A Note on Suicides

In 1890s, Emile Durkhiem, consistent with his ‘The rules of Sociological method’, began his work on Suicide. He was seeking to establish that suicide is explicable through the social structure and its ramifying functions. The conclusion drawn in this book are nowhere near to surprising for modern mind. But the methods used, classifications, and commentaries are still of great values. Following note from two sources cited in the end highlight some of these issues.

Durkheim’s initial effort at such a definition indeed followed common usage, according to which a “suicide” is any death which is the immediate or eventual result of a positive (e.g., shooting oneself) or negative (e.g., refusing to eat) act accomplished by the victim himself. But here Durkheim immediately ran into difficulties, for this definition failed to distinguish between two very different sorts of death: the victim of hallucination who leaps from an upper story window while thinking it on a level with the ground; and the sane individual who does the same thing knowing that it will lead to his death. The obvious solution — i.e., to restrict the definition of suicide to actions intended to have this result — was unacceptable to Durkheim for at least two reasons. First, Durkheim consistently tried to define social facts by easily ascertainable characteristics, and the intentions of agents were ill-fitted to this purpose. Second, the definition of suicide by the end sought by the agent would exclude actions — e.g., the mother sacrificing herself for her child — in which death is clearly not “sought” but is nonetheless an inevitable consequence of the act in question, and is thus a “suicide” by any other name.

The distinctive characteristic of suicides, therefore, is not that the act is performed intentionally, but rather that it is performed advisedly — the agent knows that death will be the result of his act, regardless of whether or not death is his goal.

Durkheim suggested that suicide is the consequence of the intensity of social life; but before he could proceed to explain how such a cause might produce such an effect, Durkheim had to deal with one other “psychological” theory — Tarde’s argument that social facts in general, and suicide in particular, can be explained as the consequence of imitation.

The term “imitation,” Durkheim began, is used indiscriminately to explain three very different groups of facts: (1) that complex process whereby individual states of consciousness act and react upon one another in such a way as to produce a new, collective state sui generis (2) that impulse which leads us to conform to the manners, customs and moral practices of our societies; and (3) that largely unpremeditated, automatic reproduction of actions just because they have occurred in our presence or we have heard of them. The first, Durkheim
insisted, can hardly be called “imitation,” for it involves no act of genuine reproduction whatsoever; the second involves an act of reproduction, but one inspired both by the specific nature of the manners, customs, and practices in question, and by the specific feelings of respect or sympathy they inspire, and thus one ill-described by the term “imitation”; only in the third case, where the act is a mere echo of the original, and subject to no cause outside of
itself, is the term warranted. Hence Durkheim’s definition: ” Imitation exists when the immediate antecedent of an act is the representation of like act, previously performed by someone else; with no explicit or implicit mental operation which bears upon the intrinsic nature of the act reproduced intervening between representation and execution.”

This is a purely psychological phenomenon and Durkheim objects to its sufficiency. But Durkheim’s argument in fact went much further than this denial that, its individual effects notwithstanding, imitation is an insufficient cause for variations in the suicide rate; for, in addition, he insisted that imitation alone has no effect on suicide whatsoever.  This extension of his argument was the consequence of Durkheim’s more general theoretical commitment to the view that the thought of an act is never sufficient to produce the act itself unless the person thinking is already so disposed; and the dispositions in question, of course, are the result of social causes. Imitation, therefore, is not a real cause, even of individual suicides: “It
only exposes a state which is the true generating cause of the act,” Durkheim concluded, “and which probably would have produced its natural effect even had imitation not intervened, for the predisposition must be very strong to enable so slight a matter to translate it into action.

*****

Durkheim definition has been a subject of various objections. Here I want to present Durkheim classifications of suicides and his commentary on it.

