The Sociology of Suicide: Durkheim, Taylor, Beachlor & Atkinson
• According to Durkheim, suicide is not an individual act. It is
caused by some power which is over and above the
• Suicide is the result of social disorganisation or lack of
social integration or social solidarity.
There are identifiable trends in suicide…
• Suicide rates are higher in men than women
• Suicide rates are higher among Protestants than Catholics
• Suicide rates are higher in times of peace than in times of
• The higher the education level, the more likely it is that an
individual would commit suicide
Durkheim classified different types of suicides on the basis of
different types of relationship between the individual and
society, based on integration and regulation in society
(1) Egoistic suicide:
• This is the suicide of self-centred person who lacks altruistic
feelings and is usually cut off from main stream of the
society when there is too little integration.
(2) Altruistic suicide:
• This type of suicide occurs when individuals and the group
are too close and intimate, when there is too much
(3) Anomic suicide:
• This type of suicide is due to little regulation in society.
(4) Fatalistic suicide:
• This type of suicide is due to overregulation in society.
• Although Durkheim's theory of suicide has contributed
much about the understanding of the phenomenon
because of his focus on social rather than on biological
factors, the main weakness of the theory is that he has
focused too much on only one factor, namely social factor
and has forgotten or undermined other factors, thus
making his theory unreliable and only one sided.
Criticisms of Durkheim’s theory include…
• Fails to consider the issues of reliability and validity.
• Subjectivity in his work.
• Durkheim's reference to suicidal forces or suicidogenic
currents contradicts the scientific and factual approach of
positivisms since these forces are unseen and
• Because these suicidal forces cannot be seen or measured
the theory cannot be falsified - no evidence can disprove it.
• Douglas argues that sociological analysis should focus on
meaning rather than social structure.
• He argues that to understand suicide sociologically we
should examine the meaning of suicide for the participants
- using diaries, suicide notes, psychiatrist’s notes and
He suggests a number of typical meanings suicide can have in
• Suicide as reunion - release from cares/pressures.
• Suicide as atonement - transforming oneself for others.
• Suicide as revenge - most increased form in 20th century
• Jean Beachler developed on the work of Douglas. He
believed that suicide could only be explained through
personal factors rather than external factors. Using
methods such as case studies and existing literature as his
tools he concluded that suicide is both a response to a
problem and a method to try and solve a problem.
Baechler also distinguished four different types of suicide…
• Escapist – Flight from an intolerable situation.
• Aggressive- As a way of harming other people, make
another person feel guilty.
• Oblative- Sacrifice; giving their life to save others.
• Ludie – Deliberate risks are taken that might lead to death.
• Steve Taylor criticizes both Douglas and Baechler
• Taylor’s research was conducted over 12 months where he
collected 32 cases of people throwing themselves under
trains and looked at how the deaths were classified. Of the
32, 17 were classed as suicide, 5 as accidental deaths and
10 were open verdicts.
Factors according to Taylor that made suicide verdicts more likely
A history of mental illness.
Person had no reason to be at the tube station
Reports by witnesses on the state of mind.
• Taylor concluded that suicide, and suicide attempts could
be divided into two categories…
• Etopic – inner directed, results from what the person thinks
• Symphysic – other directed, results from the person’s
relationship with others.
This results in four different types of suicide which are the
result of personal situations, not wider society…
• Submissive Suicide –certain about life and sees themselves
as already dead.
• Thanatation Suicide –uncertain about themselves, the
suicide attempt is a gamble.
• Sacrifice Suicide – Certain that others have made their life
• Appeal Suicide –person feeling uncertainty over the
attitudes of others towards them.
• Atkinson believed that suicide statistics are more a
reflection of the coroner’s assumptions. They are socially
• He focuses on the methods used by coroners for how they
categorise deaths as suicide. He advocates the use of
Interviews, Observations & Inquests & coroner’s records in
• He believes that coroners hold a “common sense” theory
for classifying deaths as suicide and certain factors can
influence the decision…
1)The data problem
Suicide is clearly not easy to study and thus there has tended
to be an over reliance on official statistics. Two main data
problems have been investigated: investigations into the
accuracy of official statistics, and investigations into the
validity of such statistics.
2)Problems of the coroner
The coroner has to conduct an inquest where he is forced to
rely on clues to infer suicidal intent. In fact, a coroner
constructs a psychological autopsy.
3) Indicators of suicidal intent
1. Notes can conceal homicide and notes are only found in a
minority of cases, notes might be destroyed (by
2. Study of suicide notes give some idea of the social meaning
Mode of death:
1. Certain types of death are more likely to be interpreted as
suicide than others. For example, road deaths are unlikely to
be viewed as suicide, but hanging is.
2. Some methods are less clear-cut. For example, drug
overdoses, because there is the problem of proving
intent, rather than a mistake.
3. The search for clues can lead to idiosyncratic rules of thumb
in making a decision.
Location and circumstances of death:
These give clues as to suicidal intent, for example a deserted
place is seen as more likely to be a real attempt. There seems
to be a belief that if someone wants to kill themselves, they
will make a realistic attempt at it and steps will be taken to
ensure the maximum probability of death.
Life history and mental condition:
Coroners tend to have ideas about the kinds of circumstance
which can lead people to suicide.
Atkinson believes suicide verdicts are the result of a
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