The Social Causes of Suicide and Durkheim's Theory

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Durkheim was a functionalist, and theorised that a holistic social narrative could be identified which would explain individual behaviour. He argued that, whilst society was made up of its members, it was greater than the sum of its parts, and was an external pressure that determined the behaviour of the individuals within it. At that time, suicide rates in Europe were rising, and so the causes of suicide were on the agenda. Since suicide is seen as an intrinsically personal and individual action, establishing it as having societal causes would be a strong defence for Durkheim’s functionalist perspective. Durkheim used the comparative method to study the official suicide rates of various European countries. While he was not the first to notice the patterns and proportional changes of suicide rates between different groups in European societies, it was this fact that was the foundation of his theory – why did some groups consistently have much higher rates than others? This supports the idea that it was the external pressures placed on certain groups within society that induced higher rates of suicide, and is the basis of Durkheim’s work. Durkheim identified four causes of suicide: egoism, altruism, anomie and fatalism. Key to all of these was the focus on integration and regulation. Egoistic suicides occurred with low integration, altruistic with excessive; anomic suicides with low regulation, and fatalistic with excessive. He distinguishes between the ‘pre-modern’ suicides – altruism and fatalism, and the ‘modern’ suicides – egoism and anomie. The transition, he claims, from pre- to modern society has led to individualism, through greater social and economic mobility, and urbanisation. This personal autonomy has led to lesser... ... middle of paper ... ... the evidence changed in his later works). He has been widely criticised for his use of official statistics, which are open to interpretation and subject to possibly systematic misreporting, and therefore may not represent the true pattern or rates of suicide. It is also argued that he was confused between the distinction between egoism and anomie, and that he failed to substantiate his claims of the existence of altruism and fatalism; this is argued to such an extent that it has even been suggested that there is only one cause of suicide (egoism) that Durkheim could claim to be true. However, whilst acknowledging some of Durkheim’s own contradictions or confusions, some sociologists have gone on to develop and substantiate the ideas that he developed, and there is no denying that his study of suicide is a far-reaching and legacy-building work of substantial value.

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