Ryan : History of Sociological Thought

 Durkheim : Suicide


  • One of three books written in a productive 4 year period 1893-1897 (along with Division of Labor and Suicide).
  • In DoL Durkheim showed that sociology had something to add to the account provided by utilitarians.
  • Here, Durkheim showed that it was possible to explain what seemed to be an individual phenomenon in terms of sociological variables.
  • In Rules, Durkheim wants to delineate what sociology is good for (what its object of study is) and how to do it.


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

  1. Suicide is normal
  2. Patterns and variations exist – quantitatively discernible
  3. We make comparisons
    1. A>B
    2. B>C
    3. D>E
  4. Qualitatively look at the comparisons
  5. Suggest social cause.

Durkheim found, for example:

  • Catholics < Protestants
  • Married < Single, widowed, divorced
  • With Children < Without children
  • Densely Populated < Sparsely populated

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 loss of structures one has depended on.

Types of Suicide

Excess Regulation
Insufficient Regulation

Acute ecomomic anomie
Chronic economic anomie
Acute domestic anomie
Chronic domestic anomie

  1. "Acute ecomomic anomie: sporadic decreases in the ability of traditional institutions (such as religion, guilds, pre-industrial social systems, etc.) to regulate and fulfill social needs.
  2. "Chronic economic anomie: long term dimunition of social regulation. Durkheim identified this type with the ongoing industrial revolution, which eroded traditional social regulators and often failed to replace them. Industrial goals of wealth and property were insufficient in providing happiness, as was demonstrated by higher suicide rates among the wealthy than among the poor.
  3. "Acute domestic anomie: sudden changes on the microsocial level resulted in an inability to adapt and therefore higher suicide rates. Widowhood is a prime example of this type of anomie.
  4. "Chronic domestic anomie: referred to the way marriage as an institution regulated the sexual and behavioral means-needs balance among men and women. Marriage provided different regulations for each, however. Bachelors tended to commit suicide at higher rates than married men because of a lack of regulation and established goals and expectations. On the other hand, marriage has traditionally served to overregulate the lives of women by further restricting their already limited opportunities and goals. Unmarried women, therefore, do not experience chronic domestic anomie nearly as often as do unmarried men" [http://durkheim.itgo.com/suicide.html].

Excess Integration
Excess Individualism

  "Egoisitic suicide resulted from too little social integration. Those individuals who were not sufficiently bound to social groups (and therefore well-defined values, traditions, norms, and goals) were left with little social support or guidance, and therefore tended to commit suicide on an increased basis. An example Durkheim discovered was that of unmarried people, particularly males, who, with less to bind and connect them to stable social norms and goals, committed suicide at higher rates than unmarried people.

"The second type, Altruistic suicide, was a result of too much integration. It occurred at the opposite end of the integration scale as egoistic suicide. Self sacrifice was the defining trait, where individuals were so integrated into social groups that they lost sight of their individuality and became willing to sacrifice themselves to the group's interests, even if that sacrifice was their own life. The most common cases of altruistic suicide occurred among members of the military" [http://durkheim.itgo.com/suicide.html].

Source: WHO http://www5.who.int/mental_health/main.cfm?p=0000000148

Source: WHO http://www5.who.int/mental_health/main.cfm?p=0000000021

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 United States is a society dominated by individualistic explanations of human behavior that seek to understand problems and processes by focusing exclusively on the personality, psychology, or even the anatomy of each individual. (5.7)
  • [T]he sociological imagination allows us to recognize that the solutions to many of our most serious social problems lie not in changing the personal situations and characteristics of individual people but in changing the social institutions and roles available to them. (9.7)
  • Lesson : A significant fraction of the behavior of individuals is not individual behavior.
  • Balancing "blame social structure" with "consider structural explanations"

Supplementary Readings

Collins, Randall
"The Normalcy of Crime" in Sociological Insight
n.a. Durkheim Notes from UChicago Prelims Library [http://www.spc.uchicago.edu/ssr1/PRELIMS/Theory/durkheim.html]
The Emile Durkheim Archive  [http://durkheim.itgo.com/main.html] (Caution -- free website that sends popup window ads with page)
Ridener, Larry
Durkheim @ The Dead Sociologists Society [http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~Elridener/DSS/INDEX.HTML#durkheim]