Emile Durkheim’s theory on suicide still relevant in modern society?
Durkheim's work has a peculiar characteristic today, for it seems both curiously antiquated and incredibly relevant. In an age where sociologists like Bauman (2001) and Beck (1997) write about the incredible flux and relativisation of secular postmodern society, to read Durkheim's writing on the way Catholic's and Protestant's have strongly differentiated belief and social structures that effect the relationship they have with suicide is to seem to be taken back into another age.
Yet, the central dilemmas of Durkheim's sociology are still being debated today. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous now proclaim that addiction is a disease and place it within an objectified world of medical fact, rather than in the world of social facts caused by political and cultural phenomenon, while those that invoke social explanations are accused of removing problems from the moral accountability of individuals. Indeed, though the notion of the world as culturally and socially constructed might have today gained a currency that would have pleased Durkheim, it has led to the ironic side effect that because it is believed that people create themselves, then they are responsible for their own condition: the postmodern individualism that is the product of the mentality of the market we see in Beck's (1997) work. The themes Durkheim dealt with are thus clearly still very much in the public domain, and are still contested categories today.
This is also the case with Durkheim's work on suicide. Academic journals still publish papers on Durkheim, and with every new suicide that is picked up by the papers, a longer article will be devoted to suicide today, and inevitably, Durkheim's name will be mentioned. However, to say that his name is still mentioned and his theory invoked is not to say it still has relevance for understanding modern society. In addressing this question this thesis will first set out to answer whether Durkheim's theory works as a theory at all: for if it does not that its utility in explaining the modern world in an explanatory fashion (rather than in a discursive fashion: Durkheim's work is surely valuable as a text to understand modernism in that fashion: but then so is Mein Kampf) will surely be limited. This thesis will then engage with three case studies of types of suicide practice that emerged after Durkheim: suicide in the concentration camps during WWII, the use of suicide as a political weapon in Palestine, and recent changes to the practice of euthanasia. Through these case studies this essay will attempt to answer the second question that is posed by its title: have there been significant changes in modern society since Durkheim wrote Suicide (1897) that mean his theory is no longer relevant?
This essay will argue that in one sense Durkheim's La Suicide (1897) is still invaluable today. It is invaluable because it is the first instance of sociological method applied to an area of study, and as such, constitutes a great tool in understanding the progression of sociology (which believes that it can analyse modern society) since then. Furthermore, as an instruction in sociological method, it offers a great toolbox of ideas with which one can analyse contemporary society. It also begins a trajectory, which, despite the limits of Durkheim's work this essay will analyse, allows the study of suicide to develop and progress beyond it. Finally, in its insistence on the essentially social nature of the phenomenon of suicide, it is still a valuable tool in countering reductionist psychological perspectives on suicide, which are still in vogue today.
However, there are such problems with Durkheim's theory as a theory that it cannot be held up as a correct theorisation of modern society today. This essay will examine the hidden biological essentialism of Durkheim's theory, which in light of today's feminist analysis, is unsustainable. It will use the work of Halbwach (1978) and the German phenomenological tradition to argue that the opposition around which Durkheim constructs his theory (individual: society) is an analytical error that obscures the possibility of a theory of suicide that includes both psychological and sociological factors. Finally, through the case studies this essay will examine, it will be argued that the problem of Durkheim's theory is not that the nature of political power and sovereignty has changed to such an extent that his theory can no longer be sustained: rather it is that his theory incorrectly understood the nature of political sovereignty in modernity. As such, while La Suicide maybe a great teacher for budding sociologists, as a theory it has limited explanatory value in modern society.
II. Durkheim's Theory of Suicide
II.I The Historical Context
To understand Durkheim's theory of suicide it is important we understand the historical context in which it was created. There had been a long debate in 19C France over suicide from which Durkheim drew on at lengths often unnoticed by recent commentators (Giddens: 1965:3). There were two key leitmotifs in this debate. The first was that people understood suicide as inexorably linked to mental illness and irrationality. Suicide was that of as produced by (Miller: 1805:14) a ‘miserable insanity' that drew from Christian notions of devil possession. As Foucault (2001:4) notes of madness, suicide was placed in the category of unreason by the construction of the category reason, and then reason was recruited to understand it. It was the Enlightenment construction of the rational individual that necessitated an immediate search for explanation for these phenomenon placed outside this model.
This search for understanding cannot be separated from the emergence of institutions designed to control and expel those now considered marginal to the Enlightenment project. In the context of suicide then, we note there is already a problematic construction of suicide as unproductive, and self-destructive. This is carried through in Durkheim's work when he categorises the four forms of suicide (egoism, anomie, fatalism and altruism) all as lacks of something, be it institutional restraint or individual purpose. He fails to see how suicide can be a positive category (not to imply a value judgement: a positive category in the sense that it is chosen rationally and impacts in a creative fashion on the social world). Because of a Christian leitmotif that is inherited by enlightenment thought, the possibility of using Durkheim to understand, for instance, the possibility of a positive death that is a cleansing phenomenon, as it might be in Japan (Ohnuki-Tierney: 2002:187). This is a problem explored in the case study on Palestine.
The second leitmotif that Durkheim inherits from previous writers on suicide is the notion that suicide is bound up with a change in the moral fabric of society, as social ties lesson as people move from the countryside to the city. The focus of Durkheim's work is to understand suicide as a modern phenomenon, caused by the sociological changes that have occurred within society. The two types of suicide he focuses on are anomie and egoism (a lack of restraint and excessive individualism), two things he believes are a great part of the experience of the fluctuations of modernism. He pays less attention to the role of fatalism and altruism, the two other possible types of suicide that he elucidates. This leitmotif in his work binds up his proposal with many of the principle assumptions of modernism, something that is not without its problems, as we shall we see later.
