While some scholars have researched the psychological causes of suicide and others preoccupied themselves with genetic causes, Emile Durkheim sought to study it socially. This was his contribution to the discovery of the “continent” of suicide, which he made as he had been looking into the phenomena of the industrial era and the transformations that this era imposed on these phenomena. Durkheim was extremely alarmed by the rise in suicide rates that was seen in many Western countries as they transitioned from one phase to another, leading him to the conclusion that Europe had been decaying because of industrialization, urbanization, and the waning of traditional ties. This state of affairs left individuals lonely, isolated, and afraid, pushing some to choose to end their lives with their own hands.
Looking into social factors is thus more useful for understanding this phenomenon than identifying drives, motives, and other psychological elements, as suicide is “a symptom of society’s diseases.”
The French sociologist published his monograph “Suicide,” the first empirical study examining this phenomenon through the available data and its analysis, in 1897, when statistics had been relatively poor.
Shedding light on the unevenness of suicides may have been the most significant aspect of his research. The number of suicides committed by followers of different religions is not commensurate with these religions’ equally strong prohibitions against it. Indeed, suicide rates among Protestants are not equal to those of Catholics, as the former has traditionally nurtured individualism against the Catholic Church’s unifying authority. For Protestants, the relationship between the individual and god does not require the mediation of religious figures or a community of believers, depriving their church of any role in creating social solidarity and cohesion. Moreover, education also plays an influential role, as the educated are less inclined to accept the prevailing convictions of the community to which they belong. Protestants have traditionally granted education immense importance. In fact, the Protestant Reformation was founded on translating the Bible into spoken languages, which broke the church’s monopoly on reading and interpreting it, as well as reducing illiteracy and broadening the printing of books.
Since the European Protestants were more educated than Catholics in the early Twentieth century, they become more likely to commit suicide to the same degree that they were less cohesive as a group. On the other hand, Jews, who were the most educated of Europe’s major religious communities, as well as the most persecuted, had the lowest suicide rates nevertheless. According to Durkheim, this “Jewish puzzle” can be explained through the high degree of social cohesion within Jewish communities. Because of their persecution and the discrimination against them, Jews did not educate themselves to change prevailing communal convictions but to affirm them and arrive at an enhanced understanding of religion. That is, under such circumstances, education strengthens the “collective conscience” rather than undermining it.
Suicide rates are also lower among married persons than they are among unmarried persons, as a “matrimonial immunity against suicide” is engendered by a sense of responsibility that prevents the husband from leaving his wife and children without a breadwinner. Meanwhile, those who do not have children commit suicide at higher rates than those who do have children, and men commit suicide at higher rates than women because they are more educated (and this is no longer true in Europe). Rates also increase during periods of economic stagnation and recession, as well as periods of rapidly rising living standards. Unexpected changes, whether negative or positive, propel this rise. Nevertheless, rates decline during periods of great upheaval that invigorate loyalties and leave emotions simmering - identification with a particular community or “the homeland” and “patriotism” flourishes, and suicide declines.
Durkheim identified four types of this practice; one is egoistic suicide. Individuals without social ties to others are more likely to commit suicide. When faced with tribulations and hardship, they find no one to turn to (husband or wife, children, friends, and acquaintances...). Those who commit egoistic suicide care only about themselves by definition, taking their lives without a thought for others, whom they are cut off from in the first place.
Another is anomic suicide, which is committed when technological and economic change accelerates and no new value system governing social relations has been instilled. This state of affairs gives rise to the ruptures and disruptions most clearly apparent in modern societies, which are more dynamic and subject to change as compared to traditional societies. And so, it is no longer surprising that the development and industrialization of society are accompanied by increased suicide rates. However, atomistic suicide could also be precipitated by familial changes that break familiarity, such as death or divorce.
As for altruistic suicide, it is when total assimilation into the collective and dedication to serving it paves the way for facilitating sacrificing one’s self for the community. Examples include Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II, a man who chooses to die to leave the limited funds available to his family for his wife and children, believers who, convinced that their death will serve a divine purpose, commit suicide collectively as part of a ritual, and servants who take their lives after the death of their master because they believe that dying the day after their master’s death is a duty.
For its part, the fourth type, fatalistic suicide, is that which some have likened to Marx’s concept of alienation: extreme conformity and regulation that kill individuality meet weak social integration, as seen in the loneliness and isolation that strike childless women and slaves who have lost hope of ever breaking their chains. However, Durkheim associated this type with the pre-industrial social order and believed that it had ceased to be a relevant phenomenon.
The fact is that what these types share, in addition to death, is a link to social integration, either for lack of it, as is usually the case, or defense of it, as seen in altruistic suicide. This concept is closely tied to “social solidarity,” the notion that underpins Durkheim’s sociological theory, as demonstrated in his most important book “The Division of Labor in Society,” which was issued in 1893.
However, Durkheim has been criticized for “uncritically accepting” official statistics and because he (in keeping with the approach that prevailed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) sought to explain complex phenomena through a single cause, or “law.” Others have faulted him for elevating social solidarity to a status that could repress critique and dissent, which prompted some nationalists and reactionaries to appreciate him highly.
And so, many have challenged his opinion, added to it, or altered it. Nonetheless, he remains the one who “set the agenda,” as Freud did in psychoanalysis. Advocating and opposing start with him.