Blog #1: Durkheim and suicide

Durkheim wanted to prove that suicide was not an individual act, as was previously thought by leading scientists of his time. Accordingly, his theory was that suicide was a social fact that was tied to social structures. In order to test his theory he studied suicide rates across time and place. Once he had completed his preliminary research and analyses, he came to the conclusion that, despite major differences in suicide rates between individual societies, rates within a society remained stable over time.

Although Durkheim’s theory has contributed a lot towards the understanding of suicide from the social standpoint, I believe his theory of suicide is too one sided. He laid too much stress on the social factor, and didn’t take into account other possible contributing factors. For example, he doesn’t examine the biological or personal aspects of the deceased. After doing some research, I found that his study of suicide has been criticized by many researchers. As an example, Van Poppel and Day stated that “differences in suicide rates between Catholics and Protestants were explicable entirely in terms of how deaths were categorized between the two social groups. For instance, while “sudden deaths” or “deaths from ill-defined or unspecified cause” would often be recorded as suicides among Protestants, this would not be the case for Catholics.” In this regard, Durkheim would have committed an empirical error. If these two religions categorized death differently, Durkheim’s findings may have been affected.

One response to “Blog #1: Durkheim and suicide

  1. Excellent investigative work on Durkheim’s SUICIDE, S! That’s a powerful criticism. It points to a not uncommon flaw in historical-comparative studies: inconsistency in the accuracy of sources, in this case, systematic under-reporting of a whole class of events. So it’s not that Protestants were necessarily more likely to suicide, just more likely to label the acts as suicide, whereas Catholics may have killed themselves just as frequently, only they were less likely to report it.

    To clarify the design of Durkheim’s study of suicide, the point was to show that this individual, psychological act had social roots, not so much to say individual (or biological) factors are meaningless, only to connect them with social conditions. His conclusion is different than what’s presented above. He set up a series of long-term historical comparisons among countries, religions, occupations, and household structures. He observed differences and fluctuations in suicide rates. In particular, his aggregate country data showed periodic sudden escalations in suicide rates, which correlated with events such as economic downturns and booms. Many economists and sociologists characterize the period since the 1970s as especially volatile, featuring more frequent and extreme “booms” and “busts.”

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