Sociology Of Suicide Research Paper

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Although the word itself has been used only since the seventeenth century, the reality that is suicide has been part of human history for a long time. Many suicides occurred in Greece in the fifth century BC and in Rome during the first century AD. The first writings about suicide present it as a religious, moral, or pathological phenomenon, frequently attributed to supernatural causes or to mental illness. Empirical studies appear only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with still moral overtones. Statistics are analyzed according to an individual or social pathological perspective and the suicide rates are correlated with such variables as the regional economic situation and the homicide or mental illness rates.

1. Durkheim

The first truly sociological writing on the subject is Le Suicide. Etude de Sociologie by Durkheim (1967) (see Durkheim, Emile (1858–1917)). Making use of official statistics, he points out the variations in suicide rates throughout time and space. For him, the rate of suicide constitutes a social fact. Each society has a specific tendency toward suicide. The structure of a society decides, so to speak, its own contingent of voluntary deaths.

Durkheim refutes the theories that explain suicides by extrasocial individual factors. He not only dismisses psychopathic or normal psychological factors, but also cosmic factors and the imitation factor which includes contagion. He constantly distinguishes between the cause of suicide, which is always social, and the motives, which are merely pretexts. Applying the concepts of integration and regulation to religious, domestic, and political societies, Durkheim constructs a typology of suicides. Egotistic suicide results from insufficient social integration and differs from altruistic suicide that is seen in societies too strongly integrated. Anomic suicide occurs in societies where rapid changes are not, or insufficiently, regulated; on the contrary, fatalistic suicide, scarcely touched upon by Durkheim, follows from an excess of social regulation.

Several criticisms have been directed against Durkheim’s work. In particular, Baechler (1975) compares his lack of interest in the victim of suicide with his great concern for the social rate of suicide. Baechler observes that, for Durkheim, it is not individuals who take their own life, but society itself that commits suicide through some of its members. Durkheim’s analysis of the low suicide rate among women is also severely criticized, along with his lack of development of fatalistic suicide and the confusion he perpetuates between anomy and egotism.

2. In Durkheim’s Wake

Controversy was not the only reaction to Le Suicide. The book awakened a keen interest in the study of suicide, although that interest showed itself only in the 1950s, especially in the USA. Durkheim’s research generated a number of studies seeking to replicate, extend, clarify, and even to rectify not only his conceptual analysis but also his empirical results. Still widely taught today in many countries, Durkheim continues to exert a powerful influence on the sociology of suicide.

Using the notions of social status and social roles, Gibbs and Martin (1964) developed a theory around the Durkheimian concept of social integration. When a society engenders a status incompatibility and therefore role conflicts, it has a greater risk of suicide. For Gibbs and Martin, a relationship exists between the suicide rate and the integration of status and roles. It gives rise to their theorem: the suicide rate of a given society varies inversely with the degree of integration of the status and the roles which make up that society.

Lester (1989, 1997) is one of the sociologists who have contributed the most—and he continues to do so—to the operationalization of Durkheim’s concepts, especially social integration, and to the widest possible verifying of his empirical conclusions. Although he remains open to psychological and individual perspectives, Lester is part of the Durkheimian movement, as witnessed by his numerous statistical and comparative studies of national and regional suicide rates throughout the world and his insistence on deepening the direct relationship between suicide and the modernization of society. In this regard, Lester recommends greater precision in the criteria for modernization, beyond the vague notions of industrialization, urbanization and secularization. Declining birth and death rates and the increases in the divorce rate and in the gross national product are specific indices that should be taken into account.

3. Psychosocial Approach

Notwithstanding the studies that throw light on the social factors of suicide, they do not satisfy several researchers who are interested in studying how such factors influence the persons who commit suicide and what moves them, as individuals, to take their life. The study of suicide thus moves more and more inward, refusing to see the causes of suicide as only social and external. Without neglecting social factors, the study of suicide now considers psychological and individual factors, in both their affective and cognitive dimensions.

3.1 Affective Dimension

Halbwachs (1930) gives a different interpretation to the Durkheimian notion of anomic suicide. For him, the increase in the number of suicides should be more correctly attributed to the loneliness felt by those individuals who are faced with an increasingly complex society that makes it difficult for them to establish satisfactory social contacts. The key concept is to be found in the lifestyle of people, since it determines the opportunities for a relationship with others. One therefore finds fewer suicides in rural areas because of a more harmonious lifestyle. Loneliness with its accompanying social isolation, brought on by a complex and conflicting urban society, thus becomes the cause of suicide, which is consequently explained by psychosocial factors.

