Interactive Reading: Durkheim’s Suicide

Theme: Emergence Through Convergence

Interactive Reading

From p. [INSERT PAGE NUMBER] in Social Theory Re-Wired
If therefore industrial or financial crises increase suicides, this is not because they cause poverty, since crises of prosperity have the same result; 1 it is because they are crises, that is, disturbances of the collective order. Every disturbance of equilibrium, even though it achieves greater comfort and a heightening of general vitality, is an impulse to voluntary death. Whenever serious readjustments take place in the social order, whether or not due to a sudden growth or to an unexpected catastrophe, men are more inclined to self-destruction. 2 How is this possible? How can something considered generally to improve existence serve to detach men from it?

From p. [INSERT PAGE NUMBER] in Social Theory Re-Wired
To achieve any other result, the passions first must be limited. Only then can they be harmonized with the faculties and satisfied. But since the individual has no way of limiting them, this must be done by some force exterior to him. A regulative force must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs. This means that the force can only be moral.3

From p. [INSERT PAGE NUMBER] in Social Theory Re-Wired
In the case of economic disasters, indeed, something like a declassification occurs which suddenly casts certain individuals into a lower state than their previous one. Then they must reduce their requirements, restrain their needs, learn greater self-control. All the advantages of social influence are lost so far as they are concerned; their moral education has to be recommenced. But society cannot adjust them instantaneously to this new life and teach them to practice the increased self-repression to which they are unaccustomed. So they are not adjusted to the condition forced on them, and its very prospect is intolerable; hence the suffering which detaches them from a reduced existence even before they have made trial of it. 4

From p. [INSERT PAGE NUMBER] in Social Theory Re-Wired
It is the same if the source of the crisis is an abrupt growth of power and wealth. Then, truly, as the conditions of life are changed, the standard according to which needs were regulated can no longer remain the same; for it varies with social resources, since it largely determines the share of each class of producers. The scale is upset; but a new scale cannot be immediately improvised. Time is required for the public conscience to reclassify men and things. So long as the social forces thus freed have not regained equilibrium, their respective values are unknown and so all regulation is lacking for a time. The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate claims and hopes and those which are immoderate. Consequently, there is no restraint upon aspirations. 5

From p. [INSERT PAGE NUMBER] in Social Theory Re-Wired
If anomy never appeared except, as in the above instances, in intermittent spurts and acute crisis, it might cause the social suicide-rate to vary from time to time, but it would not be a regular, constant factor. In one sphere of social life, however—the sphere of trade and industry—it is actually in a chronic state. 6

From p. [INSERT PAGE NUMBER] in Social Theory Re-Wired
Anomy, therefore, is a regular and specific factor in suicide in our modern societies; one of the springs from which the annual contingent feeds. So we have here a new type to distinguish from the others. It differs from them in its dependence, not on the way in which individuals are attached to society, but on how it regulates them. 7 Egoistic suicide results from man’s no longer finding a basis for existence in life; altruistic suicide, because this basis for existence appears to man situated beyond life itself. The third sort of suicide, the existence of which has just been shown, results from man’s activity’s lacking regulation and his consequent sufferings. By virtue of its origin we shall assign this last variety the name of anomic suicide.
Certainly, this and egoistic suicide have kindred ties. Both spring from society’s insufficient presence in individuals. But the sphere of its absence is not the same in both cases. In egoistic suicide it is deficient in truly collective activity, thus depriving the latter of object and meaning. In anomic suicide, society’s influence is lacking in the basically individual passions, thus leaving them without a check-rein. 8

Activity: Revisiting Suicide

Why suicides happen, particularly in prosperous and healthy societies, has puzzled social scientists for decades. Listen to the Freakonomics podcast titled The Suicide Paradox. Freakonomics features a journalist and an economist who use economics to debunk commonly held beliefs about why the world is the way it is. Pick one fact about suicide from the podcast that you find particularly interesting or surprising and give it a Durkheimian spin. Might the level of integration or regulation in society be an explanation for the “social fact” that you have picked? In your answer, describe what kinds of methods or data Durkheim might use to support your argument.

1 Durkheim’s Suicide is remarkable for its methods. In the opening pages of the excerpt, Durkheim traces suicide rates in regions undergoing economic booms and busts, finding that suicide rates are unexpectedly high during times of tremendous economic growth. So, suicides cannot simply be due to poverty but rather abrupt change. Some have criticized Durkheim for drawing conclusions about an individual act – suicide – using statistics taken at the aggregate level, which is known as an ecological fallacy.
2 Recall from Durkheim’s Profile page that he strived to make sociology a legitimate social science on par with more established disciplines like psychology. You can see those efforts here when he argues that suicide – a deeply personal act – has social causes and not just psychological ones. By pointing to the suicide rates in different societies at different points in time, Durkheim posits that suicide is a social fact, meaning that it is a characteristic of society and not just of individuals. And if we study suicide as a social fact, it can be explained by pointing to other social facts.
3 More specifically, Durkheim points to the level of integration and regulation in society as an important factor in determining its overall suicide rate. We can think of integration as how connected we feel to society through our families, our organizations, or our social networks. A similar but distinct issue is the level of regulation in society. Durkheim argued that society requires a moral code to tamper the desires and passions of its member and to give them a sense of where they fit into society. Also, notice how Durkheim describes society as an organism in which all of its parts function to ensure its survival. This idea of a social organism is a hallmark of structural-functionalism.
4 Durkheim is describing the development of anomie, or the breakdown of the moral fabric that regulates our collective life following an economic crisis. Steven Lukes is a well-respected social theorist and someone who knows a lot about Durkheim. In this essay, Lukes discusses how the culture of Wall Street failed to regulate the seemingly infinite rewards that bankers, investors, and hedge fund managers expected to receive in the mid-2000s. Thus, when the credit crisis unfolded, many people experienced anomie.
5 Durkheim is arguing that a crisis doesn’t have to be a stock market failure or a Great Depression. Regulation can break down in times of prosperity, too--for instance, during periods of rapid economic growth, as new wealth and opportunities in turn limi social and economic regulation.
6 Durkheim makes the case that anomie has become normal in the world of trade and industry because there is not enough moral regulation in these industries to prevent it. Take, for example, the case of China. China is the second largest economy in the world and one of the fastest growing markets of the past three decades. However, China also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, partially attributable to its economic growth.
7 Durkheim is comparing “anomic suicide” to “egoistic suicide.” The first refers to suicide due to a lack of moral regulation, whereas the latter captures suicide due to a lack of integration. However, what about suicide resulting from integration or regulation that’s is too high? Durkheim called these types of suicide “altruistic” and “fatalistic,” respectively. We might think of altruistic suicide as dying for a cause, such as this article about self-immolation, or suicide as a form of protest. Fatalistic suicide involves dying as an escape from intense social control -- for instance, prisoners or enslaved people who kill themselves as the only way to exercise control over their lives.
8 Durkheim’s work on Suicide has inspired many others to investigate the social causes of suicide. For more, check out this Freakonomics podcast on the “suicide paradox”.
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