Durkheim and Suicide

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The classic sociological study of suicide was carried out by Durkheim in 1897 and is based upon two central ideas:

1.       Durkheim was a positivist and consequently he believed that individual action was shaped by the social structure. He therefore aimed to show that the ‘supreme’ individual act was the product of social influences beyond the control of the individual.

2.       Durkheim believed that sociology was a science. He believed that by studying patterns in suicide objectively and rigorously, sociology could prove itself to be a scientific discipline.

As his main source of data, Durkheim used 19th century official statistics of suicide taken from a range of European societies for the period of 1840 to 1870. He noted 3 trends:

·         Within single societies, the rate of suicide remains fairly constant over time.

·         Suicide rates varied consistently between different societies.

·         The suicide rate varied between different groups within the same society.

Durkheim therefore suggested that suicide rates were social facts; they were socially determined by the organisation of societies. Using the comparative method of research, Durkheim manipulated non-social and social variables by examining groups of statistics in order to discover the cause of suicide. Firstly, Durkheim looked at possible non-social influences of suicide such as climate, alcoholism and mental illness but concluded that none of these profoundly affected the suicide rate. After examining a number of social variables, Durkheim concluded that suicide varies inversely with the extent of integration of the social group that the individual is part of. He identified four types of suicide – egoistic, altruistic, anomic and


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