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Durkheim and types of suicide in society

Once he discovered that certain types of suicide could be accounted for by anomie, he could then use anomic suicide as an index for the otherwise unmeasurable degree of social integration. This was not circular reasoning, as could be argued, but a further application of his method of analysis. He reasoned as follows: There are no societies in which suicide does not occur, and many societies show roughly the same rates of suicide over long periods of time. This indicates that suicides may be considered a "normal," that is, a regular, occurrence. However, sudden spurts in the suicide rates of certain groups or total societies are "abnormal" and point to some perturbations not previously present. Hence. "abnormally" high rates in specific groups or social categories, or in total societies, can be taken as an index of disintegrating forces at work in a social structure.

Durkheim distinguished between types of suicide according to the relation of the actor to his society. When men become "detached from society," when they are thrown upon their own devices and loosen the bonds that previously had tied them to their fellow, they are prone to egoistic, or individualistic, suicide. When the normative regulations surrounding individual conduct are relaxed and hence fail to curb and guide human propensities, men are susceptible to succumbing to anomic suicide. To put the matter differently, when the restraints of structural integration, as exemplified in the operation of organic solidarity, fail to operate, men become prone to egoistic suicide; when the collective conscience weakens, men fall victim to anomic suicide.

In addition to egoistic and anomic types of suicide, Durkheim refers to altruistic and fatalistic suicide. The latter is touched upon only briefly in his work, but the former is of great importance for an understanding of Durkheim's general approach. Altruistic suicide refers to cases in which suicide can be accounted for by overly strong regulation of individuals, as opposed to lack of regulation. Durkheim argues in effect that the relation of suicide rates to social regulation is curvilinear--high rates being associated with both excessive individuation and excessive regulation. In the case of excessive regulation, the demands of society are so great that suicide varies directly rather than inversely with the degree of integration. For example, in the instance of the Hindu normative requirement that widows commit ritual suicide upon the funeral pyre of their husbands, or in the case of harikiri, the individual is so strongly attuned to the demands of his society that he is willing to take his own life when the norms so demand. Arguing from statistical data, Durkheim shows that in modern societies the high rates of suicide among the military cannot be explained by the deprivations of military life suffered by the lower ranks, since the suicide rate happens to be higher for officers than for enlisted men. Rather, the high rate for officers can be accounted for by a military code of honor that enjoins a passive habit of obedience leading officers to undervalue their own lives. In such cases, Durkheim is led to refer to too feeble degrees of individuation and to counterpose these to the excesses of individuation or de-regulation, which account, in his view, for the other major forms of suicide.

Durkheim's discussion of altruistic suicide allows privileged access to some of the intricacies of his approach. He has often been accused of having an overly anti-individualistic philosophy, one that is mainly concerned with the taming of individual impulse and the harnessing of the energies of individuals for the purposes of society. Although it cannot be denied that there are such tendencies in his work, Durkheim's treatment of altruistic suicide indicates that he was trying to establish a balance between the claims of individuals and those of society, rather than to suppress individual strivings. Acutely aware of the dangers of the breakdown of social order, he also realized that total control of component social actors by society would be as detrimental as anomie and de-regulation. Throughout his life he attempted to establish a balance between societal and individual claims.

From Coser, 1977:132-136.

At the end of the 19th century a French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, recorded an apparent link between high suicide rates and a breakdown in social structure and organisation. He coined the term 'anomie' for this state. This link has since been recorded many times in places outside France and appears to be real. However, its true significance has only recently begun to be understood with the development and exploration of the concept of social capital and its link, not just with suicide, but with health generally.

