TOPIC 11: The sociology of suicide

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Durkheim's theory

  • Used positivist approach
  • Used comparative method = comparing suicide rates from different European countries
  • Believed suicide stats are social facts - true reflection
  • Some groups more likely than others to commit suicide in each country - e.g. Protestants more likely than Catholics, unmarried, young, educated, rural dwellers
  • Suicide rate determined not by person's psychological state but by relationship to society
  • Integration and social control very important:
    • Social control = how much freedom someone has, regulations/controls placed upon them
    • Society achieves social control by drawing people together on basis of common values taught primarily through family, reinforced by religion
    • The greater the levels of social integration, the more harmonious a society
    • Most integrated individuals = those with close family relationships
  • Different religions place varying amounts of stress:
    • Protestant = emphasis on independence/self-reliance/personal achievement --> LESS INTEGRATED
    • Catholics = emphasis on family, consider search for personal happiness as less important --> MORE INTEGRATED
  • Individuals vary in degree of social integration into society = depends on membership of family networks
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Durkheim's categorisation of societies - 1


  • E.g. The UK, America
  • Individual rights/interests/welfare heavily stressed
  • Allegiance to wider group = weak --> people encouraged to look after themselves/people close to them
  • Weak social bonds, low level of social integration
  • Closely related to Protestantism
  • Individual failure/unhappiness viewed as acceptable grounds for suicidal people - typical of contemporary European/North American societies


  • E.g. Japan, suicide bombers
  • Welfare of individuals viewed as far less important than group
  • Individual choice/happiness = not high priority
  • Insufficient motivation for members to commit suicide
  • Suicide occurs when individual expected to commit suicide on behalf of wider society
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Durkheim's categorisation of societies - 2


  • People = naturally selfish, look after own interests unless society restricts actions
  • Societies develop cultural/social mechanisms that provide clear framework of acceptable behaviour
  • Weakened restraints = people revert to natural selfishness, others become bewildered
  • Social restraints on behaviour = most likely to weaken in periods of dramatic social change


  • Extremely oppressive societies = people lose will to live, prefer to die
  • Fatalistic suicide = fairly uncommon occurrence, accounts for very high levels of suicide in prisons
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Criticisms of Durkheim

  • Interpretivism = bottom-up approach, using own subjective interpretations
  • Positivism = top-down approach, data interpreted in light of existing theories
  • Durkheim criticised by those who agreed with approach but disagreed with validity of conclusions - internal criticisms:
    • Analysis depends upon concept of social cohesion --> Durkheim argues suicide rates vary as it varies, never provides clear/unambiguous definition
    • Claims social integration linked most closely to religion/family membership --> Durkheim provides no explanation of how this can be verified/falsified
    • Relied largely upon official stats = open to dispute --> e.g. suicide regarded with great stigma in Catholic-dominated areas, doctors reluctant to certify this as being reason of death
  • Interpretive criticisms:
    • Suicide has different meanings to different people = Durkheim did not consider this
    • Interpretive sociologists reject idea that society studied with methods borrowed from physical sciences - like approach most favoured by Durkheim
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Douglas' theory

Different way in which suicidal person might define act:

  • Transforming the self = means of gaining release from cares of world
  • Transfroming oneself for others = tells others how profound feelings are on particular issue
  • Achieving fellow feeling = asking for help/sympathy, person hopes to be found
  • Gaining revenge = been forced into position to commit suicide
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Atkinson (1971)

Suicide = social construction:

  • Suicide notes = notes found in 30% of suicides, family destroys them due to accusations
  • Mode of death = some types of death seen as more typical of suicide
  • Location/circumstances of death = suicides committed in places/circumstances where they will not be discovered, person sure outcome will be successful
  • Life history/mental condition = suicide often related to depression caused by significant event in deceased's life --> coroners search for evidence of events
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Integrating positivist and interpretivist approach

Taylor (1990) =

  • Ideas of Durkheim (relationship between wider social factors and suicide rates) and ideas of Douglas (suicide has meaning for those who take own lives) could be true
  • Agrees with Durkheim - suicide more likely in individuals too detached from society (egoistic) and those overly attached (altruistic)
  • Parasuicide = person attempts suicide but not certain they want to die, leave outcome to fate
  • Parasuicides indicate meaning people attach to act of taking own life is also important
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