Henry and Short (1954) suggest another psychosocial explanation of suicide by incorporating the Freudian concepts of frustration and aggression. An integrated society, in which external constraints increase, has a lower rate of suicide. This is because external constraints have more effect on persons of low status; the subsequent frustration causes their aggressiveness to be turned outwards, with the potential for homicide. Conversely, persons of high status, who impose their demands on others, have no one but themselves to blame if they feel frustrated; their aggressiveness is directed inwards upon themselves, with the potential for suicide. Far from being unanimously accepted, Henry and Short’s theory still captured the attention of some researchers. Maris (1981) endorses the idea of social constraints. However, while they are fewer for the person socially isolated, they nevertheless increase the likelihood of suicide.

Giddens (1966) also puts forward a psychosocial approach to suicide. He presents a typology of suicide, using the Durkheimian notions of egotism and anomy with which he associates the Freudian theory of depression. Different kinds of societies spawn various depressed and suicidal personalities. On the one hand, an egotistic society produces introverts who are incapable of relating to others; their suicidal behavior seeks expiation or social reintegration. On the other hand, an anomic society creates personalities dissatisfied with their performance; their suicide aims at surpassing themselves. In any event, for Giddens, all cases of suicide presuppose social isolation, marked by the absence of significant relationships.

3.2 Cognitive Dimension

Sociology also progressively integrates the cognitive dimension that is linked to a concrete suicide. The possible meanings of suicidal behavior gradually come to revolve around the idea that suicide is the solution to one’s problems.

Douglas (1967) has left his mark on this approach to the study of suicide by his work on meanings. Influenced by Weber, Douglas states that suicide is a social act that includes subjective meanings constructed from interactions between the victim and his cultural context. He thus advances a social constructionist theory of meanings. Suicide is seen as ‘a means of transforming the soul from this world to the other world,’ ‘a transformation of the substantial self in this world or in the other world,’ ‘a means of achieving fellow-feeling,’ or ‘of getting revenge’ (Douglas 1967, pp. 284, 300, 304, 310).

Also inspired by Weber, Baechler (1975) attempts to understand what makes human beings put an end to their lives. He defines suicide as any behavior that seeks and finds the solution to an existential problem in the act of putting an end to one’s life. His strategic theory includes several types of suicidal behavior: the escapists, who see a way out, the aggressives, who wish to attack someone, the oblates, who sacrifice themselves, and the gamblers, who take a chance with death.

Taylor (1978) also studies the significance of the suicide act for the actor himself. Even as they commit suicide, individuals are rarely seeking death. Aligning himself with Baechler, Taylor suggests two meanings to this behavior. The first is the ‘ordeal’ character of suicidal action that represents the risk, the game, the betting with death. The second is the aspect of ‘rebirth’ that the suicide act may take. In risking his life, the individual hopes to escape his problems and reinvest in a new life that will make more sense to him. He is seeking a renewal of life.

4. Psychological And Biological Approaches

Since the 1980s, the increasing influence of the psychological approach on the sociology of suicide has become evident. For Shneidman (1985), suicide is a multidimensional distress of which the main component is always psychological. Suicidal people always suffer from an unbearable psychological pain and from a cognitive constriction, a ‘tunnel vision.’ Suicide becomes the only solution to their problems. Following Shneidman, Kral (1994) also insists on the psychache felt by the suicidal person. However, for Kral, the direct cause of the fatal act is the idea itself of suicide. Suggested by the victim’s culture, it acquires more and more credibility in his eyes and is gradually transformed into an acceptable alternative for getting rid of his psychache. The cultural schema of suicide is progressively internalized into a personal schema.

Some sociologists underline the influence of biology on suicidal behavior. De Catanzaro (1981) adopts a sociobiological standpoint. In his literature review on suicide, Maris (1981) takes note of a biopsychosocial model of suicide. For certain individuals, their life has been so strewn with multiple problems that their capacity for adaptation is severely impaired, possibly owing to their biological condition, e.g., a failure of serotonin or an imbalance of neurotransmitters triggered by social and psychological factors.

5. Differentiation Of Suicidal Behaviors

The sociology of suicide progressively differentiates. First interested in completed suicides, it examines their many particular forms; multiple studies grouped around gender, ethnic origin, and age group proliferate rapidly. Then, sociologists gradually widen their field to include studies of noncompleted suicides.

5.1 Various Forms Of Completed Suicides

Instead of a general analysis of the completed suicides, several sociologists isolate particular groups of the fatal acts. Some of them concentrate on suicides by imitation or contagion, studying the fluctuation of suicides following publicity about certain voluntary deaths. When there is widespread coverage by the press, there follows an increase in the number of suicides. This is known as the ‘Werther effect,’ referring to suicides committed in 1774 after the publication of a novel by Goethe. Tinged with controversy and a lack of unanimity in the results, a good number of studies have been carried out around that point since the early 1980s (Stack 1987).

