Durkheim methodological principles in studying suicide?

Durkheim methodological principles in studying suicide?

How does Durkheim apply his methodological principles in studying suicide?

Emile Durkheim was an empiricist and sought to identify social trends through scientific and strictly quantitative means. In ‘Rules of Sociological Research Method' (Durkheim, 1938), Durkheim refers to ‘social facts', and emphasises their importance in understanding society. He identifies social facts as collective forces, external from an individual member of a society. As he asserts, social facts are to be “studied empirically, not philosophically” (Ritzer, p.78). Durkheim distinguished between social facts, dividing them into the material and non-material. Material social facts manifest themselves in the form of concrete institutions or social structures; for example, religious organisations or systems of law. It is, however, nonmaterial social facts, on which sociologists largely focus. Durkheim identified nonmaterial social facts as facts not grounded in material reality, but based on systems of norms and values. In order to study such facts sociologically and not philosophically Durkheim argued that the sociologist must first “examine material social facts that reflect the nature of, and changes in, nonmaterial social facts.” (Smith, p.119). It is largely upon this method on which Durkheim was to base his later study of suicide. As Hadden notes, social facts can be either normal or pathological. Normal social facts, more common than the pathological, assist in the maintenance of society. Pathological facts are often associated with social problems and deviance from the norm. Suicide is a resounding example.

‘Suicide' (Durkheim, 1951) is considered one of the great pioneering works of sociological study. Durkheim was keen to attribute the theory of social fact to the understanding of the act of suicide. He argued that despite the seemingly personal nature of the act, suicide was not governed merely by an individual's psyche or thought process. His study was based on the analysis of official government statistics. Durkheim proposed a detailed and methodologically complex process for the understanding of suicide. He places great emphasis on first defining the word ‘suicide', and analysing it with strict objectivity. He asserts that “‘Suicide' is the term applied to any case of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act, carried out by the victim himself, which he was aware would produce this result” (Durkheim, 2006, p.19). He argues that at any moment in time, a given society has a definite aptitude for suicide. “The relative intensity of this aptitude is measured by taking the relationship between the total number of voluntary deaths and the population of every age and both sexes” (Durkheim, 2006, p.24). This numerical data illustrates the “rate of suicide mortality peculiar to the society in question” (Durkheim, 2006, p.24). Henceforth, as demonstrated through its permanence and variability, the suicide rate is a definite, factual order. Durkheim's methodology is intrinsically empirical. A particular society's disposition towards suicide cannot be understood merely by studying the relation between suicide and the data. Patterns and trends in data are insufficient in explaining suicide rates. In short, the cause of suicide is social and the observed empirical trends constitute a means of identifying underlying causes. His reasoning is based on fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of society. He perceived society as organic, with every institution serving a specific purpose in the maintenance of social order

Durkheim studied, amongst other factors, religious and seasonal explanations of suicide. His comparative methodology allowed him to establish patterns and trends across societies and throughout history. He established, for example, that global suicide rates were, without exception, greater in the summer months. He argues, with supportive evidence, that suicide rates rise during the summer months “not because the heat exercises a disturbing effect on organisms, but because social life is more intense” (Durkheim, 2006, p. 114). Similarly, with regard to religion, Durkheim finds suicide rates to be higher amongst predominantly Protestant countries. Having studied religious doctrines, Durkheim asserts that suicide is not more or less condemned by Protestantism than Catholicicsm. He again concluded that social organisation was responsible for the difference in suicide rate. He linked this theory to family structure, arguing that a greater degree in integration resulted in a lesser suicide rate (Giddens, 1971, p.83). Durkheim acknowledges that neither the nature of the physical environment, nor the physical and mental make-up of an individual suffice in explaining a social group's specific tendency towards suicide. That is, the suicide rate, as a social fact, is dependent on “social causes and constitute[s] a collective phenomenon in itself.” (Durkheim, 2006, p.147). Thus, he attributes suicide, globally and historically, to degrees of levels of integration and regulation in a society. He defined regulation as “the degree of external constraint on people” and integration as the “degree to which collective sentiments are shared” (Ritzer, 1992, p.90). .