Durkheim's writings on suicide also emerge in the context of a debate with psychology, as he attempted to found sociology as a discipline. He chose suicide to demonstrate his sociological method because suicide was a phenomenon previously only fully explained as a psychological phenomenon. Esquriol (1838) claims in Maladies Mentales (quoted, Giddens: 1965: 4), that suicide "shows all the characteristics of mental disorders of which it is in fact only a symptom." Durkheim set out to prove that suicide could be explained on the sociological level without reference to individual psychology. In this, he continues in the modernist opposition between the individual and society. What is interestingly suggested by Equriol's statement is what would later be attempted in the work of Halbwach (1987): which is a linkage between the individual causes of an illness and the broader social phenomenon they are derived from. His critique of Durkheim is inspired by German phenomenology, which asserts that the opposition placed between the individual and society is misplaced, as both inform each other. Given the historical context of Durkheim's problematic modernism, we can now better understand Durkheim's project.
II.II Durkheim's Project
What was new in Durkheim's work was not the use of empirical evidence: much of this he had taken from previous writers. Rather, it was his attempt to synthesize this data into a coherent sociological theory. He claimed that one need to understand the social world (Durkheim: 1951:46) "is not simply a sum of independent units, a collective total, but is itself a new fact sui generis, with its own unity, individuality and consequently its own nature." This social world, which could only be understood on its own terms, was what Durkheim set out to understand. Since then much has been written criticising Durkheim's conception of society as assuming too much coherency, but at the time, it was written it was a fundamental shift in the approach writers made to understanding the world. In arguing against Tarde, who argued for a purely biological explanation for suicide, he was not attempting to refuse the possibility of individual explanations of suicide: rather he was attempting to show that such individual explanations could not explain the social forces that moved people to suicide as a societal level.
Fig I: Schema for Durkheim's Theory of Suicide.
Durkheim attempts to correlate suicide with two independent variables (Figure I). His argument was that when either integration or regulation move too far along the axis then the suicide rate would increase. Changes in suicide rate will be proportional to the strength of the changes along the axis. For example, he argued that Catholic's have a lower suicide rate than Protestants because they are more entrenched within a religious system, while the Protestants, more adapted to individualism, are more likely to find themselves descending into Egoism and so living life only for themselves and soon slipping into an empty life that would lead to suicide. In this example, we can see several of the problems that will emerge later. It is not clear to what extent the Catholic solidarity is a property of the integration of the community, and to what extent it is a property of the regulatory function of the religion. This slippage makes it occasionally seem like there is only one cause for suicide, a thesis that shall be explored later. Further, as Halbwach (1978:266) notes, one cannot detach the variable in the data in the way Durkheim attempts. Durkheim makes a separate set of arguments for why families with more members will be less likely to have members in them that commit suicide (due to greater collective purpose and collectives ties). However, as Halbwach notes, it was the Catholic families in France that had the greater family density: thus, it is uncertain which postulate the data is a product of, if any at all. We can note further problems with the data Durkheim uses. As Douglas (1967) argues, collecting suicide data is very difficult. What is interpreted as a suicide can vary wildly across cultures, and it can be in the authorities interest not to report suicides. For instance, in Alaska (Travis: 1995:228) authorities did not report drowning as suicide if it involved drink or drugs, despite the fact it would report other deaths involving drink and drugs as suicide. Such indeterminations of data make any empirical analysis of suicide a precarious endeavour.
There are complex theoretical, as well as empirical, issues at play in La Suicide. For Durkheim, societal attachment can be understood as integration and societal control as regulation. When either of these becomes too extreme, the suicide rate goes up. We will flesh out our main criticism of understanding egoism and anomie as lacks of social control, rather than being produced by social control in a Foucauldian sense, in chapter IV. I. Durkheim does not devote much space to altruism and fatalism, because he suggests that the main problem in modern society is the lack of social ties, due to the breakdown of mechanical society and only the slow emergence of organic society with a specialised division of labour. For instance, Durkheim maintains that larger families will have a lower suicide rate because of the greater number of links within the family. Similarly, married couples without children will have a lower suicide rate when compared to single people, the exception being childless wives, for reasons we shall see in III.II.
Durkheim chooses to explain some sets of empirical data with regulation and other sets with integration, though why he does so, given they are so connected (see III.I), is unclear. He (1951:259) first explains the suicide rate of widows, which is higher than for married women, using egoism, claiming that they live only for themselves, only to hold later that the same rates are due to a lack of domestic focus (anomie). Similarly, he first explains the rate of suicide among very young husbands and childless women through egoistic suicide (ibid: 178) and then explains it through fatalism (ibid: 188). These category invocations are particularly problematic when we look at how Durkheim deals with the distinction between marital and familial life. Familial suicide (a parent within a family with children) is explained as a suicide problem of egoism, thinking simply of yourself and not of your family. However, female suicide within marriage is explained as a problem of fatalism, as for Durkheim women do not see marriage as a positive thing as they are already naturally self-limiting. However, it is unclear why this would change when one started a family: one assumes it is because you then can focus your energies into one's children. However (ibid: 198), he then claims that this appeal to anomie in marital relationships is based on data and not conceptual justifications. As we can see, Durkheim's work is immensely rich, as it is also immensely problematic. People still have arguments over the work, in part, because, as Pope (1975:422) notes, it is impossible to separate either of the indicators to the extent that one is not contaminating the other and find out the extent to which one controls for a type of suicide and not the other.
There is also considerable ambiguity in the way Durkheim analyses how political-economic shifts effect suicide rates. He claims that in times of political crisis the feeling of solidarity will lessen suicide, yet (1951:203), Durkheim also admits in a footnote to seeing people committing suicide on the eve of the French revolution. Furthermore, it is unclear why his argument that economic crisis will bring about more suicides because people lose hold of meaning as their life changes so drastically, cannot also be used in the case of political crisis. This is also the case in terms of economic crisis: could that not see people coming together in collective spirit (as we saw in Argentina recently) and reducing the disequilibrium between means-end relations. The flexibility we see in his theory means that Durkheim's notion of suicide could be employed to prove a decrease or an increase in suicide numbers for most social phenomenon. As such, while it might be a good analytical tool, which we shall examine in the next section, it is a useless predictor of suicide rates before the fact.