Fatalistic suicide

This type is considered to be the least important one. According to him it is caused by excessive social regulation. It is found among “persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline. It is the suicide of very young husbands, of the married woman who is childless”. Durkheim states that “for completeness’ sake, we should set up a fourth suicidal type. But it has so little contemporary importance and examples are so hard to find…  that it seems useless to dwell upon it”.

Egoistic suicide

To Durkheim, egoistic suicide occurs when the ties binding the individual to others are slackened and there is absence of adequate social integration. He states social man necessarily presupposes a society that he expresses and serves. The greater the social isolation, the lesser the individual participates as a social being. As a result, his life lacks purpose and meaning.  He experiences a loss of direction, sense of apathy and finally absence of attachment to life itself.  Egoism refers to institutionalized structural conditions which “loosen” or “dilute” social ties binding the members of a group to one another. It produces structural pressures tending towards the isolation of individuals from closely defined ties with others. The conditions of egoism are found in the existence of social values promoting individualism, personal initiative and responsibility in various spheres of social activity.  Durkheim further stresses that the degree of development of egoism is relative to the features of the domestic environment (family structure). The larger the family size, the greater is the degree of protection against suicide because it represents a higher degree of social cohesion due to greater sentiments and historical memories. The duties and obligations, and the demands and expectations in the family generate attachment to life. The immunity to suicide is, therefore, less among unmarried persons and persons belonging to a small family, and particularly when they face widowhood, separation and childlessness. In a nutshell, egoism results when a person becomes individualistic in his activities and ties with his family, kinship and community are weakened.

Altrustic suicide

According to Durkheim, altruistic suicide occurs when the “weight of society is brought to bear on the individuals themselves”. The individual sacrifices himself to an internalized social imperative. To quote him

Either death had to be imposed by society as a duty, or some question of honour was involved, or at least some disagreeable occurrence had to lower the value of life in the victims’ eyes. But it even happens that the individual kills himself purely for the joy of sacrifice, because, even with no particular reason, renunciation in itself is considered praiseworthy

However, it is argued that Durkheim’s type of “altruistic” suicide is rarely found. Though Durkheim says that altruistic suicide is also found in more recent civilisations, almost all his examples of altruism are what he calls “primitive”. He also states that “altruism…may be regarded as a moral characteristic of primitive man”. He argues, “In our contemporary societies, as individual personality becomes increasingly free from the collective personality, such suicides could not be widespread”. Moreover, this type of suicide is not amenable to comparative tests.

Anomic Suicide

On the other hand, anomic suicide results when social regulation is too weak or disrupted. The individual’s needs and satisfaction are regulated by “common beliefs and practices” or what Durkheim calls “collective conscience”. When this regulation is upset, the individual’s horizon is broadened beyond what he can induce, or contracted unduly, and in this situation the proclivity for suicide tends towards a maximum. The individual is provided with ill-defined objectives or with goals that make the possibility of “failure” high.  Durkheim believes that social wants such as the appetite for wealth, prestige and power are essentially unlimited, and that society sets limits on these wants through moral restraints by linking them to available means. When the regulatory power of the society fails, social wants exceed the possible means for attaining them and the individual remains in perpetual danger of suffering from the disproportion between his aspirations and achievements.  This situation generates
disappointment and feelings of failure, which lead to the growth of the “suicidogenic impulse”.

Sources:

[1] Summary ‘Le suicide’. http://durkheim.uchicago.edu/Summaries/suicide.html

[2] Farmer suicide in India: Durkheim Types, http://www.epw.in/special-articles/farmer-suicides-india.html

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Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

3 thoughts on “A Note on Suicides”

  1. hmm dilawar,you don’t behave like an educated.i think you will read a book to know what educated is,you are very very bookish.why do ya spam your blog with others quotes and notes.its not going to interest readers.people will appreciate if you write things that you have learnt on your own from life.if you reply someone’s comment with another blog post from books,its like mugging up cbse guide books to write board exams.i dunno when you are going to behave like an educated when it comes to your blog replies.

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