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Durkheim on Suicide. Early French sociology in the shadow of natural science. Comte on social physics, on statics and dymanics ; positivism as a social philosophy Darwin on evolution Science as a source of metaphors (society as an ‘organism’) The search for social laws

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early french sociology in the shadow of natural science
Early French sociology in the shadow of natural science
  • Comte on social physics, on statics and dymanics; positivism as a social philosophy
  • Darwin on evolution
  • Science as a source of metaphors (society as an ‘organism’)
  • The search for social laws
    • Durkheim on the two laws of penal evolution
    • Tarde on the laws of imitation
weber on cultural science
Weber on cultural science
  • ‘we are cultural beings’ = we can attach significance to things.
  • We do this by relating them to ‘values’
  • Sociology should study matters of significance, the great problems of our time.
  • In the social or cultural sciences, a great scientific error can be worth much more than ‘stupid accuracy’. E.g., The Communist Manifesto.
durkheim on social science
Durkheim on social science
  • Sociology should be able to match natural science, otherwise it is not a social science.
  • We should be able to explain things.
  • We should be able to find some laws of social life. Or if not laws, then confident, robust generalisations.
  • But we can’t conduct experiments as natural scientists do. Montesquieu gave us the first hints as to the next best thing: comparing societies with one another.
what sort of facts
What sort of facts?
  • Sociology is the study, among other things, of social facts. What is a social fact?
  • Not something that is set down in statistical tables.
  • ‘A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint, OR, which is general over the whole society whilst having an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations' (Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, ch.1
durkheim s big question in the division of labour in society
Durkheim’s big question (in The Division of Labour in Society)
  • What is the character of social solidarity?
  • How are societies held together?
  • What are the pathologies of modern industrial society and how can we put them right?
  • One of those pathologies: the anomic division of labour, arising out of a lack of regulation, a lack of fit between an individual and a position in the division of labour, a lack of proportion between industrial occupations.
suicide as a social problem but also as a challenge to sociology
Suicide as a social problem but also as a challenge to sociology
  • Sociology always tries to explain general phenomena, not individual cases: war not wars.
  • There are suicides, but is there ‘suicide’? Isn’t ‘it’ a fundamentally individual act with as many motives as there are individuals?
  • So how can sociology, which is the study of ‘society’, have anything to say about it?
  • We might say that sociology is about the relationship between society, history and biography, but still, suicide, this intimate, private act?
suicide as a moral problem
Suicide as a moral problem
  • Suicide condemned in many major religions (no human being has the right to take life, even his/her own)

definition of suicide:

  • ‘…the term 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’ Suicide, London: Routledge, [1897] 1952 p.44

a sociological, not a psychological problem, because: ‘each society is predisposed to contribute a definite quota of voluntary deaths. This predisposition may therefore be the subject of a special study belonging to sociology’.

  • no concern with individual motive because no statistics available on motive. But official statistics are available.
what is durkheim trying to explain
What is Durkheim trying to explain?
  • Not ‘why x committed suicide’ but why there is a variation in the suicide rate:
    • between countries,
    • between religious groups
    • between social groups (men and women, unmarried and married men, men and women with children and without children)
    • Within these groups over time
rejected explanations
Rejected Explanations
  • Individual pathology (madness, alcoholism)
  • Race (propensity to suicide not hereditary)
  • Climate and temperature (v. Montesquieu)
  • Imitation
and yet morphological v aetiological classification
...and yet... morphological v. aetiological classification
  • ‘Only in so far as the effective causes differ can there be different types of suicide. For each to have its own nature, it must have special conditions of existence. The same antecedent or group of antecedents cannot sometimes produce one result and sometimes another…Consequently, we shall be able to determine the social types of suicide by classifying them not directly by their preliminary described characteristics, but by the causes which produce them’. ibid. p.146-7

One might think a priori that some relation existed between the nature of suicide and the kind of death chosen by the one who commits it. It seems quite natural that the means he uses to carry out his resolve should depend on the feelings urging him on and thus express these feelings. We might therefore be tempted to use the data concerning this matter supplied to us by statistics to describe the various sorts of suicides more closely, by their external form. But our researches into this matter have given only negative results. ... The social causes on which suicides in general depend, however differ from those which determine the way they are committed; for no relation can be discovered between the types of suicide which we have distinguished and the most common modes of performance. (Durkheim, Suicide: 290-1)


Durkheim's study was not organized on the basis of empirical variables, even though perhaps the method he outlined in his 1895 book The Rules of Sociological Method had specified that it should have been. It was organized on the basis of a theory of basic social causes’ (Mike Gane).