III. Theoretical Problems
III.I Integration and Regulation
In the theory outlined above, it is not entirely clear where the line can be drawn between integration and regulation. Durkheim states that societal attachment is integration and societal control is regulation. Yet, these two categories are no clear cut. For instance, as Foucault (1979) has devastatingly shown, attachment is a product of societal control. Regulation does not simply produces laws, but produces the subjects within those laws, and thus produces their attachment to their society. It is unclear why Durkheim has proposed these two separate categories, while acknowledging that they are indeed two sides of the same social world. Indeed, Durkheim notes (1951:288) that they are "usually two different aspects of one social state." He also admits (ibid: 382) "identical causes produce them." This confusion has led to commentators on Durkheim to propose a great many distinctions between the two categories. Parsons (1949:327:38) claims integration is value content and regulation is social control. Nisbet (1966:94) claims the breakdown of the moral community is egoism and the social community is anomie. For Giddens, (1971:84) egoism is moral individualism and anomie a lack of moral regulation. None of these distinctions has overcome the degree of overlap between the categories. For instance, the loosening of bonds with society in anomie can quite conceivably be seen as a rite of egoism, thinking that one can take leave of one's social world.
This essential closeness has led Johnson (1965:79) to propose that there is but one cause of suicide in Durkheim's work. Johnson's work is problematic because he claims that altruism-fetishism cannot belong in the theory because of a lack of empirical data. Thankfully, a lack of empirical data has never prevented something being part of a theory. Johnson claims (ibid: 83) "the more integrated (regulated) a society group of social condition is, the lower the suicide rate." This is not substantially different to Durkheim when he states (1951:209), "suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups of which the individual forms a part." However, it will be seen that it is important to keep integration and regulation separate for the purposes of Durkheim's theory, even if they in many senses bridge the same areas. It is of course the case that a lack of meaning in the social world leads the individual to lessen his ties with it, and equally that a lack of ties with the social world can lead to a sense of a loss of meaning. Thus, the two categories casually interpenetrate. However, as Pope (1975:422) notes, the two are definitely not interchangeable because in some sense integration is prior. It is prior in the book, and more space is devoted to it. Pope's suggestion is that regulation is used a tool to avoid falsification. It allows, as we noted in the previous section, for a great flexibility of answer to be employed. Be that as it may, the slight theoretical incoherence has great ramifications in Durkheim's ideas on female suicide.
III.II Durkheim's Women
Durkheim struggles to explain female suicide, and much of the back tracking that he does is based on his problems with explaining female suicide. The root of this problem can be found in (1933) The Division of Labour in Society. In this book, Durkheim sets out the change from a mechanical society to a society of individuals, an organic society. As Lehmann (1995:906) notes, Durkheim's "theory of women and his theory of individuals are completely contradictory." She suggests two possible readings of Suicide. Either Durkheim is simply mindlessly replicating patriarchal biases of his time, and women should simply be reclassified as individuals, or she suggests there is a hidden feminist critique in Durkheim, and that men are thought of as the individuals. The first theory, as we shall set out, is not feasible, as Durkheim relies on essentialised notions of men and women in order to construct his division of labour in society. The second theory is not tenable in the light of a later paper Durkheim (1978:241) published in which he retracts the idea of conflict in marriage. Rather we will suggest, his essentialised notions of gender create numerous problems for his theory. As we shall show, despite Durkheim's emphasis on social facts, much of his work, including suicide, is founded on essentialised notions of gender that we now realise are functions of male patriarchy.
In The Division of Labour, we see the process of increasing specialisation and differentiation destroying mechanical solidarity between people. Durkheim is not overly worried about this because he sees new organic links being created by interdependence as people increasingly rely on each other more for goods and services. He sees this shift in terms of a social evolutionary framework in which society progresses towards greater complexity. Durkheim argues (1933:56): "as we advance to modern times, we see marriage developing. It is certain that at the same time sexual labour is more and more divided." In this division, man and woman assume their rightful place, men taking the public world and women the private world. These categories, which Durkheim takes to be natural, one must take to be productions of the institutions that regulate political life. As Butler (1990:2) comments: "juridical systems of power produce the subjects they come to represent." Thus, Durkheim confuses a category created by a system of power relations with one created in a natural, presocial order. In these categories, (1933:60), women will remain, "stationary or [there may] even be a regressive state of the female crania." Here Durkheim sets up the static ahistorical female around which the social, historical male moves.
In Suicide (1951), Durkheim claims that as much as the social world is male, so are anti-social problems (such as egoism). For instance, deviance for Durkheim is called by a needs imbalance between the community and the individual; this type of deviancy is produced by anomie. Durkheim claims women are protected from this sort of deviancy because their desires are more naturally self-limiting, while men's are of the social world and need to be restricted. Thankfully, as Butler (1990:100) also points out, desire has always been constructed as a lack by the social world: the construction of female desire as self-limiting is a political strategy in the broader world of modernity to justify the patriarchal restrictions placed on women.
Durkheim claims that man is double, a biological entity and a social entity. The more one is a biological entity, the more one's needs are determined: thus the lack of suicide from means-end (anomie) disequilibrium in primitive society, because in Durkheim's evolutionary typology they are closer to nature and have their needs more determined. As, he claims do women, who should not participate in social life for this reasons. Man’s desires unchecked cause unhappiness and lead to suicide, and thus he needs the social world of regulation to maintain them. Women are (1951:384): "to a far greater extent the product of nature."
