Emile Durkheim elaborated upon another French Positivist, Comte in his belief that behind each individual suicide is the influence of wider social issues rather than personal vulnerabilities. After an in depth cross cultural study of suicide rates using official statistics such as relationship status, he noted particular correlations such as more suicides in single people opposed to those who were married and a higher suicide rate in Protestant countries than Catholic countries.
From his study he identified two main social factors that determined suicide, one as integration into society, meaning the extent to which an individual feels a sense of belonging to a group and obligation to its members and the other as regulation, the extent to which an individual’s actions and desires are kept in check by society’s norms and values. Elaborating upon this, he argues suicide results from either too much or too little social integration or regulation.
Egoistic suicide is caused by too little social integration, he suggests that is the most common type of suicide in modern society, caused by excessive individualism and lack of social ties and obligations to others which explains the lower rate among Catholics than among Protestants. Both religions condemn suicide but Protestants have more individual freedom in what to believe and how to express their faith whereas Catholics are more tightly integrated by shared beliefs and collective rituals.
In modern society, a recent example of Fatalistic suicide can be seen in the case of Charlotte Coursier, a Cambridge philosophy student who committed suicide after suffering harassment from a lecturer, with nobody else to turn to following a break-up she took her own life. Altruistic suicide is the opposite of egoistic suicide and is caused by too much social integration, it occurs when the individual has little value and where the group’s interests override those of the individual. Suicide here is obligatory self-sacrifice for the good of the group rather then something freely chosen since the individual feels it their duty to die.
Anomic suicide is caused by too little moral regulation, it occurs when society’s values are made obsolete with rapid social change, creating uncertainty in individuals as to what society expects of them, for example the depression of the 1930s produced anomic suicides. Fatalistic suicide is the opposite of anomic suicide and is caused by too much moral regulation, this suicide happens when society regulates the individual completely, it was most common amongst slaves. Maurice Halbwachs supported Durheim’s positivist approach but added to his theory.
Halbwachs argued differences between urban and rural residence were the main reasons for variations in suicide rates. He found higher rates among people living alone in urban locations where they were subject to isolation. However, Sainsbury found suicide in London boroughs were highest where the levels of social disorganisation were highest. Durkheim’s study has been criticised for using unreliable statistics in the form of retrospective data as 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 level. As a result, the study lacked reliability so it’s difficult to surmise that suicide is caused by social facts as Durkheim had suggested. Douglas, an interpretivist sociologist has also criticised Durkheim’s suicide study for ignoring the motives of the act for those who kill themselves and for assuming that suicide has a fixed or constant meaning.
He argues that the meanings of suicide can vary between cultures and the motives and meanings must be understood within their own social and cultural context. This means that Durkheim’s attempts to compare rates across cultures are faced with problems. Douglas also criticises Durkheim for aiming to categorise 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.
He rejects using statistics to look at why people commit suicide and prefers to try and understand the causes and triggers behind why they would commit suicide which they believe isn’t coherent through statistics. Douglas states 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, some Eskimos were expected to kill themselves in times of food shortages. Atkinson takes a different interpretivist approach from, that of ethnomethodology as he rejects the idea of coroners being able to objectively classify suicides because the facts are socially constructed. 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. Unlike positivists, ethnomethodologists accept that that their accounts are merely interpretations and don’t claim to be in anyway superior to the coroners whom they study. However, Atkinson has still been criticised for only looking at how deaths are categorised as 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 on the other hand takes a different approach to both positivists and interpretivists. He argues suicide statistics cannot be taken as valid, for example in a study half of people hit by a train were classed as suicide even though there was no conclusive evidence of suicidal intent. Taylor found that coroners saw factors such as a history of mental illness as indications of suicidal intent and this increased the likelihood of a suicide verdict.
However like the positivists Taylor still believes we can explain suicide. He believes we can discover real patterns and causes, though unlike positivists he doesn’t base his explanation on suicide statistics. Instead he adopts a realist approach which aims to reveal underlying structures and causes. Many theories on suicide focus on acts where the individual was intent on dying and that resulted in death. For example Durkheim’s study is about causes of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act by the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result.
However Taylor notes that in many cases those who attempt suicide are not certain their actions will kill them such as the recent tragedy reported in ‘The Times’ as a young boy hangs himself over an “xbox bill” the article indicates that the extent of the boys intentions weren’t those of detriment or life ending. Taylor suggests that a situation where the person is most likely to attempt suicide is those where there is complete certainty or uncertainty either about themselves or about others. This gives him four possible types of suicide.
The first two types are inner or self-directed suicides which Taylor calls ectopic, where the individual is psychologically detached from others. Because of this the suicide attempt is a private, self-contained act. There are two types of ectopic suicide. Submissive suicides; where the person is certain about themselves. For example they may know they have no reason to go on, for example a terminal illness. Their suicide attempt is deadly serious, because they know they want to die. Thanatation suicides; where they are uncertain about themselves. For example they may be uncertain about what others think of them.
Their suicide attempt involves risk taking, they may or may not survive it. The other two types are other directed or Symphsyic suicides where the individual has an overwhelming attachment to some other person. These suicides are not self-contained but a way of communicating with others. There are two types; Sacrifice suicides where they are certain about suicides and know they have to kill themselves like submissive suicides their attempt is deadly serious. Usually either they or the person has done something that makes it impossible for the person to go on living, for example betrayal through an affair.
The other, Appeal suicides where the person is uncertain about others, they have doubts about their importance to the other and attempt suicide to resolve the uncertainty. Like Thanatation suicides they involve risk taking and uncertainty about the outcome. They are acts of despair and hope, combining the wish to die and things to change things for the better. Taylor’s theory is based on his interpretations of the actors’ meanings and there is no way of knowing if these are correct, especially in the case of those who succeeded. Also individual cases may involve a combination of motives and may be difficult to categorise.
Taylor’s small sample as case studies while useful in giving insight into motives is unlikely to be representative of suicides in general. Unlike Durkheim, Taylor has not connected the four types to wider social structures. However there are similarities between the two, Taylor’s ideas of certainty and uncertainty parallel Durkheim’s notions of fatalism and anomie respectively. Nevertheless his theory is original and useful in explaining some of the observed patterns of suicide such as why attempts differ in seriousness and why only some leave notes. It also deals with both failed and successful attempts.