integration and regulation the key to everything well almost everything
Integration and regulation: the key to everything (well, almost everything)
  • There are 4 types of suicide: egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic
  • Where do these come from?
  • They are found at the ends of two spectrums!
  • Those two spectrums are social integration and social regulation
integration and suicide
Integration and suicide
  • Integration
  • Too low too high
  • (egoistic suicide) (altruistic suicide)
regulation and suicide
Regulation and suicide
  • Too low too high
  • (anomic suicide) (fatalistic suicide)
egoistic suicide the one everyone understands best
Egoistic suicide (the one everyone understands best)
  • Varies with religious affiliation
  • Protestants, Catholics and Jews show different rates
  • This has nothing to do with doctrine – all three condemn it.
  • The difference has to do with forms of organisation, and degrees of individuality: protestantism permits free inquiry; catholic accepts faith ready made; protestantism allows reinterpretation of the Bible
  • Less ecclesiastical hierarchy in protestantism
  • More individual freedom of judgement in protestantism.
  • Low rates of suicide among Jews – strong discouragement of individual differences; strong integration in the face of persecution.
education as a factor
Education as a factor?
  • Education increases possibility of suicide, but humans do not commit suicide ‘because’ of increase in knowledge. [quotation]

it can be established absolutely certainly that the tendency to suicide varies according to education. But it is impossible to understand how education can lead to suicide. ... Thus we are moved to ask whether both facts might not be the consequence of one single state. This common cause is the weakening of religious traditionalism, which reinforces at the same time the desire for knowledge and the tendency to suicide. (Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, pp. 152-3)


E.g. rates for women lower dues to less education

  • but rates lower also among Jews, for whom education is superimposed on traditional beliefs and does not replace it.
  • Suicide increases with decreasing integration of family life
  • Too much integration (e.g. ‘primitive’ societies, Suttee, modern armies, warfare)
  • Arises from a discrepancy between desires and the means of meeting them (lack of regulation)
  • chronic pathology, permanent condition of advanced industrial societies
  • manifests itself during economic crises (affects entrepreneurs more than workers (due to high expectations of entrepreneurs)
  • ‘poverty’ as a ‘protection against suicide’!
danger of the ecological fallacy
Danger of the ecological fallacy
  • D. never implied that we can say: ‘you are a protestant man, therefore you are more likely to commit suicide than a catholic woman’.
  • We are not dealing with individual people here.
  • Recent example of the ecological fallacy: abortion advice centres telling individual women that if they had an abortion they were more likely to be a child abuser.
durkheim s one cause johnson mid 60s
Durkheim’s one cause (Johnson, mid 60s)
  • Really, egoism and anomie amount to the same thing, and altruism and fatalism are of little interest.
  • So there is only one problem: individualism.
halbwachs 1930s on urban rural
Halbwachs (1930s) on Urban/rural
  • Anomie was a problem of cities, so the key variable was not so much religion or marriage or family, as city life: urbanites were more likely to commit suicide.
suicide and economic prosperity
Suicide and economic prosperity
  • Baudelot and Establet (1990s)
  • There is a general correlation between the economic growth and rising suicide rates. But factors that in 19th century led to rapid increase in suicide rates are cancelled out by other consequences of economic prosperity.
  • In the twentieth century, there is no longer a direct link between wealth and suicide.
  • Managed individualism 1945-75. Safety nets, welfare state as a means of integration. [compare Sennett on ‘bureaucratic respect’)
  • ‘creative individualism’ (work and self-realisation) 1975- ... Compare Bauman on meaningless work!

The development of creative individualism partly compensates for the protection modern societies lose as they stray away from tradition. Once again, the correlation becomes more pronounced if we assume a constant level of wealth’ (Baudelot and Establet, p.73).


Generally, the richer the country, the fewer the people who engage in regular religious observance. Specifically:

    • Rich countries with high degrees of religious observance have lower rates
    • Rich countries with low degrees of religious observance have higher rates
    • Poorer countries with low rates of observance have higher rates.
lessons of all this
Lessons of all this
  • A problematic study may stimulate further efforts (Weber – we want our work to be surpassed), e.g. Baudelot and Establet.
  • Official statistics are not social facts (they don’t constrain anyone); they are compiled by human beings who make judgements (Jack Douglas, Barry Hindess).
  • Judgement, along with rhetoric is also a tool of sociological analysis.
  • The persuasive power of Durkheim’s work often resides in its rhetoric as much as in its argument.
  • Keeping important questions alive may be as valuable as the search for watertight explanations.