Monday, September 02, 2013

Reading :: Suicide

Suicide: A Study in Sociology
By Emile Durkheim

Durkheim's book Suicide is, as the editor's introduction tells us, an early use of statistics in sociology. The editor, George Simpson, seems to tiptoe around the implication that this treatment of statistics is not very sophisticated by today's standards, "yet Durkheim establishes relationships between series of data by methodological persistence and inference" (p.10).

But beyond the early use of statistics, this book, according to the editor, is significant because it takes what appears to be an individual decision—suicide—and establishes sociological relationships. Each person decides whether to take her or his own life, yes, yet suicides were more frequent among certain populations, in certain conditions, than others. Durkheim plows through an enormous amount of data to develop a sociological account to explain these patterns.

Durkheim describes three types of suicide:

  • Egoistic suicide, in which an individual feels apathy (Chapters 2-3). He connects this type to religion: Protestants kill themselves more often than Catholics or Jews, he says, and he theorizes that this is so because Protestants must deal with "the free inquiry that animates this religion," free inquiry which lowers social solidarity. In contrast, Catholics don't engage in free inquiry, and though Jews do, they maintain social solidarity (pp.158 et passim). (We can see how this thesis directly relates to his previous work, although I am not comfortable with the simplicity of the conclusion.)
  • Altruistic suicide, which is related to passion or will (Chapter 4). Whereas egoistic suicide happens when social solidarity is too low, altrustic suicide happens when it is too high. Suicide is duty (p.219). 
  • Anomic suicide, which is related to irritation or disgust (Chapter 5). In this type of suicide, disturbances of equilibrium—from financial crashes to divorces—result in suicide because these disturbances weaken society's controlling influence (p.252). 
There's plenty to be cautious about here. For instance, Durkheim blandly asserts that women don't commit anomic suicide as often because "generally speaking, her mental life is less developed" (p.272); they don't commit egoistic suicide as often because they are not nearly as social as men (p.216). To put it mildly, I don't think these claims hold up to scrutiny. 

At the same time, Suicide is an interesting book: we get to see a scholar gamely applying an analytical approach that few people at the time had attempted, studying a seemingly individual phenomenon in a way that few if any others had accomplished. As a historical artifact, it's a fascinating book and I recommend it highly.