Due to these two different notions of desire, Durkheim explains marriage works very differently for men and women. Men require, with their unlimited social desires, restraint, while women require a degree of freedom because they are naturally restrained. Thus, Durkheim argues, women do not particularly see marriage as advantageous. Indeed, women without children commit fatalistic suicide when the divorce rate is low (when divorce rate is high, Durkheim theorises, women have a chance of freedom). However, Durkheim consigns this comment to a footnote (1951:276,n.25) in which he comments that women commit fatalistic suicide like primitives, slaves and others "suffering excessive physical and moral despotism." It is in this note that Lehmann finds the possibility of basing a feminist critique in Durkheim's work. She argues that there is the possibility of reading into Durkheim's understanding of the clash of values on marriage a criticism of the way the man is supposed to dominate the social world and this implicitly silence the voice of the female. Indeed, Durkheim comments (1951:384): "Must one of the sexes necessarily be sacrificed? Nothing else seems possible."
However, Durkheim softens such a hypothesis in his later work. He probably does so because such a theory of marital strife destroys his theory of organic social solidarity: which would not be possible if there was an essentialist antagonism in the division of labour. In Suicide, Durkheim argues that marriage has a harmful effect (1951:189) on women, limiting their freedom, but in his paper Divorce By Mutual Consent (1978), he retracts this argument. Now he claims that divorce does not affect women's suicide rates (thus leaving unexplained the empirical evidence he collects suggesting that unmarried women kill themselves slightly more) at all, as women (ibid: 247) "stand somewhat beyond the moral effects of marriage." Now even the possibility of a feminist critique implicit in Durkheim's work has been effaced: and women simply are left as private and completely without desires.
Durkheim's work here is problematic because the underlying theory is wrong. As Judith Butler has shown (1990), gender is a culturally constructed category, and to no take into account the power relations inherent in the construction of the subject in this way is a serious error of analysis. Moreover, Durkheim's theory here presents great problems in terms of its relevance to the contemporary world. Today we are not seeing sexual labour become more and more divided: on the contrary, we are seeing the growth of an increasing sameness between the sexes in terms of division of labour. Furthermore, we are not seeing women become more regressive as expected by Durkheim. Finally, we cannot accept today his arguments based on the male dominating the public world while the male and the female share the private, given the level of female participation in the public sphere. Nor can we accept rationales for a lower suicide rate for women based on the fact they have less desires and their desires are more natural. This is more problematic than simply ignoring all the arguments Durkheim makes about women. Because woman is not an autonomous category, it is mutually reliant upon the category man. The feminist critique of Durkheim places his whole conceptual system under threat.
III.IV Considering Religion
In Durkheim's era, religious categories seemed to be a lot stronger than they are in Europe today. However, in America, the relevance of his results is still being debated. Pescosolido (1989) analyses the religious data on suicide in light of the recent processes of secularisation, ecumenicalism and evangelical revival in the USA. He postulated (ibid: 35) these changes have fundamentally altered the relationship between religion and society. He finds a much more varied picture than Durkheim found, with some Protestant groups exerting a protective effort, others increasing the suicide rate. He uses data from the National Centre for Health Statistics to analyse significant correlations of suicide to religion. He finds very strong positive protective correlations among the Evangelical Baptists (6.99), and to a lesser extent among the Catholic groups. Fig II shows that the groups that spent the longest time in church tended to have the most protective influence from suicide over its members. All this information tends to support Durkheim, who argued for the strong social and moral ties to a religious community would prevent suicide.
Fig II: Adjusted Suicide Religion Effects. From Pescosolido: 1989:34.
Pescosolido argues that Durkheimean notions of belief structures are not sufficient to account for the changes that he outlines. He claims religious solace is dependent on social interaction, as to a large part is the actualisation of the belief structures people are enmeshed within. Social ties play a substantial role in the adoption, retention and modification of these ideas. In the next section, we will see a theoretical framework that offers a more coherent account of the relationship between the individual and society than that offered by Durkheim. In line with what you would expect if it were social ties that maintained the strong collective bonds that prevent suicide, Pescosolido found attendance had the greatest correlation with protection against suicide. Furthermore, smaller marginal churches, which demanded more participation from their members, also exerted a greater element of protection on their members. However, there are slight problems with this analysis. There is not enough consideration of how social bonds are formed by the belief they then modify, perhaps due to the influence of Simmel's (1955) atomistic network theory. Finally, despite the fact Pescosolido wants to move beyond Durkheim, he still understands the relationship of the different groups to suicide as a golden mean, much like Durkheim does. In this Golden Mean, at one end atheist groups, with their lack of strong communal ties and individualistic tendencies, leave their members most at risk from suicide. At the other side, overly controlling cults leave their members open to altruistic forms of suicide where the individual is devalued in the context of the group. So despite changes to Durkheim's theory, Pescosolido, like so many researchers on suicide, leave the basic premises of Durkheim's theory untouched and still seem to learn a lot about how modern society functions today.
III.IV Psychological Problems and the Problem of the Individual
One of the major tasks left unanswered by Durkheim is how the individual is affected by the social phenomenon he describes. In some of the early criticism of Durkheim, like that made by Delmas (Giddens: 1965:6), it was contended that the individual could not be affected by large scale social phenomenon. Delmas contended that society was too large, and too small a part of the population effected, for sociology to be able to comment on suicide: how would sociology explain that only some of the country was effected while other majority of it were untouched by suicidal tendencies (e.g. like those postulated by Durkheim in the event of economic unrest). Giddens tries to build on the work of Durkheim to explain this, and argues that such large shifts can be seen in tandem with psychological explanations: the large scale sociological phenomenons bring out latent tendencies in depressive characters. Giddens work solidifies Durkheim's criticism of the reductionist pyschologism of authors of his era. White (1956:523) adds to this critique, noting that only in a small amount of cases is suicide part of a depressive disorder, and that few people with depression actually kill themselves. Thus, while it is clear that psychological factors alone are not sufficient to explain suicide, Durkheim's theory leaves a certain amount of what could be called middle rage theory in question. Giddens work goes some way towards this area and at least attempts to build a bridge between the badly dichotomised individual and society, though it leaves a couple of important questions unanswered.
