Durkheim's Success In Using The Scientific Method

1953 words - 8 pages

Durkheim's Success in Using the Scientific Method

In this essay I will discuss some of the approaches to the study of
suicide and its social causes described by Durkheim. I will then
present a few alternative theories or critiques of Durkheim; and
finally conclude with a Personal reflection on Durkheim`s analysis.

Durkheim believed that society is a part of nature, and a science of
society has to be based upon the same logical principles as those
which obtain in natural science. Therefore Durkheim set out to prove
that sociology was a science by applying his theory to the study of

The study of suicide is seen as particularly important because it
illustrates the wider theoretical and methodological debates in
sociology. The study of suicide, by Durkheim was based on using
statistics from several countries and looked for causes of suicide.
This illustrates the positive approach. Later studies such as those by
Atkinson and Douglas use interpretative and phenomenological
approaches, which question the value of statistics and the idea of
causes and try instead to understand how meanings are attached to

The positivist approach in sociology is based on using the methodology
of the natural sciences as far as possible. This was part of an
attempt to establish sociology as an important academic discipline,
since science was seen as the highest form of knowledge. Durkheim
wanted to counter the then current explanations of suicide, which were
usually based on individuals, by showing that suicide could be
explained at the level of society; he wanted to show that one of the
most individual acts a person could perform was caused by social
factors. He was impressed by the stability of suicide rates among
different groups and in different places over time; if suicide was
only about individual decisions, the pattern should be random
(Discovering Suicide 1987 chapter 2 pg12). To prove his case, he
collected statistics from several countries, and compared the
incidence of suicide with the incidence of various social factors
(this is known as a multivariate analysis). His explanation for
variations in suicide rates was different levels of social
integration. In some societies people are tied more closely to each
other through organisations like the family and religion than in other
societies. For example, Catholicism and strong family networks could
explain the lower suicide rates in southern European countries. From
this Durkheim suggested four types of social structure with different
levels of integration leading to different rates and types of suicide.
In egoistic structures, like modern western countries, integration is
weak so suicide rates are high, although there will be differences
between groups that are more or less integrated (for example, Durkheim

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