Sociology of Suicide

Overview of notes for an essay on the sociology of suicide.

  • Created by: Emma
  • Created on: 16-06-11 09:22


Uk suicide rate is approximately 10 per 100,000

2005 - nearly 5,700 suicides, 1% of all adult deaths (3/4 of them were men)

The Samaritans (a charity that helps those who are depressed and considering suicide) - suicide accounts for 1/5 of all deaths among young people after accidental death

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(1) Durkheim (1897)

  • French sociologist
  • Famous book - Suicide: A Study In Sociology
  • Positivist
  • Believed in objective methodology that ensures that all research is reliable and quantitative (used a comparative method, which meant comparing the suicide rates from different European countries)
  • Considered suicide statistics to be social facts


To see if sociology, a relatively new subject at the time, could be used to study areas previously seen as the domain of psychology.

To prove that sociology was a respectable and highly academic study, comparable to physics and chemistry, that had scientific principles

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(2) Durkheim (1897)

In a league table of suicides, some countries (Denmark, Germany) were always near the top, and other countries seemed to be lower down (Italy, Ireland, Belgium)

Some groups seemed more likely than others to commit suicide:

  • Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics - Protestants had a looser social network/belief system
  • Unmarried more likely than the married
  • People without children more likely than people with children
  • Younger people more likely than older people
  • Educated people more likely than uneducated people
  • Rural dwellers more likely than city dwellers
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(3) Durkheim (1897)

The suicide rate was determined not by a person's psychological state, but by their relationship to society.

He suggested that suicide was linked to 2 social forces:

  • Social integration - how connected, involved and 'bonded' a person was to society
  • Social control (moral regulation) - how much freedom a person feels they have, and the regulations and controls placed upon them

Social stability depends on social integration and moral regulation being balanced

If not there would be an increase in social disorder, including the number of suicides.

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(4) Durkheim (1897): 4 Types Of Suicide


  • not enough integration
  • the individual isn't successfully integrated into groups or society
  • typical type of suicide in Western societies
  • suicide rates are higher amongst younger, unmarried and childless individuals (they have fewer roots or links to integrate them)
  • the more roots you have connected to family, friends, religion, clubs and commitments, the less likely you are to commit suicide.
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(5) Durkheim (1897): 4 Types Of Suicide


  • too much integration
  • the individual sacrifices themselves for the good of the social group
  • particularly relvant in countries where religion or national identity is strong
  • altruistic suicide occurs when the person thinks of themselves less as an individual and more as part of a greater social group (country, religion)
  • example: sutteeism (Hindi widows kill themselves at their husband's funeral by throwing themselves on the funeral pyre)
  • example: suicide bombers who are so well integrated with their religion that death by suicide seems like martyrdom
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(6) Durkheim (1897): 4 Types Of Suicide


  • not enough regulation
  • also very common in Western cultures
  • occur when society does not regulate or control the individual sufficiently
  • occurs during periods of rapid social change (anomie)
  • example: the Wall Street Crash (1929) when many American investors lost all their savings and some committed suicide
  • anomic suicide can occur on a smaller scale - the unexpected death of a husband could leave a widow unable to cope, resulting in suicide
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(7) Durkheim (1897): 4 Types Of Suicide


  • too much regulation
  • the individual is too highly controlled by society
  • more relevant to the past, particularly slave societies such as Greece and Rome, where slaves often committed suicide to escape the hopeless and oppressive situation they faced
  • example: prisoners
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Criticisms of Durkheim

Anti Positivists/Interpretivists argue that Durkheim treats suicide statistics as social facts when they should be seen as social constructs (they are the truth as interpreted by a number of people, like the coroner)

Halbach (1930) - too vague in defining social integration and ways of measuring it

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Strengths of Durkheim

Durkheim's positivist theory has gained empirical support

Cavan (1965) - found suicide rates in Chicago to be higher in those districts with low levels of social integration.  This suggests there is some validity in Durkheim's positivist ideas

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The Role of the Coroner

Coroner - an official appointed to investigate any sudden, unexplained or suspicious death

On suicide, the coroner must satisfy two things:

  • that the person killed themselves
  • that they intended to kill themselves

Coroner's decisions become the official statistics (this is why Anti-Positivists criticise Durkheim)

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(1) J.D. Douglas (1967)