A good theory of suicide would not simply have social causes, that could then possibly transfer latent depressives into suicides: such a link still leaves the divide between psychological and sociological phenomenon untouched, one merely translates into the other without a consideration of their interdependence. It is not enough to consider why X commits suicide and Y does not without realising that to answer this question fully requires an understanding of why Y does not commit suicide. A good theory of suicide would be able to see the socio-cultural construction of depression that would leave to suicide in such a way that from the micro-case study broader macro-social currents could be drawn. Furthermore, a good theory of suicide would also offer a way to understand the way in which individuals constitute a society. For, as network theorists (Latour: 1997:15) have pointed out, there is a positive feedback cycle between the way individuals create society and society creates them. The idea of a social world sui generis that has somehow a separate existence to the people who constitute it cannot be maintained. That is not to deny the importance of a social world which is more than the (Durkheim: 1951:37) "sum of consciousness", with patterns in it that exceed the individual, but rather to assert that the individual and the world exist intersubjectively, as the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1976:336) would have it: acting in the world as we are acted upon by it. Thus, in a good theory of suicide we would need to understand the way in which people are constitutive of the archetypal modes that Durkheim describes.
For Halbwach (1978), the way around this problem is to understand suicide in terms of social isolation. This thesis differs from Durkheim's only in a matter of degree. Both see the rise of urban living, and the lessening of social ties in a large urban space full of strangers as productive of suicidal impulses. However, for Halbwach, it is not simply that one is alone that produces suicide. Rather, suicide is produced by social isolation: one must feel alone. Thus, he is able to read a continuity between psychological causes for suicide and social causes, for it is only those pathologies, he claims, which produce a failure of adaptation between the individual and his milieu that culminate in suicide.
His work is used well by Travis (1995) who analyses suicide rates in Alaska. He aims to address the relationship between excessive individualism and the practice of what Halbwach calls social isolation. In which circumstances does one lead to the other? How do we get to the state where, as Durkheim notes (1953:213): "if life is not worth the trouble of being lived, everything becomes a pretext to rid ourselves of it." He draws extension to the extent to which while anomie and egoism may have different sources, they are interdependent, as Durkheim notes when he says (ibid: 253): "deregulation or anomie is thus further heightened by passions being less disciplined precisely when they need more disciplining." Travis also draws attention to the extent to which both egoism and anomie result in the same end goal: social isolation, possibly leading to suicide. The interconnection of the two processes strengthens the argument that it is important to look at the type of practices Halbwach emphasises. Halbwach (1978:272) argues that rather than simply emphasising the changes in social relations that may lead to suicide, the crucial stage is to understand the changes in social persona that follow it, thus providing the bridge between psychological and sociological explanations. He notes: "grant if you will, that it is not loneliness but the sentiment one suddenly has of being alone which impels one towards suicide in all cases."
Travis notes we can find the same process even with fatalistic suicide, which he argues is far more common than Durkheim's modernist framework allows for. He notes that in La Fontaine's work among the Gisu, it is a socially recognised, if not socially approved way out difficult situations (Fontaine: 1971:174). He then argues for a great degree of fatalistic suicide in Alaska. However, his polarisation of the schemas of Halbwach and Durkheim slightly miss the point and overemphasise their difference. Travis claims that Durkheim would expect to find an increase in either social disorganisation or moral egoism to lead to an increase in suicide, while Halbwach would expect to find an increase in social isolation leading to an increase in suicide. However, given the processes he postulates for Durkheim necessarily lead to social isolation, and that social isolation also requires prior cause, it seems an overly simple dichotomisation of position.
Travis analyses Alaska, where between 1979-85 the suicide rate was 58.7/100,000 people four times the national average. This was during a period of land reform in which many Alaskans left subsistence farming and what Durkheim would call mechanical solidarity, for urban living. Travis found strong correlations between suicide rate and education and unemployment: both indicating the vision of a world one cannot access and at the same time the destruction of the previous links with a community that would provide social organisation and prevent social isolation. Male suicide rates in one area of Alaska in this period were 74.5/100,00, compared to female rates of just 19.6/100,000. He correlates this against the fact women were much more likely to marry, and men were twice as likely to be unemployed. Furthermore, women were much more likely to migrate and find a job, whereas men had much higher rates of alcoholism. Thus we can see a pattern which confirms Durkheim's' theory on suicide. Within a stable social structure or familial structure suicide is much less likely, and in this particular case unmarried female were much less likely to commit suicide than unmarried males, seemingly because of tendencies towards depression and alcoholism (egoism) in the men. Importantly, Travis then traces this tend through the disappearance of the barigs, or traditional houses were men would go to socialise and ask for help: thus he ties a Durkheimean analysis into a solid analysis of individual practice.
The importance of such an understanding is even more acute in the modern world. As Lyotard (1995:15) notes, the possibility of grand meta-narratives through which to orientate your life is increasingly difficult today. This is due to the collapse of grand organising principles in the face of an increasing relativisation of value that has occurred as capitalism has continued a process of making values equivalent to each other. In such a scenario, a process of what Beck (1997:12) calls individualising individualisation occurs, where subjects in the modern world are forced into self-accountability and creating their own narratives to account for structural problems within society. Within such a climate, it is then essential to understand the meeting point between societal stresses and the individual, because the individual is increasingly called upon to make up his own narrative to adapt to the stresses Durkheim so eloquently points out.
