Suicide Suicide accounts for a minority of deaths yet within the sociology of crime it is a key area to study. Durkheim famously chose to study the topic & it provides a key link between crime & deviance & theory and methods. Your Learning Objectives for this topic are as follows. You Should: > Know the main features of the main sociological explanations of suicide. > Understand the similarities & differences between Positivist, Interactionist, Ethnomethodological & Realist approaches to suicide. > Be able to evaluate the strengths & limitations of different sociological explanations of suicide.
Suicide (link to Theory & Methods)Suicide could be seen as the ultimate deviant act (Browne 2009) as it societyrelies on the survival of human life. By committing suicide, the deviant isessentially willingly breaking society down – causing society’s values to Atrophy. What does the term ‘Atrophy Mean’? What theory of crime could be related to the above? The sociological study of suicide is essentially a Positivist vs. Interpretivist argument which explores the use of Quantitative vs. Qualitative Data in studying suicide within society.
Positivism/ Structuralism & Suicide What do you know about Positivism?Durkheim argues that the society exists externally to individuals and is made up of observable, measurable phenomena known as SOCIAL FACTS. Social facts are the values, cultural norms, and social structures external to the individual. "Collective tendencies have an existence of their own; they are forces as real as cosmic forces, though of another sort; they, likewise, affect the individual from without...“ Durkheim ‘Le Suicide’ (1897) The task of the sociologist, then, was to search for correlations between social facts to reveal laws. Having discovered the laws of social structure, it is posited that the sociologist is then able to determine whether any given society
Comparing Quantitative/Statistical Data to uncover patterns is known as the COMPARATIVE METHOD
Durkheim found that, although the individuals making up society varied overtime, some factors remained constant:Durkheim argued that, because these patterns were so consistent and constant,suicide could not be explained as individual, personal acts. In other words theremust be forces in society that cause suicide (External Social Forces).Durkheim hoped to pinpoint what these external forces/ factors were thatappeared to be linked to suicide such as religion, age, sex, family ties, socialstability etc. From this he concluded that suicide was linked to 2 SOCIALFORCES…………….
SUICIDE is linked to:SOCIAL INTEGRATION and MORAL REGULATION Link these ideas to Functionalism People commit suicide based on their levels of Social Integration & Moral Regulation. As a result Durkheim Identified 4 types of Suicide: See Handout: ‘Suicide: Social Factors & Types’.
As you can see, Durkheim attempted to explain suicide as a structural problem bycomparing quantitative suicide rates in different countries. In a nut shell Durkheim isarguing that external forces act on the individual and lead them to suicide. Can you spot any flaws/ problems in Durkheim’s approach to suicide? Halbwachs (1930s) argues that Durkheim focuses far too much on how religion is linked with suicide and not enough on other factors such as ecology. Furthermore, he also argues that Durkheim’s ‘Social Integration’ ideas are based merely on assumptions of what group membership means to individuals. What does Halbwachs mean by this second point? Although Durkheim claims that suicide is influenced only by external social factors (as opposed to individual choice and consciousness), he is suggesting that individuals know and understand the importance of regulation and integration (or lack of them) – this is borderline Interactionism! And there’s more……………
Durkheim’s definition of suicide is as follows: ‘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’. Are there any problems with this definition?Once again Durkheim is making reference to individual consciousness and as such it couldbe argued that it is not only external forces that influence suicide i.e. perhaps suicidecannot be studied scientifically as a social fact like positivists like to think.Looking at factors that influence suicide, Durkheim makes large generalisations. Heassumes that being married is a good thing where as it could actually bedestructiveDurkheim based his work on Official Statistics which are very problematic. What problems might exist with Official Statistics?
