Durkheim wrote in the 1890s and was one of the first sociologists right at the forefront of establishing and defining sociology as a scientific discipline. Durkheim argued that it was not only possible to apply scientific principles to social phenomena but that it was essential to do so in order to produce useful sociology. His 1897 book suicide: a study in sociology uses his scientific methods to explore suicide. Durkheim chooses suicide deliberately, because as the most individual, private and psychologically driven act it was considered by most not to be a social phenomenon.
If sociology could identify social factors and causes of suicide, this would demonstrate the power and impact of society on individual behaviour. So in Durkheim’s view he believes our behaviour is caused by social facts and they are said to be external from the individual, constrain individuals and be greater than the individuals. After Durkheim’s analysis of official statistics on suicide it revealed some social groups are more likely to commit suicide than others. For Durkheim, the social patterns of suicide he discovered is not a random individual act but as stated by Luke’s social factors play a key role.
Durkheim’s work showed a correlation between suicide and social facts like suicide rates were higher in predominantly protestant countries than in catholic ones, Jews were the religious group with the lowest suicide rate, married people were less likely to commit suicide and those with higher education had a higher suicide rate. Durkheim said different forms of suicide related to how much integration and regulation there was in society and this would provide us with a fourfold typology. The term social integration means socialisation into the norms, values and lifestyles of social groups and society.
Regulation meaning the control that society and social groups has over an individual’s behaviour. With these two factors Durkheim brings upon egoistic suicide not enough integration. The individual isn’t successfully integrated into groups or society, anomic not enough regulation society has insufficient control over individuals, altruistic too much integration an over integrated individual sacrifices their life for the group and fatalistic too much regulation the individual is too highly controlled by society. Durkheim’s work can also be applied into type of society.
As Durkheim states modern societies and traditional society differ from one and other in their levels of integration and regulation. Durkheim discovers that modern industrial societies have lower levels of integration due to lack of freedom this weakens bonds and give rise to egoistic suicide. Whilst, traditional pre-industrial societies have higher levels of integration as the group is more important than the individual and this gives rise to altruistic suicide. Durkheim has been criticised by other positivist sociologist.
Halbwachs largely supported Durkheim’s conclusion but pointed out that the impact of rural versus urban lifestyles on suicide rates hadn’t been considered. Also, Gibbs and Martin argued that Durkheim hadn’t used vigorous enough scientific methods even though he’d stressed how important they were. The key concepts of integration and regulation weren’t defined closely enough to be measured statistically. Gibbs and Martin query how anyone can know how anyone can know what “normal” levels of integration and regulation are.
Interpretivist sociologists have devised alternative theories of suicide they say social reality is not a series of social facts for sociologists to discover, but a series of different meanings and interpretations that each person brings to and takes from each situation. Durkheim’s work is fatally flawed from this perspective because he relies on the unquestioning use of official statistics. According to interpretivists, statistics are not fact they are a social construction based on the definition of the people who compile them.
Douglas takes an Interactionist approach to suicide and he is interested in the meaning that suicide has for the deceased, and the way that coroners label death as suicides. He criticises Durkheim’s study of suicide on two main grounds. One of them being the use of suicide statistics because the decision to classify death as a suicide is taken by a coroner and this may produce bias in verdicts reached. So Douglas feels these are the patterns Durkheim found and that well integrated have friends and relatives who may deny death and this explains their low level of suicide.
So Durkheim indicates that suicide verdicts and statistics are based on interactions and negotiations between those involved like friends, doctors and police as they may affect death being labelled as a suicide, rather than it actually being one. That’s why people feel integration plays no dividends. Douglas second point criticises Durkheim for ignoring the meanings of the act for those who kill themselves and for assuming that suicide has a fixed or constant meaning.
Douglas backs this up as he notes the cultural differences by Japanese samurai warrior who kill themselves because they have been dishonoured by western society. Douglas also states that we need to categorise suicides according to their social meanings because the triggers and response to suicide are different in different cultures. These social meanings consist of transformation of the soul, transformation of the self, achieving sympathy and achieving revenge.
Douglas can be criticised, as he is inconsistent, sometimes suggesting that official statistics are merely the product of coroner’s opinions. At other times, he claims we really can discover the cause of suicide-yet how can we, if we can never know whether a death was a suicide and all we have is coroners opinions? Douglas also produces a classification of suicide based on the supposed meanings for the actors. However, there is no reason to believe that sociologists are any better than coroners at interpreting dead person’s meanings.