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May 16, 2018 / C H Thompson

Durkheim’s study of suicide: revision notes with evaluative points

Durkheim’s study of suicide gave birth to sociology. He wrote in the late 19th century using a positivist belief system that society can be studied as a science, and be observed and studied just as we do when studying the natural world. Durkheim wanted to show that suicide was linked to society, and then the value of sociology could be established. He saw suicide as an individual and private act, influencing his methodology to involve a detailed systematic analysis.

From Durkheim’s perspective, behaviour is caused by social facts, which are social forces that surround society, and therefore suicide is a social fact in its own right.

Durkheim based his research on statistics and looked at different societies, and different cultural and social groups within the same society in the 19th century. He found a number of social patterns, arguing that the social patterns found demonstrate that suicide is not a random individual act.

  • Suicide rates varied between different countries, for example they were higher in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries.
  • The rise and fall in suicide statistics appeared to be related to social factors, for example, they rose in periods of economic recession and fell during wartime.
  • There were variations between different groups within the same society, for example unmarried and childless people had higher rates than those married with children.

Instead of using a psychological explanation to study these results, Durkheim explains these suicide rates as the effect of social facts and forces that act upon individuals.

Durkheim therefore suggested that these patterns were due to two factors affecting thee individuals; their levels of integration within society, and their levels of regulation. The level of integration refers to a feeling of belonging to a group, so in a strongly integrated society, people are bound together by shared norms and values. The level of regulation refers to the level of control a society has over its members.

From these two social facts, Durkheim came up with four types of suicide to categorise:

  1. Altruistic suicide -> this refers to having too much social integration. The individual isn’t fully integrated into society. An example of altruistic suicide are suicide bombers.
  2. Egoistic suicide -> this refers to having not enough integration into society, the opposite of altruistic suicide. For example, Protestants compared to Catholics, as Protestants have a looser social network.
  3. Fatalistic suicide -> this refers to having too much regulation. This is where the individual is heavily controlled by society. An example is prisoners or slaves.
  4. Anomic suicide -> this refers to having not enough regulation, the opposite of fatalistic suicide. Think of anomie, meaning normlessness. An example of this suicide would be suicide that occurs in times of economic depression.


Evaluation of Durkheim and suicide


(-) Halbwachs supported Durkheim’s work, yet noticed that he hadn’t considered the impact of rural and urban lifestyles on suicide rates.

(-) Gibbs and Martin argued that Durkheim’s methods weren’t a vigorous enough use of scientific methods, arguing that he didn’t operationalise his concept of integration, making it impossible to measure.


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