Emile Durkheim was to become one of the most influential writers in regard to the subject of suicide and its link to the state of our modern society. For centuries before his writing, suicide was regarded as a moral and psychological problem that was caused by differences inherent to the individual. Durkheim’s work was the first to imply that the study of suicide could not be based on individuals and it was crucial to create a sociological approach regarding the external causes of society itself. His work, although receiving a great deal of criticism, has provoked a change in such studies ever since, with many sociologists using an interpretation of Durkheim’s theories as the basis of their own studies.
In order to display that the crisis in our society was caused by factors external to the individuals, Durkheim systematically analysed each alternative possibility, all of which he eventually ruled out as a possible cause. He defined these alternatives as “organic-psychic dispositions and the nature of the physical environment” (Durkheim,E 1989). In studying the former of these, Durkheim wished to determine whether there existed an inclination among certain individuals towards suicide and he began by analysing the components of insanity. It was assumed by a number of theorists known as alienists that every suicide was committed by a person inflicted by insanity and that, according to Bourdin, suicide is simply a disease and special form of insanity. (Durkheim,E 1989) Durkheim continues this line of thought in order to discover what exactly is meant by such an insanity of suicide. He proposes that if suicide were to be a type of insanity then it would therefore be known as a ‘monomania’; a delirium of localised nature. It was believed that this monomania would be provoked by a violent emotional disturbance, which appears to link with the idea that suicides are usually “influenced by some abnormal passion” (Durkheim, E 1989). However, Durkheim finds fault with this theory, as he is unsatisfied of proof of existence of monomanias. He claims that although it cannot be proved that they do not exist, any type of observations that they do exist has never conclusively shown it. Furthermore, it has long since been believed that the idea of completely separate mental functions is false and that they are so completely interdependent that insanity, upon attacking one area, would without doubt affect every aspect of mental behaviour. It therefore appears that no suicidal monomania can exist and suicide cannot be “a distinct form of insanity”.
Durkheim then continues to inspect the possibility that, although suicide is not a specific form of insanity, it may be a recurring event connected with all insanities. In order to do this four categories of suicide were created including maniacal, melancholy, obsessive and impulsive suicide. The first of these describes suicide linked to sudden hallucinations, demonstrated by suicide attempts which cannot be recalled by the person in the case of a survival and when the person no longer wishes to cause harm to themselves immediately after the attempt. The second form is associated with a severely depressive state resulting in despair of life, while the third varies in that it is entirely unmotivated but just as dominant as a suicide of melancholy reasons. Finally, impulsive suicide is equally as unmotivated; however, it does not consume the person’s mind. Instead it is characterised by a sudden and forceful urge. These definitions of suicide show that a number of different types exist, some of which result from hallucinations, and others, which are the product of real perceptions. This further shows that not all types of suicide can be linked to insanity that can therefore not be identified as a cause of suicide.
Durkheim also shows that if mental disorders were the sole cause of suicide, then social conditions should have no effect on statistics. He displays that between 1858 and 1891...
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