Durkheim's Study Of Suicide Rates And The Social Facts That Affect Societies And Individuals Within Those Societies

2171 words - 9 pages

Study of SuicideDurkheim's book 'Suicide: A study in sociology', published in 1897 defines suicide as "all causes of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself which he knows will produce this result"(Turner, et al 1995, p 329). The consensus at the time was that suicide was a private act that lacked social approval. Suicide was largely considered to be a nervous disorder derived from a weak physiological disposition (Morrison 1995, p 164). It was considered to be the ultimate individual act. Unlike his contemporaries who believed that influences such as inherited mental disorder resulted in suicide, Emile Durkheim chose to look instead at suicide purely as a 'social fact', rather that the act of an individual (Turner, et al 1995, p 329). Through analysis of government figures on suicide rates, Durkheim tried to measure and explain suicide as a social phenomenon. In his book, Durkheim rejected both "biologistic and psychologistic interpretations" (Coser 1977, p 129) of suicide as he claimed that neither accounted for the distinct patterns that were evident in the rates of suicide over time.Durkheim's decision to view suicide as a 'social fact' was controversial at the time, as the majority of writers before him believed suicide to be one of the most individual acts that can be undertaken. Durkheim believed that in studying all acts of the individual, certain social influences could be found to cause behaviour. He came to this conclusion because he found that suicide rates remained constant over time, and because there seems to be no set event in life that serves as a pretext for someone to kill themself. According to Durkheim social facts did not exist independently of human consciousness and action, that is they were external to the individual. A social fact was a collective entity characterised by an underlying order, or structure (Swingewood 2000, p 58). These social facts are "endowed with coercive power, by ... which they impose themselves" upon the individual without their will (Coser 1977, p 129). Therefore social facts become guides and controls of conduct that are socially constructed and become unknowingly entrenched in the consciousness of the individual. They become a moral obligation to obey.In the 19th century Durkheim examination of suicide rates records in and around France found that some people were more likely than others to commit suicide. He found that men, Protestants, wealthy people, and unmarried people had higher suicide rates (Morrison 1995, p 165). This suggests suicide was not limited to a small number who were "insane" but to a much larger portion of society. Durkheim made two major points in relation to the rates of suicide to exclude individual factors as the predominant reason for suicide. Firstly, the rates remain constant for a given society over a substantial period of time. Durkheim argues that an external factor is responsible for this. Given that each person...

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