  • Interpretivist
  • Sees suicide as a social construct
  • Interested in the roles and interactions taken by all of the concerned parties after a suicide
  • If a person is well integrated into a social group, family and friends may be reluctant to accept the possibility of suicide (may try to convince the coroner that the death was an accident, or destroy evidence like suicide notes)
  • The reason why the suicide rate is so low in Catholic countries is not because fewer people kill themselves, but because of the reluctance in a Catholic country to record a suicide verdict
  • Believes more valid suicide statistics can be reached by carrying out case studies
  • This involves very detailed qualitative analysis of each suicide, informal interviews, reading diaries, investigating their physical and mental health and examining in detail the circumstances leading up to the death
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(2) J.D. Douglas (1967)

Douglas identified a list of suicide types:

  • Transformation of the soul suicide - suicide is used as a way of getting to heaven, or the 'next level' (39 members of the religious sect Heaven's Gate took this approach in 1997)
  • Transformation of the self suicide - suicide is used to get others to think of you differently
  • Sympathy suicide - suicide is used as a way of making people feel sorry for you
  • Revenge suicide - suicide is used as a form of revenge by making people feel guilty about your death
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J. Baechler (1979)

Agrees with Douglas that case studies of suicide enable researchers to get closer to valid suicide statistics:

  • Escapist suicides - where suicide is used as an escape from problems such as grief or a terminal illness
  • Aggressive suicides - where suicide is used as a way of punishing someone; they are the same as revenge suicides
  • Transfiguration suicides - where suicide is used as a way of going to the afterlife or joining a loved one who recently died
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(1) Atkinson (1978)

  • Phenomenologist
  • In a way, similar to Douglas (they both look at the role of the coroner)
  • All coroners do is categorise death, not reveal the truth
  • Rejects the quantitative methods of Durkheim and other positivists
  • Whether death is a suicide or not is a product of the interpretations of others and the real number of suicides is unknown
  • Research methods used - detailed interviews with coroners, attended coroner's courts, observed a coroner at work and examined records
  • Argues that coroners (despite training and experience), still employ a 'common sense' theory of suicide, and that if 'evidence' fits the theory, the death will be categorised as a suicide
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(2) Atkinson (1978)

4 types of evidence are particularly important:

  • Have suicide notes been left?
  • How did the death occur? (death by drugs, ganging, drowning, or gassing are normally seen as suicide)
  • Where did the death occur? (death of a farmer by gunshot, for example, is more likely to be seen as suicide if it happened inside the farmhouse than if it happened outside)
  • What was the mental health of the deceased? (a history of mental illness, lack of stable home life, abuse in childhood, unemployment and failed relationships are all factors considered by the coroner to be reasons for suicide)
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(3) Atkinson (1978)


Coroners are not consistent

Varied interpretations may mean that some sudden deaths are wrongly classified

Therefore - all the statistics show is a highly selective, socially constructed set of classifications

They tell us nothing about the causes or extent of suicide

Criticisms of Atkinson

  • Very dismissive of coroners, seeing their work as little more than 'common sense'
  • Coroners argue that they recognise the difficulties, which is why an open verdict is used more often than a suicide verdict
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The Realist Approach to Suicide

Steve Taylor

  • Questions whether Durkheim was a positivist
  • The social forces of social integration and moral regulation are neither observable nor quantifiable
  • Over 12 months, studied 32 cases where people had been struck and killed by London tube trains, without witness or suicide notes
  • The inquests into the 32 deaths recorded 17 suicides, 5 accidental deaths and 10 open verdicts i.e the cause of death isn't given
  • In cases without suicide notes, Taylor concluded that a suicide verdict was far more likely if the victim had a history of mental illness or had suffered a recent setback or humiliation (this is an example of coroners using 'common sense assumptions')
  • Taylor therefore agrees with Atkinson - statistics are unreliable and socially constructed
  • Noted that not all suicide victims really intend to kill themselves
  • Connects the meaning of suicide to levels of certainty/uncertainty a person has about their life and their attachment to/detachment from other people
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Positivist and Interpretivist approaches to suicide have made a major contribution to the study of deviance

They have influenced both the methods used to study deviance and the explanations of deviance

Taylor's realist theory is strongest - he recognises that suicide statistics are problematic as they are social products

However, he still advances a casual explanation of suicide that can explain a range of suicidal behaviours.

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Kelly Founds



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