("Stronger Communities One of" 28)

He wanted to demonstrate and establish sociology’s scientific status by providing a sociological explanation of that seemingly most individual of acts—suicide. In order to do this he had to define suicide as a social fact that would require explanation in terms of other social facts (social structures and forces as conceptualized in his multi-layered model). The social fact to be explained was not the individual act of suicide, which might be better accounted for by a case study method where, in favourable instances, there might be enough evidence to make inferences about the victim’s mental state—motives and intentions. It was suicide rates, as disclosed by statistics, that constituted the social fact to be explained as an effect of an imbalance of social structural forces. Consequently, he proceeded to define suicide with the least possible reference to mental elements, excluding any reference to intentions but allowing for the need to distinguish between accidental death and suicide: “the term suicide is applied to all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result.” Comparative statistics for countries and categories of people within each country showed that suicide rates were relatively constant; therefore, it must be a social fact that a collective tendency towards suicide existed. These collective tendencies could be related to sets of causes to produce a classification of types of suicide. The sets of causes were theoretically postulated on the basis of Durkheim’s conception of possible imbalances between centrifugal forces (too much individualism) and centripetal forces (too much social pressure).

Two pairs of imbalances of forces are defined; one pair refers to the degree of integration or interaction in a group (egoism and altruism), the other pair refers to the degree of moral regulation (anomie and fatalism). The two continua of integration and regulation, and the four types of suicide, can be illustrated in Fig. 3.2 and summary:

The first type of suicide, at the low extreme of the integration continuum, was egoistic suicide. Here rates of interaction in egoistic groups were low, and so values, beliefs, traditions, and sentiments were not held in common by all members. The result was that they weakened each other whenever they came into conflict. The collective life was diminished and individual interests were asserted. The individual lost the beneficial effects of group membership, such as support and revitalization, and consequently found little meaning in group life. Thus suicide rates were higher for Protestants than Catholics, both in comparisons between predominantly Protestant countries and Catholic countries, and between Protestants and Catholics in the same society. It was not the case that one religion’s beliefs condemned suicide and the other did not, as suicide was severely condemned by both Protestantism and Catholicism. The difference was that Protestanism encouraged individual free inquiry and, unlike Catholicism, it did not offer priestly and sacramental supports. Where a Protestant church did offer more of those supports, as in the Church of England, which had kept some of the Catholic emphasis on priesthood and sacraments (and had more clergyman per head of population than Protestant countries) the suicide rate was mid-way between that of the Catholic and Protestant countries.

A further example of egoistic suicide was the higher rate to be found among adults who were unmarried compared with married people of the same age. And the larger the family, the lower was the chance of suicide occurring. Finally egoistic suicide varied inversely with the degree of political integration, the rate fell in wars and political crises.

Altruistic suicide was the result of too much integration. The individual absorbed and controlled by the group had an under-developed and so under-valued sense of individuality. Such a person could not resist the pressure to sacrifice the self for the group’s interests, even if it me ant committing suicide. Durkheim pointed out the similarity of the modern army and primitive society in this respect; in both there was a lack of individuality and a strong pressure towards self-sacrifice. Examples of suicides in primitive societies included suicides of the old or very ill, suicides of women on their husbands’ death, and suicides of followers or servants on the death of their chiefs. The much higher rate of military suicides compared with civilians in modern suicide was explained by Durkheim in terms of military morality being a survival of primitive morality, predisposing the soldier to kill himself “at the least disappointment, for the most futile reasons, for a refusal of leave, a reprimand, an unjust punishment, a delay in promotion, a question of honour, a flush of momentary jealousy, or even simply because other suicides have occurred before his eyes or to his knowledge” [1] p. 239.

The next type of suicide, at the low extreme of the regulation continuum, was anomic suicide. Anomie was the consequence of social change resulting in a diminution of social regulation. He discussed two forms of economic anomie—“acute” and “chronic”, and then “chronic domestic” anomie. They were all cases of an imbalance between means and needs—states of disequilibrium, where means were inadequate to fulfil needs. Durkheim did not believe that needs were given in man’s biological, psychological, or individual nature. Indeed, that was one of his main criticisms of the economic, psychological, and utilitarian theories of his time, because they ignored the socially-derived and variable nature of human needs. Passions, desires, appetites, ends, and goals could all become needs, and if such wants were not restrained they would bring unhappiness. The individual’s wants were boundless unless a limit was set on them by an external moral authority.

