Book Report

Durkheim’s intention was to explain the apparently ”individual” act of suicide in terms of society’s influences. His approach was based on a distinction between individual cases of suicide and society’s, or “social groups”, suicide rates. According to Durkheim, the stability and consistency in suicide rates was an irreducible “social fact” which could only be understood sociologically. Social facts are collective phenomena, which hold back individual behavior. For Durkheim, societies hold back individuals in two ways. First, by binding them to each other to a greater extent through shared membership of social institutions (integration). Second, by providing specific goals and means for attaing them (regulation).

Durkheim developed four types of suicide from his conception of social and moral order. Egoistic suicide is the weakening of the ties binding the individual to society, producing an “excess of individualism”. Which in times of crisis, can leave the individual isolated, feeling a lack of support and more vulnerable to depression and ultimately suicide. Altruistic suicide, which is the opposite of egoistic suicide, the individual’s ego, rather than being to great, is to weak to resist the demands of social custom to commit suicide. Anomie suicide is a result of a person’s activity “lacking in regulation”. Durkheim distinguished between acute and chronic anomie. Acute anomie may be the result of some sudden crisis, such as an economic crisis. Chronic anomie is the result of a more gradual development of modern societies where individuals are increasingly placed into situations of competition with each other.

Durkheim used similarities between suicide rates and various rates of external association to show the existence of his key causal concepts. For example, the statistics showed that Catholic areas had consistently lower suicide rates than Protestant areas; people who were married with children were less inclined to suicide than the single or childless; and a society\'s suicide rate fell in times of war or political upheaval. Durkheim was not arguing that the differences in religion, family life or political activity were \'factors\' influencing suicide. Rather he was saying that the relationship between suicide and religious, domestic and political life were the invisible underlying causes of suicide.

Durkheim used similarities between increased suicide rates and periods of economic fluctuation to illustrate the existence of anomic suicide. In times of rapid economic change an increasing number of people find themselves in altered situations where the norms and values by which they had previously lived their lives becomes less relevant and the resulting state of moral deregulation, or anomie, leaves them more vulnerable to suicide. So, Durkheim was able to argue from his research that, even though suicide appears to be a purely individual phenomenon, its underlying causes are essentially social. As Raymond Aron (1968), summarizing Durkheim\'s achievement, put it, "There are, therefore, specific social phenomena which govern individual phenomena. The most impressive, most eloquent example is that of the social forces which drive individuals to their deaths, each one believing they are obeying only themselves" (p. 34).

Although Durkheim\'s work had a significant influence on future sociological studies of suicide and the development of sociology generally, it is important to bear in mind the limitations of this influence and the many criticisms that have been made of Suicide (see, e.g. Lester, 1992). In the sociology of suicide, as in most areas within the health field, a broad distinction can be made between positivist studies of social causation and neo-phenomenological studies of social construction. Curiously, neither perspective accepts Durkheim\'s approach. Positivist researchers, while generally approving of Durkheim\'s attempt to correlate suicide rates with social variables, have quite legitimately claimed that Durkheim\'s key concepts of social integration and regulation were defined too loosely to allow for proper empirical testing. Therefore, in imperialistic terms, the theory was not \'scientific\' because it could never be \'refuted\' by the evidence.

Phenomenologists, questioning the very idea of trying to explain suicide sociologically, have honed in on Durkheim\'s uncritical acceptance of official suicide rates. Research by Douglas (1967) and Atkinson (1978) into the \'social construction\' of suicide statistics has shown how certain types of death (for example hangings and drownings) and certain evidence from the deceased\'s past (for example, depression, social problems, isolation) act as \'suicidal cues\' which, taken together, enable officials to construct a suicidal biography which would then legitimize a suicide verdict. Atkinson,