Implication of the Social in Emile Durkheim's Study of Suicide

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  • Topic: Sociology, Émile Durkheim, Anomie
  • Pages : 6 (2083 words )
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  • Published : September 20, 2012
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“Man's characteristic privilege is that the bond he accepts is not physical but moral; that is, social. He is governed not by a material environment brutally imposed on him, but by a conscience superior to his own, the superiority of which he feels. Because the greater, better part of his existence transcends the body, he escapes the body's yoke, but is subject to that of society.”-Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim was the first French academic Sociologist. The main thrust of his overall doctrine was his insistence that the study of society must eschew reductionism and consider social phenomena sui generis. He was a Positivist, influenced by Saint Simon, and Comte. He believed that society should be studied through empirical observations and that the subject matter of Sociology is “social facts”. Social facts are the collective ways of acting, thinking and feeling which are external and coercive in nature. One social fact can only be explained in terms of other social facts. His thesis on the Division of Labour laid the foundations for his subsequent works; His later works were all introduced in this thesis, and his detailed writings on them are mere refinements or extensions of his ideas regarding Division of Labour.

One such phenomenon that was initially introduced in the division of Labour is that of suicide. His ideas on suicide are organically linked with his ideas on division of labour. He was influenced by several 18th century scholars who had written on suicide as a way of understanding the moral character of society. He defined the act of suicide by saying that Suicide is applied to 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, however, maintained that there must be very strict analytical separation between the study of suicide as a social fact and understanding the individual motivations of suicide. He believed that increase in suicides always attested to a serious upheaval in the organic conditions of society. For his study on suicide, he accessed data through statistical reports. He focused only on some regions of Western Europe, an aspect that was critiqued later on, because his deductions were hence not universally applicable. He concentrated on the rate of suicide rather than looking at individual cases. It was a social phenomenon, the causes being social in nature rather than individual or physiological. Durkheim believed that there was also a functional aspect of suicide in society.

Durkheim constructed a typology of suicides based on what he deduced from the statistical reports. He named the first type “egoistic” suicide. In this type there is an inverse relation between the rate of suicide and the degree of social integration. He argued that egoistic suicide takes place when the individual asserts himself in excess of the social. This type was usually characterized by its occurrence in contemporary societies. “... Social man superimposes himself upon physical man. Social man necessarily presupposes a society which he expresses or serves. If this dissolves, if we can no longer feel it in existence and action about and above us. Whatever is social in us is deprived of all objective foundation... Thus we are bereft of reasons for existence: for the only life to which we could cling no longer corresponds to anything actual; the only existence still based upon reality no longer meets our needs... So there is nothing more for our efforts to lay hold of, and we feel them lose themselves in emptiness...” He explained this in terms of a number of examples. He observed that the rate of suicide among Catholics is less than that among Protestants. He pointed out that both sections condemn the act of suicide with equal stringency. However, the Protestants are liberal and they believe in the cult of the individual and promote the spirit of free enquiry. The Catholics on the other hand are conservative...
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