By the 1850s, suicide was a growing social problem in Europe. Many people felt that it was related to the huge industrial changes taking place at that time. For Emile Durkheim, studying this phenomenon â€“ which is generally seen to be one of the most private and personal acts â€“ provided the perfect opportunity to show the power of the new science of sociology (Ritzer, 2008). Durkheim developed a theory around four types of suicide which will be outlined below. The affect that Durkheim’s book Le Suicide (1897) has had on the suicide research that came after it will be discussed, including issues with empirical evidence to back up his claims around his four types of suicide and their causes. The need for methodological developments from those used by Durkheim is addressed in order for sociological research on suicide to stay relevant. Finally, the introduction of new dimensions to the issue of suicide with the growth of the internet is discussed.
Emile Durkheim was not the first to study suicide rates in the nineteenth century. However, his contribution to the study of suicide in sociology is without doubt the most influential. Quetelet and Morselli, two moral statisticians who attempted to inductively analyse a large body of suicide statistics, were enthralled by the stability of yearly suicide rates, as well as the overall rise in the rates in the modern era (Quetelet and Morselli, in Wray et al, 2011). Masaryk (in Wray et al, 2011) actually proceeded Durkheim in looking to explain the rise in rates by the forces of modernisation. Tarde disputed these statisticians’ theories by postulating that imitation behaviour could account for geographical and temporal clustering of suicide behaviour (Tarde, in Wray et al, 2011). Durkheim, who outright rejected Tarde’s imitation theory and went to great lengths to discredit it (Ritzer, 2008), wanted to approach the view that modernisation was the root cause of the suicide rate increase in a more analytical way than his contemporaries (Wray et al, 2011). To this end, he formulated a social theory of suicide in which the causes of suicide lie within a framework of society rather than at an individual’s psychological state (Morrison, 1995). What Durkheim was interested in was suicide rates rather than individual causes, in order to explain why one group had a higher rate than another (Ritzer, 2008).
Durkheim’s theory on suicide is based on the two continua of social integration and social regulation, at the ends of which are four independent theories of suicide (Breault, 2001). These four theories are egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic suicide. For Durkheim, ‘egoistic suicide’ occurs in societies or groups where the individual has a low level of integration into the larger social unit, making them feel as if they are not part of society and likewise, society is not part of them (Ritzer, 2008: 91). According to Durkheim, society is where the best parts of being human come from;
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