Acute economic anomie occurred in booms and slumps. In both circumstances old rules relating means to ends were inapplicable, and individuals were freed from social restraint, creating disequilibrium, unhappiness, and leading to an increase in suicides. Chronic economic anomie was a product of a longer term diminution of social regulation of the relation between means and ends. For over a century there had been an erosion of the influence of agencies that had exercised moral restraint over economic relations, particularly religious and occupational groups, and instead of being regarded as a means, industry had become an end in itself. Not surprisingly, suicide rates were higher in manufacturing and commercial occupations than they were in agriculture, because the latter still had traditions and customs that exercised constraint. (Not that Durkheim wanted to revert to older forms of organization, although he believed new occupational associations should be formed that would have some of the same functions as the old guilds.) Constant economic striving after limitless goals could not bring happiness, as was shown by the fact that the higher socio-economic strata had higher rates of suicide than the poor.

Acute domestic anomie was exemplified by widowhood, which represented a crisis for the surviving husband or wife, who would not be adapted to the new situation and so offered less resistance to suicide.

Chronic domestic anomie was discussed by Durkheim in terms of the way in which marital regulation affects the means-needs balance in men and women. He defined marriage as: “A regulation of sexual relations, including not merely the physical instincts which this intercourse involves but the feelings of every sort gradually engrafted by civilization on the foundation of physical desire” [1] , p. 270. Civilization had produced a multiplicity of triggers of man’s passions, and only marriage could channel those needs within attainable bounds; bachelors, however, experience limitless horizons, which lead to unrestrained passions that create a disjunction between means and ends, and a state of chronic anomie. Consequently, bachelors had a higher suicide rate than married men. Ease of divorce had a similar effect on married men, producing higher suicide rates. Women, who had long been more restricted within the domestic sphere, had not had their sexual aspirations raised to the same level, and so they required less regulation. Marriage served to over-regulate them, particularly if it was difficult

to secure a divorce (they had a lower rate of suicide in societies where divorce was easier than in those where it was difficult). As distinct from family life with children, marriage itself offered no protection against suicidal pressures so far as women were concerned. The interests of the two sexes were in conflict:

“Speaking generally, we now have the cause of that antagonism of the sexes which prevents marriage favouring them equally: their interests are contrary; one needs restraint and the other liberty…. Women can suffer more from marriage if it is unfavourable to her than she can benefit by it if it conforms to her interest. This is because she has less need of it” [1] , p. 274-275.

Fatalistic suicide was at the high extreme of the regulation continuum. He only discussed this condition of excessive regulation once, and that was restricted to an eight-sentence footnote. Examples were the situation of childless married women (presumably where divorce was difficult), young husbands, and slaves. He described it as the suicide of “persons with futures pitilessly blocked…or all suicides attributable to excessive physical or moral despotism.” For some reason, not specified, he decided that “it has so little contemporary importance, and examples are so hard to find aside from the cases just mentioned, that it seems useless to dwell upon it” [1] , p. 276, footnote 25.

Although Durkheim used the categories of egoism, altruism, and anomie (not so much fatalism) to distinguish suicidogenic currents, and collective tendencies, he admitted that in practice it was very difficult to separate the currents of egoism and anomie as they flowed from a single source—the loss of mechanical solidarity and the failure to develop a genuine organic solidarity. A moderate amount of egoism and anomie was necessary for progress. A certain amount of individualism was necessary for the growth of the division of labour; it was excessive egoistic tendencies that produced a pathological level of egoistic suicides. Similarly, with anomie, “among peoples where progress is and should be rapid, rules restraining individuals must be sufficiently pliable and malleable; if they preserved all the rigidity they possess in primitive societies, evolution thus impeded could not take place promptly enough” [1] , p.364.

The language of forces and currents in states of disequilibrium was symptomatic of Durkheim’s effort to demonstrate that a sociological explanation of suicide could reveal hidden causes—in this case social forces that were as real as physical forces. Although his references to suicidogenic currents sound like an over-drawn analogy with electrical currents, in fact they refer to phenomena specified in his multi-layered model.


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