The theory of integration and regulation is better understood through Durkheim's four-fold classification of suicide. The first, Egoistic suicide, occurs when levels of integration in a society are low. And indeed, with regard to religion, Durkheim asserts; “if there is one essential difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, it is that the latter allows a great deal more freedom of inquiry than the former does”. Individuals with little social guidance, Durkheim considered more likely to commit suicide. He cites unmarried men as an example, arguing that their lack of stable norms and goals are responsible for the increased suicide rate. Contrastingly, Durkheim found rates of egoistic suicide to fall around times of great social change. 1884 saw widespread revolution across Europe; Durkheim cited political turbulence and the outbreak of war as being responsible for the decreased rates. At such times, groups or societies become more tightly integrated, as they strive for collective stability or political dominance. Egoistic suicide often results from a feeling of meaningless amongst individuals and is thus less likely to occur in a traditional, mechanically solid society.

Altruistic suicide occurs when levels of integration are too great. Durkheim explains that if the collective conscience is too strong, then the individual is essentially forced into committing suicide. Ritual suicides serve an example of where an individual may feel it their duty to commit suicide. (Ritzer 1992, p.91). Durkheim studied the old and sick, arguing their rates of altruistic suicide to yield from a sense of hope and belief in sanctity after death.

Anomie refers to a breakdown in social integration, resulting in an abandonment of morals and values. Durkheim states; “It is a known fact that economic crises have an aggravating influence on suicide.” (Durkheim, 2006, p.262). The stock market crash of the 1930s spawned an anomic social current, whereby, subject to a disintegration of norms and values, individuals felt rootless and misguided. Without regulation, ‘unlimited desires are, by definition, impossible to satisfy and it is with good reason that insatiability is considered a sign of morbidity.' (Durkheim, 2006, p270).

Fatalistic suicide, a mere footnote in Durkheim's original book, is often overlooked as a further explanation. In a state of intense regulation, the aspiration to escape and the reality of repression results in a situation whereby an individual's future is “pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline" (Durkheim 1951, p. 276). In an attempt to superficially regain control over oneself or rebel against captors, prisoners of war may yield to fatalistic social currents. Durkheim's classification system is based wholly upon official statistics and data which he was able to compare across countries, social groups and periods of history. His methodology allowed him to identify trends and social patterns, drawing his conclusions regarding suicide from established generalisations.

Though Durkheim's study of suicide is critically acclaimed, sociologists have cited methodological flaws. A functionalist, Durkheim has been criticised for his view of structured societal solidarity. His theory of the collective conscience suggests that as individuals, we are governed by and inherently accept social facts. Durkheim's work relies on a consensus model of society and, as a result, he largely ignores conflict among social groups. Sociologists may argue that he fails to take into account political, material and indeed social inequalities in his study. As a consensus theorist, Durkheim essentially assumes that individuals will inherently adhere to, without question, the norms and values to which they are accustomed. Marxists, and other conflict theorists, would simply argue this not to be the case. Similarly, Weberians or symbolic interactionists may assert that Durkheim fails to take into account deviance or the notions of human motivation and action in his study.

The validity of Durkheim's study has also been questioned due to his sole reliance on official statistics as a source of data. As official statistics are collected by the government, the data may be subject to internal bias. Official statistics are socially constructed, and, when studying them, one must consider the purpose of the data, accounting for the political, social and economic motivations of the researcher[s]. The British government, for example, several times have changed the definition of ‘unemployed'. As a result of these changes, the rate in unemployment has appeared to fall. Whether or not these statistics actually represent or merely masque reality is subject to debate. With reference to suicide, Atkinson illustrates problems associated with data collection. He asserts that, as social constructions, statistics on suicide merely reflect the behaviour of coroners, relatives etc. and their respective definitions of the act (Atkinson, 1978). Furthermore, as official statistics are collected for the purpose of government analysis, definitions and classifications may not be appropriate for sociological research.

Prior to ‘Suicide' (Durkheim, 1951), academics had long sought to identify the real cause of suicide. Psychologists had studied the mental state of victims and others attempted to explain rates through race, climate etc. Durkheim's alternative approach and consummate methodology proved highly successful in identifying and explaining historical and societal changes in the rate of suicide. From a methodological perspective, ‘Suicide' (Durkheim, 1951) is an exemplary text in illustrating the testing of hypotheses and the rejection of invalid explanations for suicide. His control of extraneous factors and rigorous method of comparison facilitate the identification of social trends, and underlying social currents affecting the suicide rate. Durkheim's investigation into suicide and groundbreaking methodology is greatly respected by sociologists, with many common approaches to sociology deriving, at least in part, from his work.

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