The sociological significance of suicide has changed dramatically throughout history. It’s development can be divided into three periods: Pre-Durkheimian, Durkheimian and Post-Durkheimian. This essay will look at all three periods and discuss how the significance of suicide has evolved from a sociological standpoint. It will also look at the different factors that have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the rise in suicide rates worldwide. Examples of the factors that will be examined are, geographical, integration and regulation, and social roles. “Society does not shed any light on [individual] suicide, but suicide does shed some light on society” (Baudelot, Establet, 2008)
Right up until the 1800s, there was very little study done on suicide from a sociological point of view. It still thought to be a problem faced by individuals, even though some social factors were acknowledged (Wray, Colen, 2011). I wasn’t until the early-mid 1800s, that sociologists such as Adolph Quetelet and Henry Morselli suggested, against the sociological norms, that some patterns, including geographical and systematic, pointed to the idea that suicide may be caused my factors others than the individual (Baudelot, Establet, 2008,). Gabriel Tarde was one of the first that theorised that geographical clustering of suicides may be due to imitative behaviours, one of the basic driving forces of human nature. His theory suggested that because humans have a tendency to imitate those around them, especially those considered to be significant, such as a family member, friend or leader, it is possible that suicides could lead to more suicides and so on, creating a chain reaction (de Tarde G, 1903). In the modern day we, of course, know this to be true as we have evidence of it, mostly from cult mass suicides.
Durkheim completely changed the way we, as a society, look at suicide. Unlike others, he “sought to understand how negative meanings and emotions were produced in individual and groups during times of dramatic social change” (Wray, Colen, 2011). Durkheim stated there were four types of suicide, which came from two major axis: Integration and Regulation. (Wray,Colon, 2011)
Integration refers to the ideas of social belonging, love, care, inclusion, etc. Well integrated groups are stable and have cohesive social ties. Its members feel supported and therefore are a low suicide risk. However, it is at the two ends of the spectrum where that risk increases (Wray, Colon, 2011). “Suicide rates vary inversely with the degree of integration of the social group to which the individual belongs” (Durkheim. E, 2006 ). A lack of integration in groups leads to isolation, depression and, in some cases, suicide. At the other end there is over integration. Over integration into a group can lead to mass suicide or suicide for the benefit of the group over the individual, such as suicide bombers and cult members but also war heroes and martyrs. (Wray, Colon, 2011).
Regulation is the “monitoring, oversight and guidance that comes from social ties” (Wray, Colon, 2011). Regulation is a requirement, socially, because it gives people moral guidance and an external form of restraint. Without regulation, we would not know the difference between right and wrong. Similar to integration, at both ends of the spectrum, there is cause for concern. Over regulation restricts individualisation and one might feel controlled by societal norms and rules. The longing to escape from such external forces may lead to suicide. Lack of regulation usually occurs when society is undergoing changes.
These are the 4 types of suicide that were proposed by Émile Durkheim in 1897. They are often visualised in a U-shaped graph. (Wray, Colon, 2011). Post-Durkheimian: From a sociological view, suicide post- Durkheimian is very difficult to summarize. The subject, and sociology as a whole, entered into a period of confusion (Wray, Colon, 2011). The world was changing rapidly, and more and more theories began to emerge. Post 1950s, however, there were 3 main sociological statements made on suicide.
- Henry & Short presented the aggression – frustration model. Their theory was that homicide and suicide are just two sides of the same coin. An increase in frustration would lead to an increase in aggression which, in turn, would lead to an increase in lethal violence. Henry & Short theorised that people that experience this violence, and channel it outwards, commit homicide, whereas those who channel it inwards commit suicide. However, studies found this theory to be false, as the data collected was consistent and didn’t show any patterns (Wray, Colon, 2011)
- Gibbs & Martin saw conflict arising from social roles (i.e. marital status, occupation, sex) as the main cause of suicide. Their idea was that, in cases of high, unsolvable role conflict, there would be an increase in suicide rates. Although testing of this theory was done, and evidence found to support it, the idea was never fully adapted in the sociology community (Wray, Colon, 2011)
- According to JD Douglas, Durkheim’s perspective on the matter of suicide was fundamentally flawed, as he never considered what suicide meant from a cultural and social standpoint. He also questioned the accuracy of data and statistics relating to suicide at the time. The definition of suicide at the time was debated and coroners and doctors didn’t always know if a certain death was from suicide or not (Wray, Colon, 2011)
This essay has discussed how there are many factors that contribute to suicide and that the pre-Durkheimian view that suicide is the problem of an individual, is wrong. In conclusion, it is an easy statement to make that there are many social factors that are sociologically significant because of the negative impact they can have on a person’s wellbeing and overall health, which, in some cases, leads to the death of the individual at the individuals own hand.