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Emile Durkheim was born from a Jewish family in the village of Epinal near Strasbourg, France. He lost faith in God at a tender age and turned to secular view on religion. His work was based on two themes, control of collectivism over individualism.
He also dealt with application of scientific methods to study social phenomenon (Alun, 2005). Many scholars from France, England and Germany (Durkheim, 2001) influenced him. His first monumental work was on the social division of labor. He later published a book on rules of sociological methods.
He completed his trilogy by publishing a book on sociological theory of suicide in 1897(Durkheim, 2001). In his book on suicide, he used statistical ingenuity to reject previous theories for giving extra social factors such as heredity, climate as causes of suicide.
He came up with the sociological theory on suicide, at the end of 19th century. He established a causal relationship between suicide and social cohesion. He maintains that two social factors: integration and regulation determines the rate of suicide (Alun, 2005).
He defines social facts as things external to, and coercive of the actor. He used data collected from different cultures and societies, to support his own findings. He carried the study of suicide in statistical and qualitative approach. He used the theory to explain the scientific method of sociology.
Durkheim argues that, suicide is a social phenomenon, and the main causes of suicide were social: the end of overpowering of social relationship. He was concerned with element of a group or structures in the society rather individuals.
In order to describe, varying rates among different religious and other groups, he studied the characters of these groups. He was not concerned on psychological traits of the component individuals (Watts, 2006). According to his study, he explores the difference in rates of suicide among Catholics and Protestants (Alun, 2005).
He argues that Catholics have stronger social controls than Protestants hence lower suicide rates. He talked about collective currents draining down the channels of social structure. The strength of the social current determines the volume of suicide (Watts, 2006). He talked of factors such as depression, which is an independent non-social cause of suicide.
Durkheim established various causes and types of suicide. He argued that suicide was because of social causes. One of the social factors he established is religion. According to him, the rate of suicide was different among different religions. He collected data among Catholics and Protestants.
He found out that suicide was low among Catholics as compared to Protestants. This attributes to Catholics having stronger social controls than Protestants (Durkheim, 2001). The freedom given to the Protestants also attributed to high suicide rate among them.
He was concerned about geographical issues in relation to a certain religion. He found that, where a religion was the minority in a particular geographical area the suicide rate was low. In cases where religion was majority in a region, the suicide rate was high (Krieken & Smith, 2010).
According to him, the value of education was high among Protestants and most of the learned people were associated with suicide. He argues that high education did not directly cause suicide but if it causes shaking of traditional values it may be a source of suicide.
The cause of more suicide in protestant was not that they were staunch believers than Catholics. It is because the solidarity among Protestants was weaker than that of Catholics (Thomson, 2002). Durkheim also established the role of marriage in relation to suicide. He found that suicide was high among bachelors than in married men.
According to him, being a bachelor increased the likelihood of committing suicide by 160%, while being married reduces the chance of suicide by 50 % (Fenton, 2006). He also did a research on widows and suicide. He discovered that, widows who were 65 years of age committed more suicide as compared to elderly men at the age of 65(Fenton, 2006).
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He also noted that although widows were more likely to commit suicide than married people were. They were less likely to kill themselves, as compared to bachelors or maiden. Durkheim found that families with children have a lower rate of suicide than families without children.
He argues that it is the family cohesion, which is a factor causing suicide rather than marriage. He also established the relationship between wars or crisis and suicide. During the time, of war and disaster, the rate of suicide was found to be lower than periods without war (Roger, 2000).
Durkheim concludes that: society that is more religious has low suicide rate, the stronger the family in society the lower the suicide rate. He also argued that the more integrated the society was the lower the rate of suicide. He referred to this suicide, which is influenced by religion and family as egoistic suicide (Krieken & Smith, 2010).
This suicide arises because of break down or decreases in social integration and he called it excessive individuation. It occurs when there is poor social integration. This causes people having differences in the value of their lives leading to dissatisfaction. In this case, individuals who are not integrated into social groups are likely to commit suicide. Individuals who are strongly integrated in family structure and social groups do not face such problems hence low suicide rate (Turner, 2003).
Factors leading to egoistic suicide are social facts or currents such as depression and disillusionment. Durkheim also carried a research on altruistic suicide among the less civilized society. This occurs where social integration is too strong hence; a person is forced into committing suicide.
It is not the absolute integration that causes suicide, the social forces that go along with it may cause suicide (Turner, 2003). This is where individual needs were considered less valuable than that of a society as a whole. In this case, individuals are not expected to commit suicide.
Durkheim cited suicide, such as suicide by old and sick, a widow after death of her husband, a servant after death of a master. This suicide is derived, by believing in large prospective beyond this life (Roger, 2000).
Durkheim also talked about suicide in the military. He discovered that the rate of suicide was high in the military service as compared to other ordinary people. According to him, he did not expect this result, as there is unity and strong integration in the military.
The rate of suicide in the military increases the length of service. According to him, it cannot be due to lack of interest or inability to adapt to military routines. In addition, rate of suicide was higher among NCOS and officers than among the privates.
He also observed that, suicide was higher among the elite unit than among the normal unit. Consequently, he found that the weaker the military spirit in a unit, the lower the rate of suicide. He argues that military officers had given so much of individuality in order to adjust to the routine requirements in the military (Thomson, 2002).
He also talked about Fatalistic suicide, which occurs where regulation is too strong such as in an oppressive society. People in this situation will feel no future improvement of their condition. When they are in that state of melancholy, they are subject to social current of fatalistic suicide.