Other particular forms of completed suicides are examined according to sex, ethnic origin and age group. Analyses of the sex of persons who committed suicide become more detailed and more discriminating. Invoking his concepts of integration and regulation, Durkheim himself had accounted for a higher suicide rate among men than among women. In most societies, researchers still observe far more male suicides than female, with the particular socialization of each gender often offered as an explanation. Researchers are also looking more and more at links between suicide and homosexual orientation, because of the stigmatization and social exclusion that result from the latter.

Sociologists continue to be deeply interested in the ethic origin of persons who died by their own hand. The suicide rate of immigrants to the USA is analyzed and found similar to the rate in their country of origin. Even the methods for suicide used by Asian Americans differ from those chosen by the majority of Americans. The immigrants’ culture of origin is thus a determining factor in their suicide. Intrigued by the low suicide rate of African American men and women in spite of the several risk factors associated with them, some sociologists point out the protective influence of their cultural patterns, particularly of their religious family roles. Black women are protected by their network of social support. As for Chinese women, almost the only ones who take their life more often than their male counterpart, it is because of their traditional culture making them responsible for family problems.

Suicide rates according to age group are carefully and more painstakingly examined. The peaking of suicide in old age is confirmed by Lester (1997) on an international scale. On the other hand, several researchers observe an increasing rate of suicide among the youth in contemporary Western societies. Suicides by imitation and suicide pacts are studied among teenagers who, it is well known, are vulnerable to this phenomenon.

5.2 Other Suicidal Behaviors

It is only in the 1960s that sociologists began to explore the subject of noncompleted suicides. For some researchers, attempted suicide and completed suicide do not show the same characteristics and therefore constitute two distinct social facts. The attempted suicide is presented either as a typical behavior of egotistic societies or as a form of blackmail or a call for help. Often individuals who attempt suicide are hoping more for an intervention that will reconcile them with their social environment than they are seeking death.

Other sociologists consider noncompleted suicides as part of a process of which the final step is a completed suicide. Maris (1981) underlines the importance of attempted suicides in the suicidal process. Identifying 15 predictors of completed suicides during the lifetime of a suicidal person, he puts forward a model of suicide careers. One of the predictors is the greater number of nonfatal suicide attempts, especially among young women. In fact, a higher frequency of attempted suicides and of ‘suicidal ideations’— a concept only timidly discussed in sociology—is generally found among girls.

In their review of the literature published between 1963 and 1993, Arensman and Kerkhof (1996) make a distinction between those whose suicide attempts have been rather weak, those whose attempts have been serious, and those who have ended up killing them- selves. For these authors, the link between mild attempts and completed suicides is not shown; they refer to those attempts as parasuicides and reserve the expression ‘attempted suicide’ for severe attempts.

6. Methods Used

In the wake of Durkheim’s work, the analysis of the social factors of suicide was mostly done by means of quantitative and statistical studies of the macrosociological type. Along with its focusing on the suicidal persons themselves, sociology gradually opened itself to qualitative studies of a more microsociological type that favored sociological individualism.

6.1 Quantitative Studies

Durkheim’s use of statistics has been severely criticized, particularly by Douglas (1967), who reproaches Durkheim for choosing statistics that confirmed his theory, while giving scant attention to those that did not. However, the school of Columbia University, especially via Selvin, praised the work of Durkheim and greatly contributed to reviving the interest for his study of suicide in the USA and in France. In particular, Selvin (1958) pointed out the cleverness and the innovative character of Durkheim’s statistical analysis, not merely contented with simple correlations but using multivariate analysis to validate the complex links between suicide and many social factors.

Macrosociological studies of suicide involving official statistics continue to abound, indeed are in the majority. The relative inaccuracy of such statistics has been argued by some authors, but the hesitation about using them is less and less relevant in contemporary advanced societies where they enjoy greater credibility (Lester 1997). More and more sophisticated statistical tests allow for rigorous longitudinal analyses, as well as precise verification of the correlations between suicide and numbers of variables: gender, marital status, hereditary and biological characteristics, family history, profession, religious affiliation, ethnic origin, immigration, use of drugs or alcohol, emotional problems, previous suicide attempts, economic, geographical and seasonal context of suicides, and means used to commit suicide.

6.2 Qualitative Studies

Correlational studies identify the associations between suicide and different social and psychological factors, without delving too deeply into the concrete influence such variables actually exert on individuals. With time, sociology, turning more to the person who took his own life, wished to go to the heart of this human and social drama and capture the dynamics and the diversity of its significance. Thus, qualitative studies of suicide were undertaken.

In this type of research, the sociology of suicide often prefers the biographical approach in either of its two forms. It is a life story, if it is reconstructed from accounts and documents furnished by the persons themselves who had suicidal ideas or had attempted suicide. The expression life history refers to accounts given by others as well as to various documents allowing the reconstruction of the person’s history in situations of completed suicides.

