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Who was Emile Durkheim? What was his theory of Suicide

David Emile Durkheim was a French sociologist. He was born in April 1858 in Epinal, located in the Lorraine region in France. His family was devoutly Jewish, and his father, grandfather and great grandfather ere all rabbis. Durkheim however broke the tradition and went to Ecole normale superieure in 1879, and studied philosophy. He graduated in 1882 and began teaching in France. In 1887 he was appointed to teach Social Sciences and pedagogy at the University of Bordeaux.

Works of Emile Durkheim

He had great success publishing his doctoral thesis on The Division of Labour 1893, The Rules of Sociological Method 1895, and Suicide 1897. By the time of his death in 1917 at an age of 59, he produced large body of scholarly work and founded one of the most coherent theoretical perspectives of the 19th century.

Durkheim is best known for founding sociology as a discipline and for defining the boundaries of its subject matter.  He is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science. He refined the positivism originally set forth by Auguste Comte. For him, sociology should study the society at large, rather than being limited to the specific action of individuals.

Durkheim was familiar with Karl Marx’s ideas yet he was very critical, as he saw it as unscientific and dogmatic. As well as of Marxism which he saw as needlessly conflictual, reactionary and violent. He was an ardent patriot of France and hoped to use his sociology as a way to help a French society suffering under the strains of modernity. During the First World War he wrote anti German propoganda pamphlets, which in part uses his sociological theories to help explain the fervent nationalism found in Germany.

Theory of Suicide 

Durkheim first began to study the problem of Suicide in the year 1888. In 1897, he published his book entitled Suicide. This was his third major social work after The Theory of division of labour and The rules of Sociological Method. The main purpose of Durkheim to study suicide was to search for the social factors responsible for suicide rather than looking at the psychological states of the individuals who take their own lives.

Before Durkheim began his study on suicide, it was largely treated as a nervous disorder and its causes were believed to derive from the psychological states of individuals. Many believed that suicide was state of mental illness, depression, sudden tragedy, reversal of fortune, personal setbacks or bankruptcy. Durkheim shifted his focus from individual motives and psychological states to social causes.

The central thesis of Durkheim’s study was that people take their own lives not because of any sort of mental illness or depression, but because of social forces acting on them which reduces their attachment to the wider society to the point that they become isolated, separate and autonomous from others.

Types of suicide

Durkheim theory of suicide is divided into two explanatory parts. In first part he explains suicide by drawing on the concept of social integration or the bond that exists between the individual and society. In this case egoistic and altruistic suicide forms opposite poles of social integration.

1. Egoistic Suicide

The concept of ‘egoism’ refers to the breakdown of social ties and giving importance to private interest. The individual is detached from the society and retreats himself. It characterises excessive self reflection on personal matters and withdrawal from the outside world. According to Durkheim, egoism occurs when the social bonds are slackened are not sufficiently integrated at the points where the individual is in contact with the wider society. Egoism thus results from too much individualism and the weakening of social fabric.

Here the individual end becomes more important than the collective end of the society. The individual ego over shadows the social ego and becomes a threat to social equilibrium. In other words, egoistic suicide results from absence of social integration and weakening of social bonds. Durkheim believed that the chance of individual committing egoistic suicide becomes less if their link with the family, religion and political group is strong enough to provide the required emotional support.

2. Altruistic Suicide

Altruistic suicide results from too much integration. Durkheim observed that the social customs in tribal societies and observed that people took their lives not because of their personal choice or right but as a social duty imposed upon them by the society.  Altruistic Suicide is therefore at the polar opposite of social integration in relation to egoistic suicide.

Altruistic suicide is expressed in three distinct forms

1. Obligatory Altruistic Suicide : Here individuals take their own lives because of social customs and religious sanctions. Examples of obligatory suicide are found in India. Example can be where there is prevalence of Sati Pratha, which involves the practice of voluntary self immolation. The widow burns herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

2. Optional Altruistic Suicide: It is the form of suicide where individuals consider taking their own lives as a social duty. The society attaches honour to the renunciation of life and the dignity of the group is considered more important than the individual’s life.

3. Acute Altruistic Suicide : It is the most extreme form of altruistic self destruction. In this case, the individuals attachment to the group is so great that he renounces his life for the actual felt ‘joy of sacrifice’. Examples of acute altruistic suicide is the clearest case of suicide imposed by social ends and is thus a form of suicide induced by society. Another example can be the case of suicide bombings that occured during the terrorists attacks in the United States on 9/11.

In second part, Durkheim explained suicide drawing on the concept of social regulation which refers to the restraints imposed by the society on individual wants and desires. Anomic and fatalistic suicide form opposite piles in relation to the changes in the regulatory functions of society.

3. Anomic Suicide

According to Durkheim “anomie” refers to decline that takes place in the regulatory functions of society and social institutions during industrial development because of the weakening of social control mechanisms. There is normlessness and regulatory limits imposed by society are absent. It leads to disappointment among the individuals who finally commit suicide.

4. Fatalistic Suicide

Fatalism signifies a suicide due to an excess of social regulation. It occurs because of an overly developed system of control over the individuals. Fatalistic Suicide was prevalent in slave society


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