Interpretivism and Suicide: JACK DOUGLAS
Interpretivists heavily criticise Durkheim’s positivist theory of suicide. Instead of looking at statistics, patterns, trends
and social facts interpretivists are interested in the MEANINGS of suicide for those involved.
Interpretivists think that positivists are flawed in their analysis of social life
Let’s take an example, say divorce. Positivists would examine statistics, patterns and trends in divorce and highlight that
the divorce rate is falling, rising, remaining pretty constant…then try to explain this using causal factors (rise in feminism,
women’s education, mass media influence, changing laws, move to postmodern society, celebrity influence………)
They would then produce statements, or ‘social laws’ about divorce which they could use to make predictions about the
future of divorce.
Interpretivists would see this kind of analysis as flawed and shallow and a failure to understand human beings, to them
positivists have rather missed the point. To Interpretivists we should be analysing the individual MEANINGS and
UNDERSTANDINGS people attribute to the act of getting a divorce
So can we think of some of the different MEANINGS which surround divorce for the individuals involved?
Jack Douglas (1967): the social meanings of suicide
Takes a largely interactionist approach to suicide. Criticised Durkheim’s study of suicide on two main grounds:
1 The use of suicide statistics
Decision to classify or label a death as suicide is taken by a coroner and influenced by other social actors who might manipulate
the events surrounding a death to suit their own agenda. Durkheim found that high levels of integration led to low levels of
suicide, but Douglas argued that well integrated individuals may well have friends and relatives who might want to hide a
suicide, for instance by a cover-up or by destroying the suicide note. Catholic families might well do this because in the Catholic
faith suicide is sinful and would be seen with great shame by families.
In contrast socially isolated individuals, those Durkheim saw as having low levels of integration, have no friends or relatives to
manipulate the suicide. So although it might seem that high levels of integration prevent suicide all it may really do is affect the
likelihood of a death being labelled and recorded as suicide. To Douglas suicide verdicts and the statistics based on them are
(like criminal statistics) the product of interactions and negotiations between those involved – friends, relatives, doctors, police,
coroner…they are social constructs NOT facts.
2 Actors’ meanings and qualitative data
Douglas criticises Durkheim for ignoring the meanings of the act for those who kill themselves and for assuming that suicide has
a fixed and constant meaning. He argued that although one can define the physical act of a person taking his or her own life as
suicide, this ignores the fact that suicide also has very different meanings to those who take their own lives which flow from
social and cultural context. For instance a Muslim terrorist bomber, a bankrupt businessman and a messed-up celebrity may
attach very different meanings to their deaths. Therefore we can only understand suicide by looking at the particular meanings
through which people interpret their actions and Durkheim’s attempt to compare rates across cultures is flawed because he
lumps them altogether as one common act when in reality they are multiple acts with multiple meanings.
Douglas rejects Durkheim’s classification system of suicide’s social causes. Instead we must classify each death according to its
actual meaning for the deceased by using qualitative methods (e.g. studying suicide notes) which reveal the true meanings
behind suicides. By doing this Douglas built a 4-fold TYPOLOGY of suicidal meanings:
1 As a means of transforming the self. This is where a person commits suicide as a means of gaining release from the cares of
the world and entering paradise. There have been also been examples of mass suicides by religious groups.
2 As a means of transforming oneself for others. In this case suicide is a means of telling others how profound one's feelings are
on a particular issue. For instance, a person who had caused a death through dangerous driving may commit suicide as a means
of expressing repentance.
3 As a means of achieving fellow feeling. This is where the person is asking for help or sympathy; it includes 'suicide' attempts in
which the person hopes to be found.
4 As a means of gaining revenge. The person places the blame for his or her death on others. Usually there is a note accusing
others of failing the person in some way.
WITH THIS CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM DOUGLAS THOUGHT HE COULD UNCOVER THE REAL RATE OF SUICIDE.
EVALUATION OF DOUGLAS (A02)
1 We need to question whether sociologists are any better than coroners at interpreting a dead person’s meanings? This makes
Douglas’s typology of supposed meanings for the social actors rather suspect.
2 Hypocritical in that he claims that all suicides have unique individual meanings and then creates a group typology.
3 Inconsistent – on one hand he is saying that suicides are often manipulated but on the other hand he says we really can
discover the real rate of suicide.