Emile Durkheim studies focus on the elements that make people try to commit suicide. He looks at the different factors of the life ending choices that people consider before making the final push. The findings of Durkheim’s work are influenced by economic, marital, religious and military factors. Equally, Durkheim made the conclusion that there are four different types of suicide.
The first type of suicide developed by Durkheim is Egoistic suicide. The main characteristic of this kind of suicide is that it occurs in a society that exhibits high levels of individualism. In other words, the society has deep social integration. Durkheim made the observation regarding the levels of suicide among the Catholics, Jews, and the Protestants. His findings indicated that the rate of suicide was low among the Jews and the Catholics compared to the Protestants. However, he narrows down his comparison to a single society where one of the religious groups is the majority. This is because a national culture may have various reasons for the number of suicides it records. Durkheim notes that in a situation where one religious community is considered to be a minority within the larger society, the community will have strict control over its members. Concurrently, Protestantism gives the freedom for free inquiry compared to Catholicism and Judaism (Durkheim 147). The results of allowing for the free inquiry are the overthrow of traditional beliefs thereby making Protestantism have fewer common beliefs and practices. Suicide levels also increase as the degree of education or knowledge also increases. However, knowledge is not entirely the cause of increases in suicide. In contrast, it is the loss of cohesion among the religious societies that makes a person look for more knowledge and in turn commit suicide. In other words, there is a correlation between the loss of cohesion and the search for knowledge that leads to suicide. Durkheim concludes that religion plays a significant role in preserving an individual from suicide since religion constitutes the society. He also ascertains that there is an inverse relationship between suicide and the level with which a person is integrated into social groups that the individual stays in. Additionally, there is also an inverse relationship between suicide and religious integration.
Durkheim also looks at the second type of suicide, the altruistic suicide. This kind of suicide is characterized by an individual being overwhelmed by the group beliefs and goals. Durkheim notes that excessive individualism may lead to suicide in the same measure insufficient individualism does. By looking at the suicide trends in tribal non-western people, Durkheim notes that there are high suicide rates among tribal populations compared to their western counterparts. In some of the primitive societies, an individual may take it as his or her duty to commit suicide. For instance, a person may take away their life as a result of old age. In this type of suicide, the ego of the individual is what drives him or her to take their life. The observation made by Durkheim is that altruistic suicide has lower chances of occurring in the modern societies since in such societies, there is the increase in the freedom of an individual personality compared to compared to the collective personality present in the primitive societies. Therefore, in the case of altruistic suicide, the person is more concerned with the group goals and norms with little regard to their own needs and goals. The individual totally commits himself or herself to the cause of the group. For instance, the Jews took away their lives when the Romans captured Jerusalem. They feared that the Romans would make them subjects and tributaries to Rome thereby changing the kind of life that they were used to. Due to their love for their city, they could neither stand its destruction or the transformation in life that they were about to face. The Jews put their lives at the expense of something bigger than the value of one’s self (Durkheim 273).
The third form of suicide is anomic suicide. Anomic suicide is associated with financial and industrial crises. The suicide may not be as a result of an increase in the levels of poverty during these periods, but crises of prosperity sometimes cause such suicide. Durkheim notes that suicide may also increase during the periods of economic growth and prosperity. For example, in Prussia the 1850’s when the prices of wheat reached the lowest point compared to the previous years, the rates of suicide continued to increase in the subsequent years even though the cheap market held (Durkheim 229). Furthermore, Durkheim argues that both economic prosperity and financial crises result in disturbances of the collective order of the society (Durkheim 243). Any disruption that is caused to the general equilibrium of the community, even if the interference increases the peace of life, it offers the opportunity for people to commit voluntary suicide. This is also confirmed by (Liu 210) as he indicates that the rising levels of suicide in the United Kingdom are as a result of social changes such as increased divorce rates, the decline in marriages, and increased income equality. Correspondingly, Durkheim argues that the society has the moral power to regulate the desires of the people and when there are some crises the society loses this regulation. It is in such times that suicide increases since the sudden changes also require that the needs and values also change. Since it takes some time for a person to adjust to these changes, a state of anomie results is experienced in the society. Durkheim further argues that with industrialization, the society suffers from a continuous state of anomie. Industrial growth has become a major focus for most nations making the industry be an end rather than a way of achieving this end. This coupled up with the loss of the role of religion in some of the industrialized societies has resulted in high levels of suicides. Anomic suicide, therefore, differs from the other forms of suicides as it depends on the control that the society has over the individual rather than the attachment the individual has to the society. Conversely, anomie may result from other types of relations such as marital relations. For instance, the practice of divorce weakens matrimonial regulation.
The last form of suicide developed by Durkheim is fatalistic suicide. The main characteristic of this type of suicide is that it takes place when an individual is put under excessive regulation. A practical case and instance is a slave who experiences episodes of pain and heightened oppression. Specifically, when a slave is under difficult conditions of hardship with no hope of appeling or remedy, the slave might opt to commit suicide so as to avoid the painful ordeal (Durkheim 262). Therefore, this kind of suicide can be attributed to the extreme despotism of the moral and physical characteristics of a person. An individual’s personality is suppressed by some oppressive rules such as the case for slaves or childless married couples. In the event of slavery, a person takes his or her life as they consider their fate to be doomed to slavery. Therefore, fatalistic suicide considers suicide in traditional societies. Individuals, on the other hand, want freedom from extremely suppressing environments and therefore they may consider suicide to be an option out of such oppression. Another example of fatalistic suicide is a situation in which a person is locked up in a prison. The person may prefer to die rather than suffer from continuous abuse and excessive regulation. Individuals who fall, victims of fatalistic suicide, usually lack social integration due to the strict regulation dealing with the lack of collective social conscience. An individual who has the social consciousness may not commit a fatalistic suicide. Regardless, Durkheim does not view fatalistic suicide to be important in the modern society.
Even though the arguments put forward by Durkheim are true to a larger extent, some of the argument presented when explaining how the failure of social conditions leads to suicide is not satisfactory. Durkheim’s description of anomie, social integration, and excessive individualism makes it difficult to measure the extent to which such concepts results in suicide. On the other hand, the reliability of the statistics that were used by Durkheim is questionable. This is because a the time the data was being collected, there was no systematic examination of the causes of most deaths. As argued out by the interactionists, it is impossible to validate how reliable the statistics are since they are merely social constructions. In some instances as pointed out by (Scourfield 472), there is always exists the limitation of carrying out sociological autopsy when locating the deaths in a given geographical area. Further, anonymity and scarce data on suicides is another limiting factor when carrying out the study on suicides. Equally, Durkheim makes an assumption about the meaning of being a Protestant or a Catholic to an individual. On the other hand, the theories suffer from some shortcomings resulting from the nature of the society. The classification of a sudden death of a person as suicide depends on how the society views the claim and it may vary from one social group to the other. The more a society becomes integrated, the more they may try to cover up incidences of suicide. The difference in the view of suicide among communities may mean that one community would be more willing to classify the death as suicide and others may not thereby limiting the application of the four types of suicide.