The essay will attempt to evaluate and assess how the various theoretical perspectives within sociology have contributed to our understanding of the deviant, individual act of ‘suicide’. This will be achieved by defining and evaluating ‘functionalism’, a ‘macro perspective’ and the application of this functionalistic approach formulated by Emile Durkheim, to the social phenomenon of ‘suicide’. Criticisms in relation to Durkheims’s study will also be evaluated, drawing upon other ‘Positivist’ theories and contrasting, ‘Interpretive’ theories of ‘suicide’, such as ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, a ‘micro perspective’; who’s principles were originally formulated by Max Weber.
The development of ‘sociology’ as a discipline occurred during the 19th century, in an attempt to develop a science of society whose methodological principles shared similarities with that of the natural sciences. The term "sociology" was accredited to Auguste Comte (1838), one of the original initiators of the subject, which he believed could encompass all sciences into a cohesive whole. Sociology defines society as an object, which exists, can be studied and for which laws can be formulated. Therefore, sociology must be able to account for social phenomenon. This led to the development of a variety of ‘sociological theories’ or ‘macro perspectives’, a set of ideologies that attempt to explain the function and structure of society. Prior to the development of Sociology, earlier attempts at understanding human behaviour were humanistic in approach, unguided by the principles of scientific methodology.
The act of ‘suicide’ has attracted controversial debate from various spheres of society, not least the academic arena of Sociology. In Britain, before the 1961, the act of ‘suicide’ or ‘attempted suicide’ was not deemed to be an unlawful or criminal act. Various methodological approaches have been used to critically examine the phenomenon of ‘suicide’. From a ‘classical’ approach, Functionalism, a structural consensus perspective, emerged from the works of Emile Durkheim (1897), a French sociologist who viewed society as existing independently of individuals. Although functionalism views individuals as naturally selfish, social integration is achieved by making individuals aware of their social bonds to others. Social cohesion is obtained through facilitation of institutions such as family, religion and law and order, which are based on common goals, shared values and beliefs. A functionalist approach is one in which 'society' is a unity of integrated working parts. The crucial features being, ‘that they are made up of norms, values and cultural definitions of behaviour considered appropriate and worthy in different settings’ (Jones, 2003, pp 32:1), which are adopted by the members of that society. Durkheim used the term ‘Anomie’ to describe a condition of moral deregulation, occurring when social norms and values are confused and unclear to the individual. This gives rise to crime and deviation, especially during periods of social disruption such as economic depression; ‘anomie’ is produced, resulting in higher rates of deviation. One such type is ‘suicide’.
Functionalism asserts that our lives are guided by social structures, relatively stable patterns of social behaviour. It is these aspects of culture that Durkheim suggests are products of collective interaction (Bilton et al, 1988, pp 488:2). In ‘The rules of sociological Method’, Durkheim (1964) regarded social facts as controls of conduct external to the individual, and coercive of the actor which can be observed existing at the level of the collective and are not reducible to the level of the individual behaviour or meaning. These are created from collective forces and do not emanate from the individual (Hadden, p. 104). While they may not seem to be observable, social facts are things that "are...