They will choose to die rather than to continue languishing in suppression. For instance, people may prefer to commit suicide instead of staying in prison. He argues that individuals who are in an exceptionally strong regulation are likely to commit suicide compared to those in a normal situation (Durkheim, 2001).
According to him, there is also Anomic suicide, which is caused by a decline in regulation or disruption of standards and values. It may arise where normal division of labor is interfered. The regulative system is weakened, causing an individual to feel disrupted.
In this situation, a person is affected by anomic social currents. He established that, during economic recession, the rate of suicide increased. Also during periods of high growth rate in the economy there was an increase in the rate of suicide. He argued that poverty did not cause people to commit suicide.
These situations weaken social values and norms or make people unsure of the future. This in turn, reduces integration and cohesion in the society, leading to increase in rate of suicide (Alun, 2005). Anomic suicide, involves lack of clarity of aspirations, through restricting social ethics. This indicates a failure of economic growth and division of labor, to produce solidarity in the society. In this case, people do not know their roles and position in society.
According to Durkheim, social changes may also cause people to commit suicide. During his time, he established that there were strong correlation between suicide and divorce. The rate of suicide tends to increase with an increase in the rate of divorce. He found out that divorced people are likely to commit suicide three times more than married people. He established that divorced people mostly men are left depressed promoting them to commit suicide.
This is because; divorcees are not strongly integrated in the family structure and the society (Turner, 2003).
Durkheim also established different types of suicide with their characteristics. He identified three basic types. Egoistic suicide is characterized by apathy, lazy melancholy and disappointment of the skeptic person.
For Altruistic suicide, he came up with characteristics, such as energy of passion, calm bravery and mystic enthusiasm. Anomic suicide is characterized by disgust, passionately blaming life in general, or even blaming a person (Durkheim, 2001).
He also established mixed types of suicide. Ego-anomic is a combination of egoistic and anomic suicide and are characterized by, mixture of excitement, apathy action and daydreaming. He also identified a mixture of anomic and altruist suicide and called it Anomic-Altruist suicide.
Its characteristics are internal despair or disguise and calm feeling of responsibility. Finally, he came up with ego-altruist suicide, which is a combination of egoistic and altruistic suicide. This is another mixed suicide and, it is characterized by, melancholy by moral strength, apathy and mystic enthusiasm (Durkheim, 2001).
Durkheim in his social theory developed the above types of suicide and their causes, to prove that social factors influence suicide. These types of suicide depend on the level of imbalance between two social currents that are social integration and moral regulation.
He described the influence, crisis have on society, for instance war leading to increase altruism, economic boom or disasters leading to anomie (Krieken & Smith, 2010).
Summary and conclusion
Emile Durkheim was concerned, with the effect of social factors on suicide. He had a strong view on society, as well as how individuals are influenced by social factors. He sorts to establish the role of social factors, as opposed to economic, biological and psychological factors.
The factors that he established were the level of integration and regulation in the society. Durkheim argues that, division of labor does not lead to society disintegration but changes forms of solidarity.
He argues that freedom should not be mistaken with liberation from all restraints, as it will lead to anomie. Freedom is achieved within a set of rules and discipline. Determination of social factors and their influence on individuals may be considered as work of Durkheim (Durkheim, 2001).
Although Durkheim made a significant contribution to sociology, his suicide theory has some problems. He had a particular perspective on human freedom. In this case, it is difficult to establish the basis of human action and motivation. Social factors more or less influence human behavior.
He considers deviation from this being abnormal, and this has to be corrected. In his theory, he has little concern about human motivation, and he is highly concerned about large structural issues. His theory has limited possibility for human action.
The theory of model of action, by max Weber or more recent approaches such as symbolic interaction may be useful here. He is concerned about ideas relating to sources of human or society solidarity. He totally ignores conflict and power differences among individuals in the society.
He ignores anomic and forced division of labor and considers them as unusual. He also uses little time in their analysis. He assumes that, the sense of self is totally influenced by the society around. He fails to recognize anything inherent within an individual (Watts, 2006).
His study of suicide has been termed as logical error. He argues that individual behaviors, such as suicide are influenced by aggregate statistic. Some argues that he explains suicide sociologically within a holistic perspective. In this case, he explains variation among social movements in incidences of suicide, not the suicide of an individual (Durkheim, 2001).
Introducing psychological factors such as depression, which is an independent non-social cause of suicide, overlooks his argument that social forces affect these variables, and without these forces individuals may not commit suicide.
Berk (2006) criticizes micro-macro relations underlying Durkheim suicide theory. Durkheim also assumes that suicide is affected by social forces and ignores natural factors. He is challenged for being positivist. He ignores the subjective interpretation, that social actors may be of different phenomenon, and individuals to influence social forces.
His understanding about the relationship between sociology and morality has been termed as conservative. Finally, his argument that individuals are driven by passion for gratification, which cannot be satisfied, is not fully substantiated in his work (Durkheim, 2001).
Alun, R. (2005). The development of Durkheim’s Social Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Durkheim, E. (2001). Suicide: A study in sociology. New York: The Free Press.
Fenton, S. (2006). Durkheim and modern Society. New York: CUP Archive.
Krieken, V., & Smith, D. (2010). Sociology. French’s Forest NSW: Pearson.
Roger, M. (2000). Emile Durkheim: law in a moral domain. California: Stanford University Press.
Thomson, K. (2002). Emile Durkheim: A study in philosophy. New York: Routledge.
Turner, S. (2003). Durkheim: sociologist and moralist. New York: Routledge.
Watts, W. (2006). Durkheim, morals and morality. London: UCL Press.