The Sociology of Suicide

A look at some of the theories of suicide most notably those from durkheim and douglas



Sociologists are interested in suicide as it is often considered to be the ultimate deviant act and therefore should be an interesting area to study when sociologists are trying to find out about crime and deviance

There are a number of sociologists who have ideas about suicide most notable of these are:

  • Durkheim
  • Douglas
  • Atkinson
  • Taylor
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Durkheim 1897

Durkheim studied suicide in a variety of countries and regions in order to establish the reasons why people commit suicide.

He conluded that there are four main reasons why people commit suicide:

  • Egoistic Suicide - whereby people commit suicide for selfish reasons
  • Altrusitic Suicide - whereby people commit suicide for the good of others
  • Anomie - where people have lost their norms and values and commit suicide because of the uncertainty
  • Fatalistic suicide - Whereby people commit suicide in highly oppressive environments as they feel that there is no longer anything to live for such as prisons.

Durkheim beleived that Suicide was linked to his theory of social cohesion whereby the better a person is integrated within society the less likely they are to commit suicide and it is people who lose sight of this and become seperate from society that are pushed to commit suicide.

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Criticisms of Durkheim

Internal Criticisms

  • Durkheim's theory depends on social cohesion however this is not defiend in his research
  • Durkheim suggests that suicide rates are linked to religion and families but provides no evidence of this and provides no way this can be tested, proven or falsified.
  • Durkheim relies almost exclusively on official statistics which are questionable especially in Catholic communities where there is taboo about committing suicide doctors are hesitant to call a death a suicide

External (Interpretivist) Criticisms

  • Fundermentally flawed in its approach and is an example of how scientific methods do now work in relation to this type of incident
  • Interpretivists suggest that we should look at the way we interact and the meanings to suicides instead
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Douglas 1969

Douglas suggests that it isn't possible to catagorise every suicide simply as every individual circumstance is unique. Douglas aims to provide the meanings of suicide rather than simply catagorising them. He established a number of meanings for suicides:

  • Transforming the self - A person commits suicide to rid themselves of the cares of the world
  • Transforming oneself for others - A person commits suicide to show how strong their views are
  • Achieving a fellow feeling - A person looking for sympathy or help committing or attempting to commit suicide
  • Gaining revenge - A person is driven by another person to commit suicide
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Atkinson 1971

Atkinson suggests that studying suicide is difficult due to the social construction of suicide based on that officlally a death is only called a suicide if the coroner decides that it is meaning it is a decision left to an individual and is thus social constructed based on certain 'clues' that include:

  • Suicide notes - Contain the reasons for committing suicide but are sometimes distroyed for example by the family for a number of reasons such as religious views.
  • Mode of death - Some modes of death are 'typical' of suicide such as overdose or hanging
  • Location and circumstances of the death - Coroners believe that when people commit suicide they don't wish to be found and therefore go to a place where they are unlikely to be found however this might not always be the case as with Douglas' 'Achieving a fellow feeling' theory
  • Life history and mental conditions - Coroners believe that this is commonly linked to suicide and therefore they actively look for it which could cloud actual results.
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Taylor 1990

Taylor was critical of both sides of the argument as they both appear to neglect what Taylor calls 'parasuicides' whereby a person attempts to commit suicide but gambles on whether they may be successful or not for example if a person attempts to hang themselves they are not killing themselves instanty and instead there is some time in which a person may be found / saved. Taylor called this 'ordeal' suicide.

  • Ordeal suicides link to anomie from Durkheim

  • Taylor agrees with the positivistic ideas of suicide when we become too attached or too detached from society as a whole

  • Taylor also agrees however that there is much merit in exploring the meanings of suicide as Douglas suggested
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