Durkheim – Suicide

Note-taking for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Durkheim’s sociological classic sounds so much more sophisticated in the original French: “Le Suicide.”

All jokes aside, this is a personal topic for me, due its impact on my friends and extended family, not to mention artists I admire

Individual factors and circumstances aren’t enough to explain the observed rates of suicide in different countries. We need to look at social causes.

The private experiences usually thought to be the proximate causes of suicide have only the influence borrowed from the victim’s moral predisposition, itself an echo of the moral state of society (299).

Why, for example, did European Protestants of the 19th century commit suicide at a much higher rate than European Catholics? Durkheim tells us not to look at the specific dogma of either faith, but instead to consider that Protestantism is very individual, and Catholicism is very collective.

[The] proclivity of Protestantism for suicide must relate to the spirit of free inquiry that animates this religion (158).

This is an unhappy thought – critical thinking undermines the social cohesion of a religion, making it a less effective emotional support. But wait, Jews are the most critical thinkers of anyone. So why were they killing themselves even less frequently than Catholics? Durkheim ascribes it to their outsider status:

[T]he reproach to which the Jews have for so long been exposed by Christianity has created feelings of unusual solidarity among them (159-160).

Religion isn’t the only source of social cohesion out there. Durkheim explores a long list of social factors influencing suicide rates. Single people are likelier to commit suicide than married people, which aligns with the social cohesion theory. But soldiers have a higher rate of suicide than civilians. Isn’t the military pretty cohesive? Yes, says Durkheim, but it’s too cohesive. Excessive social intrusion is as stressful as excessive isolation.

Suicide also becomes more likely in times of social instability and loss of meaning. Predictably, there is more suicide in conditions of economic instability. There are more suicides in peacetime than during wars, because, like Chris Hedges says, war is a force that gives us meaning

Durkheim identifies four distinct types of suicide:

  • Egoistic suicide. Caused by not belonging, “excessive individuation” (216). This explains higher suicide rates among unmarried people. As Durkheim pithily puts it, of unmarried men: “When one is no longer checked, one becomes unable to check one’s self” (271).
  • Altruistic suicide. The opposite of egoistic suicide. Caused by too much belonging, when your sense of self is overwhelmed by your social group, like soldiers voluntarily dying for their cause.
  • Anomic suicide. Caused by the moral deregulation that comes from social and economic upheaval. Without limits on your desires, you’re constantly disappointed. It can be caused both by sudden poverty and sudden wealth.
  • Fatalistic suicide. The opposite of anomic suicide. Caused by too much regulation, by stifling oppression.

Educated people are more likely to commit suicide than uneducated people. As with Protestants, this can be ascribed to critical thinking. But Durkheim argues that critical thinking is a symptom, not the cause.

[I]f the suicidal tendency is great in educated circles, this is due to the weakening of traditional beliefs and to the state of moral individualism resulting from this. Man seeks to learn and man kills himself because of the loss of cohesion in his religious society; he does not kill himself because of his learning… Knowledge is not sought as a means to destroy accepted opinions but because their destruction has commenced (68-69).

If lack of balanced social cohesion causes suicide, what’s the cure? Durkheim recommends labor unions. I recommend music participation.