What one notes here is that the grand narrative emerges with the nation state and the framework of modernism that Durkheim was writing within. It is what Bauman (1999:15) notes is an "ordered totality." Within such a context, it is easy to see how one could surmise that the absence of societal ordering could lead to a crisis point where people increasingly felt without purpose. However, two postmodern conditions suggest that Durkheim's theory maybe increasingly difficult to sustain in the modern world. The first is that the postmodern condition is (Bauman: 1997:192) characterised by a ‘painful and sickening feeling of perpetual uncertainty in everything regarding the future.' The angst and absence of meaning that Durkheim takes as being indicative of suicide has become a structure of feeling that permeates society today. Yet, this feeling does not lead to suicide, rather it leads to a permanent awareness and worry about risk in society today. Thus, a theory of suicide in the (post)modern world would have to build on the basis of the impermanence of our social selves. For clearly, the type of uncertainty that Durkheim believes would lead to suicide is not alone enough to justify suicide. This is what makes the work on the relationship of the individual to the grand social structure so important for understanding suicide today, and why Halbwachs emphasis on the idea of social isolation constitutes a more promising point of departure for a sociological theory of suicide today.
The second aspect of the postmodern condition that may present difficulties for a theory based on Durkheim's is related to our first one. In a culture of extreme market liberalisation, individuals are increasingly thought of as isolated. As Baudrillard notes (1986:100), the other spheres of existence in postmodern capitalism have become increasingly circumscribed by a capitalist structure: thus religion, as we have noted, has taken on a capitalist temporality, and consumption, as Baudrillard notes, is now equivalent to production in a economy of signs. Durkheim argues that the egoist pole that may lead to suicide is characterised by extreme greed. Yet, to analyse contemporary magazines, which argue for getting what is yours and unconstrained consumerism, it is evident that we have generalised egoistic greed into a structure of society.
This is not to argue that this invalidates Durkheim theory. Rather, it is to suggest that as society has changed over the last one hundred years, the modernist assumptions Durkheim brought to bear on his study are no longer tenable today. Instead, we would require a theory that explains that the process of excessive individualism is no longer deviant, but normal. Finally, what this shift also suggests is that perhaps Durkheim understated the link between the individual and the societal structures that he lives within, and in doing so misunderstood the nature of sovereignty that put these structures in place. That he did so, given the historical conditions this essay described in chapter II.I, is entirely understandable. He created a framework for suicide within the modernist conception of societal power, which drew on the legacy of social Darwinism to suggest that, despite the fact the move to an urban capitalist society lessened mechanical ties between people (Durkheim: 1933), the division of labour and increasing efficiency this brought were to be looked on as positive steps. The three modern case studies I will now look at suggest this is not necessarily the case, and it will be argued that part of the weakness of Durkheim's theory of suicide lies in this misunderstanding of modern sovereignty.
IV. Suicide: Case Studies
IV. I The Holocaust Camps
Primo Levi notes that suicide in the Nazi concentration camps was rare (Levi: 1995:120), a conclusion that he shares with Hannah Arendt (1973:252). This is a hard conclusion to substantiate. Douglas (1967) notes many of the difficulties in collecting suicide statistics generally. Authorities may wish to play down suicides, and so replace suicide with unknown cause of death: what counts as a suicide is ambiguous: there is no culprit against whom we can verify that this was indeed a suicide. This was especially the case with the Nazi authorities in the concentration camps. Stark (2001:94) notes that it was not in the interests of the camp commanders to declare suicides as such, as it showed a spirit of resistance alive in the inmates of the camp. Furthermore, what one could understand as a suicide is a murky area: if a camp inmate walked up to the electrified fence then they would be shot as it was thought they were attempting to escape: however, given this would be certain death, can we really claim this was not a suicide?
In the camps, it is not simply deciding what is a suicide that is difficult; it is even beginning to attempt to understand the problematic of suicide that is difficult. Stark (2001) argues that to try to understand the suicide patterns in the concentration camps sociologically is mistaken, as the camp constitutes an exception to normal regimes of power. In Durkheim, suicide occurs as a lack of the social (be it the egoism of thinking for yourself or the anomie of not being restrained by the social). In the camp, so Stark would argue, there is no social as such. In Levi's (1995:150) famed descriptions of how inmates were not treated as people, but as animals, or worse, simply numbers, suicide would seem an absurdity. For numbers do not commit suicide, and nor do animals. Thus, Arendt (1978:118) is able to comment on the place of the suicide in the camp, and say:
Perhaps the philosophers are right who teach that suicide is the last and supreme guarantee of human freedom: not being free to create our lives in the world in which we live, we nevertheless are free to throw life away and to leave the world. A commitment to something higher…
For Arendt here suicide appears as the possibility of retaining something sacred in a world where one has been condemned to be placed outside the sphere of the human. This cannot really be explained as excessive regulation, as an eager Durkheimean might, because of the hope implied in the statement: that there is the possibility to commit to something higher is not coherent with a suicide theory of fatalism. Indeed, Durkheim seems to have even less place here because one's relationship with death has changed so drastically. As we noted in chapter II.I, Durkheim created his theory in the spirit of a modernism that prized productive life, and suicide was linked to satanic possession, both for reasons of Christian inheritance and because it was contrary to the ethos of production running through modernism. This is very different to the legacy of the camps, where (Améry: 1977:32):
One was hardly concerned with whether, or that, one had to die, but only with how it would happen. Inmates carried on conversations about how long it probably takes for the gas in the gas chambers to do its job. One speculated on the painfulness of death by phenol injections. Were you to wish yourself a blow to the skull or a slow death through exhaustion in the infirmary? It was characteristic for the situation of the prisoner in regard to death that only a few decided to “run to the wire,” as one said, that is, to commit suicide (Selbstmord begehen) through contact with the highly electrified barbed wire. Dying (Sterben) was omnipresent, death (Tod) vanished from sight.
It is interesting to note that death was thought to have vanished from site: which is to say death no longer represented something but had become a generalisable structure. Death promises an end, and with each end, a new beginning is promised. What was attempted to be destroyed in the camps was that possibility of a new beginning. As Arendt notes (1973:250):
For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environments and events. Nothing then remains but ghastly marionettes with human faces. . . .
