Emile Durkheim was one of the most influential people to write about suicide and its causes. Suicide had previously been thought to be a moral and psychological problem whereas Durkheim related suicide to sociological problems in modern society. He believed and worked to prove that suicide was not related to individualism but linked to the effects of the external influences of modern society. External social influences upon an individual covered the broad and varied aspects such as culture, religion and family. Durkheim believed that suicide was directly related to the level of social integration and/or regulation of a person in society. He developed groups into which an individual was categorised according to their level of integration or regulation. Although he received criticism at the time, his findings still have a great influence on modern sociologists; with many of their theories being based upon his initial findings. One of the main concerns of Durkheim in the late 1800’s was to prove that sociology was different to psychology, especially in relation to suicide. He worked to prove that suicide was a social fact and that the incidence of suicide correlated with the social conditions the individual was experiencing or had experienced at some stage in their life. Durkheim (1938) gives the following description ‘A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.’ Durkheim believed that despite what we might like to think as independent individuals, most of our thoughts, ideas and inclinations ‘are not developed by us but come to us from without’ thus re-iterating the power and influence of society. The individual was thought to be somewhat constrained by ‘social facts’ which is seen as a way of conforming in society. Durkheim did not deny that the individual who attempted or committed suicide was psychologically affected but ruled out the preconceived idea that suicide was directly related to insanity. He believed that suicide was more affected by the level of social integration or regulation in society that the individual had experienced; identifying four groups to distinguish this. Durkheim was a positivist, believing society (following laws set and regulated by humans) was like science insofar that discoveries could be made using data gathered by experimentation, observation and various methods of testing. He used empirical data based on social research which was available, thus enabling his work to be recognized as scientific sociology. Proving that suicide was a social fact first, entailed using the data that was available in the early nineteenth century that allowed Durkheim to compare cities, regions and nations; strengthening his conviction to support his theories with social facts. After preliminary research he concluded that even though suicide rates between societies were very different, the suicide rates within any given society would remain stable over periods of time. Durkheim noted that previous records of suicide, where motives such as physical sufferings, mental illness, loss of employment or disappointed love were recorded as the reason for a suicide were, in fact, only indicators of the individual’s weakness at that time. Durkheim argued that these were not clear indicators of motive and only a state of being at the time of death. ‘…we make it a rule not to employ in our studies such uncertain and uninstructive data; no law of any interest has in fact ever been drawn from them by students of suicide.’ (Durkheim, 1987) Durkheim was clear that he wanted to disregard the individual’s supposed causes of suicide. He concentrated instead on the social environment that the individual was a part of and the social causes affiliated with that society. A reflection of the...
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Durkheim, E. (1938). What is a social fact? In The rules of sociological method (pp. 1-13). (S. A. Solovay, & J. H. Mueller, Trans.) New York: The Free Press. (Original work published 1895)
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