Baechler (1975) retraces, through accounts written by others, short life histories of individuals who have attempted or completed suicide. Adopting the Weberian idealtype, he ends up with several types of meanings in suicidal behavior, which have been mentioned above. Gratton (1996) writes on her own thorough life stories of some Quebec youngsters who committed suicide, using their personal material left behind as well as 29 in-depth interviews with their kin. On that basis, she constructs four Weberian idealtypes involving, for young people, a lack of connectedness between their values and resources. Two of those idealtypes are centered around the values of the youth, either excessive or inadequate, and two around their resources, either turned powerless or so weak that they depend on others.

Published biographies are used to analyze the suicide of 30 famous people in order to check which theories best clarify the meaning of their suicide. Each biography is analyzed according to situations corresponding to each of the theories. Some theories, such as those of Maris and Shneidman, explain better than others those suicides. The least applicable was Freud’s theory.

Suicide notes, in particular, offer a privileged instrument with which to capture the significance that the actors themselves attribute to their suicide. Researchers are more and more sensitive to the analysis of such notes. For example, the collective suicide of Jim Jones and his sect members, in 1978, was investigated through that medium. Seven hundred audiotapes were found at the scene of the drama. The words exchanged between Jones and his followers are deciphered in the light of the Durkheimian concepts of altruistic and fatalistic suicides. The leaders who influenced the collective suicide appear to have committed an altruistic suicide. On the other hand, the climate of despair, hostility, and degradation which reigned in that community seems to have provoked a fatalistic suicide for the majority of Jones’ disciples.

Life histories of suicide committers also provide the means to map out their psychological autopsies. At first, these autopsies were meant to retrace the social and psychological events that preceded the suicide, in order to understand their subjective significance. However, even if this instrument is still mentioned by Maris (1981) to establish the life trajectory of suicide victims, it is often used by psychologists and psychiatrists merely in the form of standardized questionnaires, aimed at determining the presence or absence of mental illness in those people. Other researchers, interested in intergenerational suicide behavior, will use the ‘genogramme’ in the reconstruction of life histories; it is a graphic representation of the main events that marked the history of a family for at least three generations.

In summary, when sociology looks at suicide as a social phenomenon of a group or of a society, it tends to favor quantitative and generalizing approaches coming from the natural sciences. However, as soon as sociology becomes concerned with the social actors themselves who adopt suicidal behavior and with the diversity of their experiences, it turns to cultural sciences and uses qualitative approaches focused on the individuals.

7. Conclusion

It seems that, ever since Durkheim, the sociology of suicide has been developing by accretion, advancing in three major stages. First of all, Durkheim’s Le Suicide was a pioneer text, identifying suicide as a social phenomenon whose causes had to be sought in the society itself. The sociology of suicide thus made its appearance on the scene of theoretical and empirical knowledge. However, in the following 50 years, it made almost no progress. Durkheim’s study reigned practically alone. It did not, during that period, awaken a strong current of research on suicide.

Then, in the 1950s, the sociology of suicide began to flourish, especially in the USA. Sociologists were busy verifying, extending, refining, and revising Durkheim’s research. Interest in suicide and its social factors broadened progressively, to include the study of the victims of suicide themselves and of their different suicidal behaviors, and to admit psychosociological and psychological approaches. In this regard, social and clinical psychology, Freud’s psychoanalysis and Weber’s comprehensive sociology have been determining influences in the development of the sociology of suicide.

In the third stage, the prevailing one at the start of the twenty-first century, the sociology of suicide is diversifying greatly, as much in its research subjects as in its methodological tools. It has become a field of study, called suicidology, that is increasingly complex and autonomous, with stretchable boundaries and where multidisciplinarity takes on more and more importance (Kral 1994). In that regard, it is emphasized that the various disciplines need not be in competition with each other, since their common ground is suicide. What they ought to do is to confront their different bodies of knowledge and articulate them in a common reflection. The recent publication of Maris et al. (1999) bears witness to this necessary sharing of knowledge about suicide.

Simultaneously, interest in the sociology of suicide is rapidly becoming universal, embracing researchers in almost all corners of the world. Studies on the subject abound. A search of Sociological Abstracts alone, from 1986 to 1999, reveals more than 150 articles from authors in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Brazil, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, and notably the USA. Periodicals devoted exclusively to suicide have been published: Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, Archives of Suicide Research, Giornale Italiano di Suicidologia.

Finally, given the gravity of the suicidal phenomenon in several societies or groups, particularly among the youth, suicidologists from all scientific disciplines are no longer content merely to study suicide. More and more they demonstrate the desire and the need to act socially. With the goal of intervening to prevent suicide, they join national and international associations and take part in seminars and colloquia around the world. The sociology of suicide has contributed, as have other disciplines, to the fact that scientific research is nowadays trying to apply itself to improving society.


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