Functionalist view of suicide

Published: 2021-06-18 20:00:05
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Category: Suicide

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Suicide is the intentional taking of one’s own life and sociologists over the years have tried to put forward various explanations for why someone may do this. Within sociology there are many different views on suicide on the causes and explanations for it, these come from two main methodologies which are Positivists who believe that sociology is a science and they should aim to make causal laws on suicide rates, compared to Interpretivists who believe that they should look for meaning behind occurrences and certain individuals experiences before the suicide.
Other perspectives also put in their views on what they believe to explain suicide for example, Realists. Item A references to Durkheim’s Structural Functionalist view on suicide, as stated Durkheim believes that due to sociology being a science with the topic of suicide it is very easy to make causal laws or as said in Item A ‘social facts’. Using quantitative data from official statistics, Durkheim analysed the suicide rates for various European countries and noted four regular patterns. The suicide rate for any given society remained more or less constant over time.
When the rates of suicide did change, they coincided with other changes for example; they fell during war times but rose during economic depression or prosperity. Different societies had different suicide rates. Within a society, the rates varied constantly between social groups for example; Catholics had lower rates that Protestants. He identified the two social facts that determined suicide as social integration; the extent to which an individual feels a sense of belonging to a group and obligation to its members and moral integration; the extent to which an individual’s actions and desires are kept in check by society’s norms and values.
Therefore, Durkheim concluded that these patterns were evidence that suicide rates couldn’t simply be the result of the motives of individuals. Due to the fact Durkheim believed that there were a number of causes behind suicide he form four types of suicide from a Positivist viewpoint. Egoistic suicide which is when individuals are not integrated well enough into society for example people who live alone compared to those who live with family. Secondly Altruistic suicide which is when individuals are felt to be too integrated into society causing suicide,
for example members of the armed forces were said to have greater suicide rates than civilian personnel as they were too strongly integrated into a united body. Durkheim also put forward the idea of Anomic suicide, this is when the norms and values in society become unclear or confused in times of great social change and an individual is not taught to adapt to changes well enough. For example an unexpected death of a family member is sudden social change which can cause Anomic suicide. Lastly, he suggested Fatalistic suicide.
Fatalism is the excessive amount of regulation which leads to one committing suicide. The interpretivist approach directly contrasts the positivist one and seeks to focus on the meanings of suicide for those involved. Douglas criticises Durkheim’s use of official statistics as they are not accurate and recommends qualitative studies to discover the real rate of suicide. The statistics are a result of a coroners label and thus it is not trustworthy in his view. This suggested that cases are decided on “the basis of probability”.
Douglas further seeks to find out the meaning of the suicide and criticises Durkheim for implying that the meaning is fixed. His view can be criticised as there is no reason to believe that a sociologist would be better at interpreting a dead persons meanings than a sociologist. Douglas is inconsistent at times, suggesting that sometimes official statistics area product of the coroner’s opinions and other times we can really discover the causes of suicide. This further implicates that question that revolves around a death that was it a suicide in the first place?
There is no further information to go on other than the coroners. However, the medical knowledge was limited in the 19th century and autopsies were rare. Similarly, most countries lacked the sophisticated modern administrative system needed to collect and complete reliable statistics on a national basis. As a result, because the study lacked reliability, it becomes difficult to conclude that suicide is caused by social facts as Durkheim had suggested. Douglas also criticises Durkheim for aiming to categorize suicide in terms of their social causes.
He argues that death should be classified according to its actual meaning and to do this, qualitative methods should be used to analyse the possible causes of death. That way, we can build up a classification of suicide meanings. As Douglas takes the interpretivist approach, the interpretivist explanations of suicide aim to study suicide in a non-scientific manner unlike the positivist explanations. They reject using statistics to look at why people commit suicide and prefer to try and understand the meanings behind why they would commit suicide which they believe isn’t coherent through statistics.
According to Douglas, the decision to classify death as a suicide is taken by a coroner, and so the coroner’s verdict is based on interpretation. Nevertheless, the coroner’s decision could be subjective so therefore we cannot exactly argue that the coroner’s decision is fully accurate. He suggested that there are different types of suicide based on the meaning and reason for the death. For example, in some societies, Eskimos were expected to kill themselves in times of food shortages.
Atkinson (1978) takes a different approach as he rejects the idea of coroners being able to objectively classify suicides because the facts are social constructions therefore criticizing the interpretivists approach. Although he accepts Douglas’ point that official statistics simply reflect the constructs or labels coroners give to deaths, he rejects the view that we cannot get behind these statistics and uncover the real rates or meaning of suicide. All we can study is how people make sense of their world which means studying how the living comes to classify a death as a suicide.
He focuses on how coroners classify death and suggests that qualitative methods such as informal interviews and observations might be used. He states that there are four factors that affect a coroner’s decision to classify death as a suicide which are; the presence of a suicide note, the location and the circumstances, evidence of illnesses such as depression and some types of death such as hanging. Coroners regard information such as this as clues to whether the deceased took their own life or not.
Nevertheless, Atkinson has also been criticised for just looking at how deaths are categorized. This is because he demonstrates how coroners just use their own interpretation to decide whether a death was a suicide. For example the use of a note is interpreted as a sign of suicide. As a result, it becomes to accept this explanation as all the coroners have is interpretations of the social world not the objective truth. Taylor (1980s) uses a different approach from the positivists and the interpretivists.
He takes the realist approach to suicide which rejects the idea of a clear cut between a ‘genuine’ suicide and a ‘fake’ suicide. He states that most suicides fall in between and calls them ‘para-suicides’. Taylor argues that suicide statistics cannot be taken as valid. For example, in a study of 32 people hit by a train, half of the people were classed as suicide even though there was no conclusive evidence of suicidal intent. He found out that coroners saw factors such as history of mental illness as suicidal intents and this increased the likelihood of a suicide verdict.
On the other hand, like positivists, Taylor believes we can explain suicide. He believes the real patterns and causes of suicide can be discovered although he does not base his explanations on statistics like the positivists. The realist approach aims to reveal underlying structures and causes which although are not are not directly observable, can still explain the observable evidence. Most theories focus on acts where the individual was intent on dying and that resulted in death.
However, Taylor states that not all who attempt suicide are sure their actions will kill them. Nonetheless, Taylor’s theory is based on interpretations of the actor’s meanings and we do not know if they are correct especially in the cases of those suicides that are successful. Also, individual cases of suicides may involve a combination of motives and may be difficult to categorise. His theory however, is original and quite useful in explaining some observed patterns of suicide such as why attempts differ; both failed and successful attempts of suicide.

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