Interpretivism and Suicide: MAX ATKINSON
Interpretivists heavily criticise Durkheim’s positivist theory of suicide. Instead of looking at statistics, patterns, trends
and social facts interprevists are interested in the MEANINGS of suicide for those involved.
Max Atkinson (1978): Ethnomethodology and suicide
Atkinson takes a different interpretivist approach from Douglas, he uses ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology
sees social reality as simply a social construct of its members. We create reality using a stock of taken-for-granted,
commonsense knowledge. The sociologist’s job is to uncover what this knowledge is and how we use it to make
sense of the world. From this perspective Atkinson reviews Douglas’ contribution.
Douglas argued that:
1 Official stats are merely the constructs or labels coroners give to deaths
2 Using qualitative data allows us to get behind these labels to find the deceased’s real meanings. From this we can
discover the real rate of suicide.
Atkinson accepts Douglas’ first point but rejects his second.
For Atkinson we can never know the real rate of suicide since we would have to know for sure what meanings the
dead gave to their deaths, which is impossible. Therefore it is pointless trying to discover the ‘real rate’. All we can
study is how people make sense of their world. With suicide, this means studying how the living come to classify a
death as a suicide, accident etc. The stats are neither right not wrong – they too are merely interpretations made by
certain officials, and so all we can study is how they were constructed. As Atkinson puts it, the only task for
sociologists is to discover ‘How do deaths get categorised as suicide?’
Atkinson therefore focuses on how coroners categorise deaths (though other social actors like the police, doctors
and relatives also play a part in the process). To do so he uses a range of qualitative methods (e.g. conversations
with coroners, court records). He concludes that coroners have a COMMONSENSE theory about the typical suicide.
This includes ‘suicidal types’ of people, reasons for suicide, typical way of doing it, typical place of death and so on. If
any particular case fits the commonsense theory coroners are more likely to categorise the death as suicide.
Atkinson argues the coroners commonsense theories lead them to see the following types of evidence as relevant:
- A suicide note or suicide threats prior to death
- Mode of death: e.g. hanging is seen as ‘typical suicide’, road deaths are ‘typically accidental’.
- Location and circumstances: death by shooting more likely to be recorded as suicide if it occurs alone; for
suicide by drowning in the sea more likely to be suicide if clothes are neatly folded on the beach.
- Life History: likely causes of suicide are seen as mental illness, strains in relationships/money/ job…
This information gives coroners a series of clues on whether a death is or isn’t a suicide. Atkinson concluded that
coroners are engaged in a process of analysis using taken-for-granted assumptions on a ‘typical suicide’. Therefore
a suicide verdict is simply an interpretation of a death based on these taken-for-granted assumptions.
Durkheim took suicide statistics at face value, he saw them as cut-and-dry facts and built his theory on the cause of
suicide around them. Atkinson demolishes this by saying that suicide statistics are simply a record of coroners
commonsense theories about typical suicides. If coroners believe that typical suicides are socially isolated people
(not integrated) then more of these people will end up in the statistics.
In a comparative study of decision making about suicide conducted by Atkinson, Kessel and Dalgaard, four English coroners and five Danish
coroners were given 40 cases and asked to give their verdict on each of them. The Danish coroners were much more likely to give a verdict of
suicide compared to the English coroners. For example, out of 40 cases the Danes gave on average 29 suicide verdicts, whereas the English
averaged only 19.25. The study concludes that the difference is due to the fact that in Denmark, a suicide verdict can be given when suicide
seems likely ‘on the balance of probability’, whereas in England coroners must find evidence of ‘definite suicidal intention’.
1 Hindess (1973) criticises the ethnomethodological approach as self-defeating. Atkinson argues that the only thing
we can study about suicide is coroners’ interpretations. Hindess counters by saying that if all we have is
interpretations of the social world rather than objective truth about it then ethnomethodological own accounts are
themselves no more than interpretations, so why should we accept them.
2 Positivists believe that you can produce objective scientific accounts of the social world. Just because Durkheim’s
statistics were probably flawed doesn’t mean that you can’t find ways of finding ‘true’ suicide statistics and building
theories around them. To some Science is built on the idea of disproving theories and finding better ones.