The Sociological Niche of Emile Durkheim’s Suicide Essay

Despite the appearance of gradual development among Emile Durkheim’s works, they might as well be considered as a single train of unified thoughts. When one contemplates his four greatest works, there lies the methodology and belief that all of our characteristics beyond that of the physiological aspect originated from, or are greatly influenced by society. This conviction is perhaps best illustrated in The Division of Labor in Society, wherein Durkheim chooses to focus on the method of interaction between people in the social order.

In essence, the division of labor is the separation of employment among workers according to the specialization that meets their needs. Durkheim’s work is especially insightful because he is not merely interested in the division itself, but also in the social implications and changes that it would cause. He argues that as specialization increases, people become increasingly separated from one another. Their norms become different, interests are varied, and subcultures are formed. However, Durkheim does not believe that this specialization would lead to the collapse of the social order.

His understanding is that the division of labor instead brought about a new kind of social order which is called organic solidarity. This is fundamentally a social order built on the interdependence of people in society. This concept was increasingly overshadowing that of mechanical solidarity, where members of the society are homogeneous such as the societal organization of tribes. Of course, this division is not without its problems. An industrial utopia does not form simply out of interdependence, because specialization can set people not only apart, but against each other. Interests often collide and conflicts will always exist. Durkheim himself does not believe that the changes happening around him as a result of industrialization would bring about total harmony, but he does note that though specialization sets us apart, it also binds us together in certain ways. Hence, the division of labor will always be one of the most important concepts in understanding societies and is the foundation upon which most sociological thought is built upon.

This notion is particularly evident in Durkheim’s third major work entitled Suicide. Recognized as an application of his sociological method, Suicide forms a practical explanation and application of his theories, originally set out in The Rules of Sociological Method. In his aim to establish sociological autonomy, Durkheim considers society as more than just the individuals who constitute that society, believing in the ability to explain individual action in terms of society as a whole. He sees suicide as one of the most private acts an individual could perform, and were it therefore possible to explain that action in terms of society, his theory about sociological analysis would stand. Upon analyzing the text, I feel that it is not able to wholly explain the issue it addresses; yet as a practical application of the method elaborated in The Rules, it is a certified success.

I believe that when Durkheim tries to free the study of society from layman’s concepts, and replace them with more scientific ones, he is aspiring to define Sociology as a science comparable to the physical sciences like biology and chemistry. Durkheim applies empirical research and analysis in the new sociological method of which it plays a large role in Suicide. Although this has been done before, perhaps the innovation then is in Durkheim’s application of his conception of sociological method to the statistics in order to explain suicide.

Of equal importance to his methodology, Durkheim draws theoretical conclusions on the social causes of suicide. He proposes four types of suicide, based on the degrees of imbalance of two social forces: social integration and moral regulation. Egoistic suicide results from too little social integration. Those individuals who are not sufficiently bound to social groups are left with little support or guidance, and therefore tend to commit suicide on an increased basis. An example Durkheim discovers was that of unmarried people, particularly males, who, with less to bind and connect them to stable social norms and goals, commit suicide at higher rates than unmarried people. The second type, Altruistic suicide, is a result of too much integration. It occurs at the opposite end of the integration scale as egoistic suicide. Self-sacrifice is the defining trait, where individuals are so integrated into social groups that they lose sight of their individuality and become willing to sacrifice themselves to the group’s interests, even if that sacrifice are their own lives. The most common cases of altruistic suicide occur among members of the military.

On the second scale of moral regulation lie the other two forms of suicide, the first of which is Anomic suicide, located on the low end. Anomic suicide is of particular interest to Durkheim, for he divides it into four categories. Acute economic anomie refers to sporadic decreases in the ability of traditional institutions such as religion, to regulate and fulfill social needs. Chronic economic anomie is the long-term diminution of social regulation. Durkheim identifies this type with the ongoing industrial revolution, which eroded traditional social regulators and often failed to replace them.

Acute domestic anomie are the sudden changes on the micro-social level which result in an inability to adapt and therefore higher suicide rates. Widowhood is a prime example of this type of anomie. Lastly, Chronic domestic anomie refers to the way marriage as an institution regulated the sexual and behavioral balance among men and women. The final type of suicide is fatalistic suicide. This type Durkheim only briefly describes, seeing it as a rare phenomena in the real world. Examples include those with over-regulated, unrewarding lives such as slaves and childless married women.

In the context of a Philippine setting, one could consider the parameters and data which were published by Durkheim in concluding that compared to other countries, relatively few Filipinos commit suicide. According to Durkheim, even natural factors such as climate tend to work socially, and in effect trigger the social factors related to suicide. An example of this would be religion. Generally, as a predominantly Catholic nation, there are more suicide cases in a country where most people are Protestants or a nation such as Japan. And yet religion is not a real factor in itself because almost every religious doctrine condemns suicide or murder. For us Filipinos then, it must be the social organization we have grown accustomed to as Roman Catholics, where there is a higher level of integration compared to Protestantism. Moreover, Durkheim considers family as another factor. Filipino culture is essentially centered on that, with emphasis on notions such as extended family, filial obligation and the sinfulness of contraceptives. Since the degree of integration of family structure is related in the same way to suicides, those in larger families are less likely to commit suicide, whereas those in smaller families, or single, are more likely. In general, applying Durkheim’s theories could help us grasp a better comprehension of the realities we have to deal with day after day. This does not necessarily equate to an understanding of Filipino suicide cases, but of how our society has evolved to become such a major factor in our lives that it affects even our most seemingly personal and psychological processes.

Despite his innovative methods, I feel that Durkheim’s major faults are on a number of quite crucial points. A notable factor that Durkheim discusses in the first chapter of his work is his dismissal of non-social influences on suicide. He considers these factors independently as part of an argument by elimination. He reasoning was that as suicide rates did not show a parallelism to any one factor, the explanation must lie in social facts alone. This, at best, is a tenuous assumption and one that could certainly have a detrimental effect on the validity of his application.
Furthermore, the use of statistics in the application of his method owed a great deal to the number of statisticians who had written them before him. Virtually the entire basis of Suicide rests on these statistics, yet Durkheim mentions nothing as to the validity of official data, nor their usefulness in the study of suicide. The accuracy of his data can be questioned, not only due to the inadequacies of data collection and analyses at the time of his writing, but also at the level of determination of a suicide by a coroner.

This problem is best considered alongside another of Durkheim’s faults which is his rejection of motive as an important factor. I believe that in times of doubt it is also important as to what the police, jurors and coroners think happened to the victim. It is therefore evident that the official statistics for suicide, and for his theories, are mostly based upon the perceptions and intuitions of fallible human beings.

However, I do not believe Durkheim’s sole reason for writing the text is for it to be an explanation of suicide; instead he uses it as a tool for the demonstration of his new method. The importance of this text lies in the application of a social theory to a complex phenomenon. Despite his limitationss, Durkheim was able to establish the autonomy of his discipline and that is where, I believe, the true sociological value of Suicide is revealed.

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