Critically evaluate Durkheim’s sociological approach to the analysis of suicide
Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, is often acclaimed as being one of the key pioneers of the academic discipline, sociology. Durkheim is perhaps most renowned for his publications of controversial monographs, which conveyed the methods and subjects of, in his time the new science of sociology. His work was translated into English and is still in print today, this displays just how fundamental his studies are in the field of today’s sociology. Durkheim is also well known for the establishment of social theory, which can view sociological subjects in an empirical manner like natural sciences. Durkheim was seen as a positivist, he believed that human society follows laws the same as how science does using empirical evidence and testing. After his text on the rules of sociological method, he tackled the subject of suicide as an example of how a sociologist can study any subject that seems personal without a social aspect. Durkheim’s aim was to examine and explain people’s tendency toward suicide. Suicide, which Durkheim defined as ‘all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result’ (Durkheim 1952:44) is a prime example of how an individual can relate and react to society as a whole. Durkheim chose the topic of suicide to prove that sociology, could explain acts which seemed to be the very opposite of social. Durkheim hoped that by providing a well-documented and largely cerebral study he could secure the status of sociology within sciences. He decided on suicide as it showed the necessity for and value of sociological explanation. Suicide was seen to be subject to external social factors (even though it may be seen as an individual and private act) and therefore required a sociological explanation. Durkheim begins his theory of society with an overal perspective of the whole society. In his work ‘The devisions of labour in society’ (1984), he says there are two ways which can be seen to bind society together; Mechanical solidarity inherited from the earliest form of society, where individuals in society have similer ways of life and are joined together by the collective conscience. Along with organic solidarity, idividuals are seen as more complex in their way of life. Durkheim saw suicide as a personal act, which represented a failure in social solidarity. In his study of suicide the ‘collective conscience’ acts as a regulator of individuals dreams and desires, therefore controlling society.
Durkheim’s seminal monograph Suicide (1952), was a case study where he looked into suicide rates amongst differing social categories, by examining suicide statistics in different police districts. It was a unique publication for its time, which showed his example of what the sociological monograph should look like. This work was seen to pioneer modern social research, as his theory was among the first attempts within sociology to combine theoretical and empirical approaches. Durkheim’s method was a scientific one due to his sociological view. He had defined the problem he wanted to study, as suicide rate, which could be seen as the dependent variable in scientific work. Durkheim believed that the other main component for his study was social factors, in particular; religion, marital status, economic condition, and military/civilian status, as he believed they all had a direct affect on suicide rates, these factors are seen as the independent variable. Durkheim like academics carrying out scientific studies created his hypothesis on the study, which was that suicide rates would vary depending upon the social factors listed above. While most commonly Durkheim is seen as a positivist with his scientific methodology, the more recent evaluations have argued him to be a realist with some extreme positivists attacking his approach. Even though...
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