Interpretivism (The Social Construction of Suicide) What do you know about Interpretivism? How does Interpretivism differ to Positivism/Structuralism?> Action can only be understood by looking at the MEANINGS, MOTIVATIONS,DECISIONS & INDIVIDUAL CIRCUMSTANCES of the actor.> Social behaviour is never formulaic! It is unpredictable and varied.> It is INTERNALLY MOTIVATED X+Y=Z> Each act of suicide is individual & unique and can only be understood through theinterpretations of others affected by the death e.g. friends, family, doctors , police,coroners etc.It is impossible to uncover the causes of suicide as Durkheim set out to do as a ‘Suicide’might not be a suicide at all – it has just been defined as such by others – Suicide &Suicide Statistics are Social Constructions. What is meant by ‘Suicide being a Social Construction?’
Douglas (1967) ‘The Social Meanings of Suicide’.> Each act of suicide is individual & unique and can only be understood through theinterpretations of others affected by the death e.g. friends, family, doctors, police, coroners etc.Suicide statistics cannot be treated as valid or reliable as they are influenced byfriends, family, coroners etc e.g. a family might cover up a suicide by destroying evidence.Statistics are merely a picture of social meanings –i.e. not factual. Catholics for examplesee suicide as a sin and therefore a coroner might be more inclined to give a verdict of‘Accidental Death’ rather than suicide to save the family being stigmatised.Suicide (& suicide statistics) are therefore a product ofdiffering opinions, attitudes and values. No two suicides are the same. Every suicide is unique and cannot be explained by formulaic causes and effects as Durkheim argues. In order to understand suicide, each case must be put together like a puzzle using all available evidence – generalisations should not be made. Why might someone commit suicide? Is there just one explanation?
Atkinson (1971) ‘The Role of the Coroners’ Definitions’. What type of data would you mainly gather through informal interviews & studying case records? Why might this be more useful to study suicide than quantitative data? Imagine you are a coroner – what ‘clues’ would you look for to give a ruling of suicide?
Atkinson suggests that coroners are influenced by four main types of ‘Evidence’when judging if a death is suicide: Are there any problems with relying on suicide notes? What modes of death are more likely to be classed as suicide? What clues could this give you about a potential suicide? Why would this be important to coroners? Why would Interpretivists find this information useful? Are there any problems with this type of data?
Atkinson argues that coroners are not consistent in the ways they interpret theseclues. What effect does this have on Suicide Statistics? What might we really be looking at when using Suicide Statistics?Wilkins (1970) ‘Producing Suicides’.Coroners are put under strain in their work and receive minimal help from thepolice & doctors who put pressure on them to reach a verdict that suits them. Assuch the coroner is under enormous pressure when reaching a verdict andaccordingly may get in wrong.Sachs sums up the Interpretivist feeling towards Positivsm by stating that: Interms of the history of Sociology, nothing is more tragic than that DurkheimsSuicide should be conceived as a model of investigation.As you can see, the Study of Suicide acts as a good case study when addressingthe Positivist vs. Interpretivist theoretical debate (and accordingly theQuantitative vs. Qualitative debate).
Realist Approach (Middle ground between Positivism & Interpretivism) What do you know about Realist Approaches to Crime & Deviance?Taylor (1982) ‘Persons under Trains’Studying suicides and attempted suicides (para-suicides) on the Londonunderground, Taylor found that coroners do buld up a biography of victims’ life-histories and mental conditions. As such statistcis reflect subjective rather thanpbjective data (SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION). INTERPRETIVIST However:Taylor also suggested that external forces do act on the individual that mightlead them into suicide. Like Durkheim Taylor believes that suicide largelydepends on peoples attachments & certainty about themselves. POSITIVIST AND INTERPRETIVIST See Handout: Realist Approach to Suicide.
30 minute exam style question essay:‘Examine the view that Durkheim did not produce an adequate account of suicide’. REMEMBER: This question is seeing how well you understand your work on THEORY & METHODS in relation to the study of Crime & Deviance. (THEORY & METHODS IN CONTEXT) Use your notes, text books and websites: S-Cool: http://www.s-cool.co.uk/alevel/sociology/crime-and-the-effects-of- crime/introduction-to-suicide.html