What can we learn from Émile Durkheim’s study of suicide in 2020?

In the age of Covid and lockdowns across the world, suicide has become yet again an issue facing so many. In the last few weeks or even months, you may have heard about the rising rate of suicide across the world related to the pandemic. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and The New England Journal of Medicine are some of the organisations among many others that have raised the concern. The director of the CDC also noted that there is an increasing number of suicides among high school students during a webinar with The Buck Institute in July.

“We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from covid. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from covid.”

Robert Redfield, Director, Center for Disease Control and prevention

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim is credited for being one of the founders of the academic discipline of sociology and one of the architect of the modern social science. He published Suicide: A study in Sociology (Le suicide: Étude de Sociologie) in 1897. It was a revolutionary study at the time because he defined the origins of suicide by its social causes, and not only by the individual’s circumstances as it was regarded at the time. Now, his study is widely taught to sociology and psychology students and is one of the most commonly read sociological treatises.

Durkheim believed that the suicide rate was determined by the relationships between individuals and the society they live in. He still accepted that individual circumstances would lead someone to commit suicide but argued that they could not solely explain the suicide rate. He defined 4 types of suicide from his analysis:

Egoistic suicide

It was the result of an insufficient integration into a social group. In other words, an individual who had little social support and guidance and this type of suicide was the consequence of deteriorating social and familial bonds. This explained the differences between the social groups at the time in the table below. On one hand, the lives of the members of the Catholic Church were closely intertwined as they had long established beliefs and traditional rituals. On the other hand, the members of the Protestant Church had their own interpretation of religion and did not impose a religious dogma. Durkheim described the protestant as “the author of his faith.” He thus concluded that the rate of suicide among Catholics was because they were more strongly integrated.

Higher rate of suicideLower rate of suicide
ProtestantsCatholics and Jews
Older adultsYounger adults
UnmarriedMarried
Married without childrenMarried with children
Some variations in suicide rates identified by Durkheim

Altruistic suicide

It took place when the individual was highly integrated into a social group that out of sense of duty, they are ready to sacrifice themselves. It is always intentional. To illustrate, a firefighter who dies in the line of duty to be able to save lives can be categorised as altruistic suicide but some identify this as altruistic martyrdom. This type of suicide is explained for people with political or religious determinations, namely the 9/11 terrorists. Nevertheless, he argued that this type of suicide occurred more frequently in pre-industrial societies than in modern industrial societies.

“the individual yields to the slightest shock of circumstance because the state of society has made him a ready prey to suicide.”

Émile Durkheim

Egoistic and altruistic suicide are both related to the level of social integration of an individual. Durkheim explained that an individual cannot participate in society if he is isolated. The more someone is socially integrated, the less likely that individual will take his own life. So, “the individual yields to the slightest shock of circumstance because the state of society has made him a ready prey to suicide.” He concludes that “suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups of which the individual forms a part.”

Anomic suicide

It took place when the individual was insufficiently regulated. Social norms and values were confusing for individuals because of rapid social and financial change. Anomie is defined in sociology as a state of normlessness or moral uncertainty in which the social rules of behaviour are not clearly defiined. Durkheim found that changes in the economic cycle was responsible for an anomic uncertainty and hence lead to more suicides. Evidently, economic depressions brought lots of social change with negative impacts: unemployment and the loss of income as the most significant ones. During periods of economic prosperity, especially economic booms, there are rapidly rising income and standard of living. Yet, suicide rates rose. Therefore, anomic suicide occurred because of the uncertainty of change.

Fatalistic suicide

It happened when the individual is too regulated. He described it as the suicide “of persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline.” He pointed this as the reason for the high rate of suicide of slaves. The different social institutions that include the family, peers, government and the military among the rest have, in manifold ways, regulated the activities of people through extreme rules and high expectations. Like altruistic suicide, Durkheim argued that it is less important in modern industrial societies and he pays little attention to this type in his research.

Higher rate of suicideLower rate of suicide
Higher education levelLower education level
City dwellersRural dwellers
Political upheaval
War time
Other variations in suicide rates identified by Durkheim

Anomic and fatalistic suicide are both related to the level of social regulation. In modern societies, individuals are more reliant on each other to satisfy their actions. The division of labour created the need for, what Durkheim coined as “organic solidarity”. As a result, the social expectation of others became crucial in the social regulation of human behaviour. Individuals who are unable to cope with the norms and values, because of excess or insufficient regulation, explain those two types of suicide.

In later years, researchers raised two main problems with his four types of suicide:

  1. It does not clarify as to why one individual commits suicide while other members of the same group do not.
  2. The four types of suicide overlap and may, in some cases, be difficult to differentiate.

There are a couple of points from Émile Durkheim’s study of suicide that we can learn from in our times. Mental health has been raised as a concern: anxiety and depression amidst the need for isolation to protect one’s own health.

First and foremost, egoistic suicide can become highly relevant to the discussion. Because isolation leads to a decrease in social interaction and integration between individuals, there is consequently less guidance and support. For example, classes are held virtually in many places. Students may not be able to interact as much as in face-to-face; many students consider their friends as their own family and they act as critical agents of socialization and social control. As the social integration becomes insufficient, the likelihood that an individual idealizes suicide rises sharply.

Secondly, anomic suicide is caused by a disruption by rapid social changes. One rapid social change is the economic downturn. As from the month of February, the world economic output went into a free dive. Even though at this time, most stock exchanges are on a bull market, the reality on the ground is not the same at all. Most countries are in a recession and more in a depression. Millions of jobs have been lost, many currencies have drastically depreciated against the dollar, small and medium businesses are closing in droves and multi-million dollar corporations are facing bankruptcy. Only monopolies and oligopolies have been able to stay afloat and even increase their profits. Consequently, the suicidal ideation in these quickly changing times is prevalent. Norms are upset. Individuals are lost as there is an insufficient regulation of norms and values.

This does not mean that governments should impose rules on how people behave but the opposite. They should be careful when imposing strict lockdowns and rules pertaining to norms, values and behaviour. Suicide rates have sharply increased this year and if not acted upon correctly, many more lives could be lost.

In conclusion, Émile Durkheim’s study more than a century ago is still relevant to our modern societies. The correlation and causation he examined can help us understand how aberrant the year 2020 has been. Although it has been criticized by some sociologists for lacking substance and validity, Durkheim’s study brings more useful insights that help us grasp our current life experience.

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