Suicide here takes on an ontological structure: rather than being something of hope, of the possibility that, (however terrible it is) it will end, it becomes a statement of the impossibility of registering the historical event at all. This is what Agamben (1995:175) calls the ‘impossibility of bearing witness.' The notion of suicide in the concentration camp seems very far away from the structure of suicide in the society that Durkheim deals with, and in the other societies we have looked at in this essay so far. To summarise the difference, we could say that Durkheim deals with the nomos, the normal, and the camp is the exception to this nomos.
However, what this essay will suggest is that there is a strong connection between Durkheimean modernism and the concentration camp. To recall the first section of this essay, we argued that reason placed suicide as something abnormal and outside of itself in order for it to be an object to study. As such, we can say that suicide proves an exception. It is an exception in that only a few people do it, even though many feel the same symptoms (e.g. of egoism) and it is an exception in that in has been constructed by reason as a category (along with those other forms of unreason: madness and satanic possession), yet it is outside reason. In this is follows the description of an exception that Agamben (ibid: 25) makes: "the exception is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a member and cannot be a member of the whole in which it is always already included." What we see in the concentration camp is that the exception becomes the generalisable rule. For example, it was the announcement by the Nazi government of a state of exception that made possible the camps creation. The camp was outside of normal juridical space, and yet it had been a juridical decision that had made this possible: law is suspended and the originary violence that makes law possible is at very place confused with the law.
Durkheim assumes that the creation of the nomos of the sui generis social space is a totalising unity. Yet when analysing suicide he places the act itself as exterior to this place: it is provoked by changes in it, but it could never be provoked by it, as a thing in itself. The primary reason for this is a shift that has been documented by Foucault (1979). The domain of the sovereign power ceases to be that which controls death and violence with the onset of the Enlightenment and the modernist project. Through a series of institutions that controlled and regimented people, and through a series of new sciences with which people were analysed and placed under surveillance, the proper place of power became that over life itself. It became what Agamben calls (1995) the ability to act on bare life itself.
This does not start from an unproblematic totality, as Durkheim has it: rather it starts off from the state of exception: that place where law is necessarily suspended in order to impose the possibility of law. As Agamben notes (1995, 2002), the camp is the nomos of the modern. This unveils an area of analysis that Durkheim discarded and that scholars of modernity are only recently beginning to analyse. If we understand modernity rather than as an ordered totality, as Bauman argued, but as a state of exception, then we begin to see that suicide as a phenomenon is treated with such horror by Durkheim and other modernist writers because they wish to exclude both the religious and violent elements of sovereignty from their analysis. While space does not permit me to more than suggest how this change in sovereignty might effect the analysis of suicide, we can provide some suggestions. Namely, that rather than treating suicide as an external phenomenon, we can understand how is it produced by the radical inclusion that places it outside of life. We can then begin to see how it can be a reaction against the control sovereignty places over life itself. For instance, we see that Durkheim considers the principles forms of suicide to be anomie and egoism, which are both thought of as a lack of social order. Yet, if we understand with Foucault that order creates not simply rules but the nature of the subject that obeys the rules, and with Agamben that sovereign power is constituted by an exception, and then we can understand that the lack Durkheim describes is actually produced by social control and is part of it. An example of this sort of sovereignty, and the reaction to it, the impossibility of bearing witness to that control, can be seen in our next case study.
IV.II Suicide Bombers
As Hage (2003) notes, modern society refuses to understand suicide bombers. Every statement about them must be first prefaced with the comment "of course I condemn them absolutely." Understanding is driven by an inclusionary impulse. Even in the case of the statement, ‘know thy enemy', one is prepared to begrudge one's enemy the respect enough to acknowledge him as an enemy, as an Other. Contrast this with the situation in the concentration camps, where the Jews were marked by the Nazi's not as enemies, but as that, which is not, that which is completely outside. In an analogous sense today, modern society tries to exclude suicide bombers from a framework of comprehension. In most news broadcasts, they embody radical evil, or at best hatred: suicide bombings are placed out of the social world that makes them thinkable. Yet, in many senses suicide bombings in the occupied territories today are precisely marks of humanity. Against a hegemonic state that has even monopolised victimhood, the suicide bombing reacts against this hegemony with what Arendt noted above as a sign of life, a commitment to something higher. This case study will analyse how well we can understand suicide bombers using Durkheim's theory of suicide.
The most common reading of suicide bombing by the left in Europe is to understand it as a form of fatalistic suicide. In Durkheim's theory this would be caused by an over regulation of society such that the individual has no options. This could be argued is the case because the hegemonic Israeli state deprives any possibility of individual advancement to Palestinians. Such an attitude is behind the typical comment on the European left of: "what other choice do they have." However, this essay will argue such an argument is deterministic and mistakes a historical political configuration for an existential crisis and risks depriving the Palestinian suicide bombers of the content of their political acts. This would also be the case with any other application of Durkheimean notions of fatalism to political acts of suicide.
What is important to utilise from Durkheim is the notion of a social fact. As Hage (2003:67) notes: "[suicide bombing] is a social tendency emanating from within colonized Palestinian society and as such has to be explained not as an individual psychological aberration but as the product of specific social conditions." Without being placed in a framework of a larger social body then suicide bombing risks being reduced to deficient mental activity among Arabs. This is backed up by a study (ibid.: op.cit) carried out by the psychologist Abu-Hin Asked in the Gaza Strip. He notes that 40% of youth are involved in the intifada and 70% wanted to be martyrs. To understand such a process we would have to understand suicide as productive, and this entails many difficulties for a Durkheimean theory that assumes suicide is that which is destructive and negative, that which is completely outside our (rational) selves. To create such an understanding we need to analyse the way in which the Al Aqsa martyrs monopolise weapons creation and the effective political organisation in many of the areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
However, it is too simple to understand suicide bombing as something produced by an institutionalised practice that takes young boys and then produces them as weapons utilising a mythology as propaganda. It is vital to understand how suicide bombing, paradoxically given it is supposed to be a cult of death, produces life. In the Israeli hegemony in the occupied territories, the problem is not simply that people are killed and work is restricted as more land is occupied. The problem is that the Palestinians are not allowed to have a political voice: they are treated as something completely external to the Israeli ethnic state; as something external to the notion of the citizen. The suicide bombing opens up Israeli society and shows it to be vulnerable. In doing so it opens the ground for a consideration of the Palestinians as human, as both are suffering, both are inflicting pain on each other, both deserve to call each other then enemy. Suicide bombing then, in the sense that we note Arendt talk about suicide bombing earlier, is a sign of life, a commitment to something higher.
