and altruistic suicides.  It is the only theory that considers attempts and successful suicides.

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This is great, good summary of the different studies of suicide, thanks so much!

Hannah Jane Bryant


Looks good and detailed

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