Ryan : History of Sociological Thought
Durkheim : Suicide
Why did s/he do it? Wrong question. No matter what the answer you can find many examples (our grandmothers coming in handy this time) of people with the same "symptoms" or "causes" who do not commit suicide. So, what do we do? Just chalk it up as something some people decide to do? This won't do because suicide rates show patterns. The numbers go up and down and they vary from place to place, from group to group, in ways that look anything but random.
Canary in a coal mine. Perhaps folks who do something like commit suicide, engage in road rage, kill lots of kids at school are just the most sensitive among us to underlying social forces, aggregate tendencies in the group. Everyone on the highway is getting more and more on edge. Some folks, though, also have bad days at work. And some of them also happen to have guns in their cars. It's not that the individuals are more volatile, but they are in a structural situation that lets them react more quickly to what's going on around them.
Durkheim on suicide
Suicide as "obviously" an individual act. It reflects a person's state of mind. If we've known anyone who has committed suicide we are often perplexed and angry and etc. but we often arrive at an "explanation" – they were depressed, despondent, saw no hope in the future, etc.
But remember the parable of the 14th floor and the canary in the coal mine. Fight the urge to focus on the single case. Here's what is SOCIOLOGICALLY INTERESTING about suicide.
Differences by religion, occupation, region. Look at world map, etc.
These patterns are social facts. Durkheim's dictum is "explain social facts with social facts." Our individualistic urge is to try to explain why anyone commits suicide – the implication being that it is not a normal thing to do. But even though it is not a healthy thing to do for the individual, from a sociological point of view, SUICIDE IS NORMAL. It happens in all societies of all types. (We might even worry about a society in which there was no suicide at all, but that's a different question. Following another line of thought in Durkheim we might say that if suicide decreased too much we would start calling things like not eating well a form of suicide, but again, that's for another day.)
Logic of Suicide
Durkheim found, for example:
What do these patterns suggest. Role of social ties. Too little tie to the group and the "other causes" of suicide are more likely to have an effect.
But troublesome cases:
moderate groups < cults/extremists/high commitment organizations (e.g., strong tie organizations)
This suggests: both over and under integration are problems
Look at another set of
patterns. Suppose we see high rates in people who go bankrupt. OK, but
we also see high rates in people who win the lottery. And among people
indicted for crimes. And among those recently released from jail or
discharged from the military
or retiring. Here the causes seems to be sudden lack of structure or
of structures one has depended on.
Types of Suicide
Source: WHO http://www5.who.int/mental_health/main.cfm?p=0000000148
Rate of Suicide in the United States, 1990–94
NOTE: Per 100,000 population. Adjusted to the age, sex, and race/ethnicity distribution of the 1980 U.S. population.
Textbook Quotes of Note
||"The Normalcy of Crime" in Sociological
|n.a.||Durkheim Notes from UChicago Prelims Library [http://www.spc.uchicago.edu/ssr1/PRELIMS/Theory/durkheim.html]|
||The Emile Durkheim
(Caution -- free website that sends popup window ads with page)
||Durkheim @ The Dead
Sociologists Society [http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~Elridener/DSS/INDEX.HTML#durkheim]