While in many respects this analysis is correct is runs the risk of both normalising the violence and not drawing sufficient attention to its sociological aspects, to the way suicide bombing is produced by a social fact. It is interesting to note that Giacanna Ford (op. cit. Hage: 2003:78) found very low rates of other suicide in the West Bank. This would be in line with Durkheim's theory that in times of political crisis there is a strong collective will to band together and thus low suicide rates. Given this collective will it would be possible to read the suicide bombers as a product of altruistic suicide, caused by such strong collective sentiment that the suicide bombers lessen the value they place on their own individual lives. However, this would be to ignore the continuity between the Intifada and suicide bombing, and to ignore the way individual power is achieved through the suicide bombing.
The youth culture of the Intifada is highly competitive. Deprived of all other means of acquiring symbolic capital in a place with little opportunities for work or education, symbolic capital can be earned during the Intifada. What is important to note is that the small acts one can engage in to create symbolic capital, such as throwing rocks at tanks, already contain the seed of the suicide bomber: throwing a rock at a tank is already an action tinged with suicide. As we noted above, this clashes badly with Durkheimean notions of suicide as a destruction. Yet, it is in these acts of suicide, that, paradoxically, purpose and meaning in life is achieved. To understand it in a Durkheimean sense we would perhaps have to argue the youths involved in the Intifada die an early social death and the eschatology of hope promised by suicide bombing offers resurrection after an early death.
As one accumulates meaning through such acts, one can understand the continuity with suicide bombing. For to see the pictures of the martyrs all over the West Bank and Gaza, and to be part of the huge funeral processions, is to realise that in death one is given a redemptive status denied to one in life. As Bourdieu notes (1991:43) "the social world, gives what is rarest, recognition, consideration, in other words, quite simply, reasons for being. It is capable of giving meaning to life, and to death itself, by consecrating it as the supreme sacrifice." Suicide bombing then, presents a problem for Durkheimeian theories of suicide because the act of suicide does not stem from a lack of meaning in life but rather from life's very meaning. This meaning is not simply a final culmination, a refusal to die the way of Israeli choosing. Rather, as Pascal (Bourdieu: 2000:240) notes "through the social games it offers, the social world provides something more and other than the apparent stakes: the chase." The possibility of martyrdom offers focus and definition in life up to that point; it is a pursuit of death that is actually a pursuit of life.
This remains unintelligible however, unless placed against the background of internalised violence the Palestinians have to suffer in the occupied territories. It is perhaps what Canetti (2000:327) names the sting. This is that force left by the command that can only dislodge itself "when it reacquires force equal to that with which it originally penetrated." However, both of these aspects of suicide remain unable to be explained by Durkheim's theory. As we have seen in this section, suicide bombing turns on an understanding of sovereignty in which being over regulated is a far greater problem than being under regulated. Indeed, as we observed in the last section on the holocaust, it is perhaps a far greater problem people suffer in general being over regulated than Durkheim understands given his limited notion of sovereignty. Finally, we can see that Durkheimean notions fail to appreciate the possibility of suicide being a positive, rather than destructive force, and they fail to make the required political links necessary to understand Palestinian suicide bombing. Thus, we can state that in this case Durkheim's hypothesis has limited utility.
Euthanasia presents another strange case for Durkheimean theory. There are clearly parallels that can be made within Durkheim's theory of suicide. For instance, in the case of the old age pensioner who requests that a Doctor assist her suicide, we can perhaps see an example of altruistic suicide, if she no longer wants to be a burden on her family and sees that collective power as more important than her own life. Similarly, the athlete who is no consigned to a bed for the rest of his life after a horrible accident and who then asks a doctor to end his life can be understood as an suicide of the ego, as his life has lost its moorings in meaning. Thus, the latter cases could also be termed a suicide of anomie because it could be equally be argued that the athlete had lost contact with his social world (the sporting world), illustrating the slippage between the two.
That said, there is a problematic distinction between euthanasia and suicide. While both maybe forms of ending your life, and both have reasons rooted in the social world, on the level of the individual there remains a distinction. While this distinction does not invalidate sociological analysis, it does make it more complicated. Euthanasia is a legal term to define assisted suicide: as such it is not a period of social isolation as suicide is, nor is it a period of anomie: as it is precisely contact with the social world, indeed, with the state, that requires the contact necessary to end one's life. Thus, due to the involvement of the state and the intense social process involved in euthanasia, this essay will argue that what we can understand about euthanasia from suicide is limited to the broadest sociological statements.
This essay has analysed Durkheim's theory of suicide. There are a great many ambiguities and problems with this theory. Its confusion over regulation and interpretation do not constitute a problem more than a problematic over which new notions of the relationship between society and the individual can be explored. This is also the case with many of the problems the theory has with a changing, more reflexive set of circumstances: they indicate a challenge to sociologist to rethink Durkheim's text through afresh. As such, it can teach us a lot about modern society as a tool to think with, and as we see from the work of Travis and Pescosolido, it is still a great tool of sociological method.
However, Its essentialist treatment of nature and women make it difficult to sustain theoretically. Most importantly, its erroneous analysis of the nature of political sovereignty in modernity means Durkheim's theory needs to be reconceptualised very fully so that the extent to which society is responsible for the category suicide, like for the category mad, is revealed.
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