Suicide and Durkheim Essay

suicide / Durkheim's theory / social integration / religious context

Essay Topic:

The problem of suicide according to the research of Durkheim.

Essay Questions:

Why has suicide become an extremely important social issue in every contemporary society? What is the list of potential reasons that can possible result in a suicide? How can religion prevent a man from committing suicide?

Thesis Statement:

There is a wide range of opinions on the issue of suicide and most of the scientists either support Durkheim and add more inflective variables to his studies or argue his results, providing contradicting evidence.


Suicide and Durkheim Essay


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Denomination, religious context, and suicide

3. Sociology as a science and suicide

4. The impact of alcohol, divorce, and unemployment on suicide

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Suicide has nowadays become an extremely important social issue in every contemporary society. A large amount of sociologist has tried to identify the true reason that lead people towards committing suicide. The modern suicidal tendencies have a set of reasons that influence its increase or decrease. The main priority of the sociologists is to define these reasons in order to prevent the performance of such behavior. One of the most wide spread theories concerning the suicide matter is the Durkheim’s theory which primarily studies the influence the society over the suicidal tendencies. The main social aspect that Durkheim reveals in his studies is the social integration of each person so that the high level of social integration prevents the person from committing suicide and the small level of integration implies the predispose to suicidal behavior.

Durkheim primarily studies the effect of social integration thought the religious communities. According to his studies, the decrease of the suicidal risk within the society is conditioned by the support the religious communities provide and the prohibition of suicidal behavior as the religious law. There is a wide range of opinions on the issue of suicide and most of the scientists either support Durkheim and add more inflective variables to his studies or argue his results, providing contradicting evidence. Nevertheless all of them try to find the “key” to eliminate or at leas decrease the suicide risk. The analysis of the next three articles represents three different points of view on suicidal behavior in terms of Durkheim’s theory.

2. Denomination, religious context, and suicide

This article written by Frank van Tubergen, Manfred te Grotenhuis and Wout Ultee is opposing Durkheim’s theory. The authors contribute a lot into the differentiation of the community norms and the social support of the community which could possible influence the suicide level. The article provides a deep analysis of the religious context within the Catholics and the Protestants evaluating the real contribution that these communities make into the change of the suicide risk within the society. The provided information states that religious communities not only prohibit suicide but also do truly discourage things that can indirectly influence the possibility of suicidal behavior such as divorce. According to the studies of Campbell and Curtis the US Catholic and Protestant religious communities have more power on their member in terms of preventing suicide through prohibition than the religious communities in Netherlands, where Durkheim held his research and therefore question the objectivity of Durkheim’s conclusions. The article completes a good job through trying to find “blanks” in Durkheim’s theory and therefore to get close to the suicide solution. One of the main issues provided against Durkheim is that the communities do not always reveal the required social support to people and this support is not only positive. The authors emphasize the notion that community norms do not necessarily prohibit suicide, but take it as a fact and in such cases sometimes religious communities fail to provide the vital positive support. The connection between religion and suicide that has been drawn by Durkheim is being criticized in the most professional way. As Durkheim states that the suicide level of Protestants is higher than the suicide level of the Catholics he put certain limitation on the issues of suicide risk the article develops the thought that this is not necessarily applicable to every society as the study has been done in Netherlands and even in the USA the situation is different. Therefore the general statement made by Durkheim can be viewed as inconsistent and not enough to make global conclusions. The main point of the article is that it is not sufficient to base the theory of suicidal tendencies on the different between Protestant and Catholics only, but to make a more dialyzed analyses of the religion- suicide connection. It was Pescosolido made an attempt to remake the ideas of Durkheim and suggested that “religious context affects the relationship between denomination and suicide” (Tubergen, Grotenhuis& Ultee, 2005).The article presents strong evidence that the community-norms are not the only source to predict the suicidal tendencies of the region any more and nowadays the influence of religious component over church and non-church members has decreased since the moment Durkheim conducted his research in 1950’s. The presented surveys show that 8% of conservative Protestants believe that a person does have the right to end his or her own life; 8% of Catholics share this believe ,too; 16% of liberal Protestants 37% of non-church members believe in the same thing. The article perfectly examines the two factors Durkheim believes influence the suicide risk the most – the community support and the prohibition of suicide and concludes that the decrease of suicide in Catholic communities if present is primarily actual for the elderly and the suicide risk should not be based on the different between the Catholics and Protestants.


3. Sociology as a science and suicide

The second article absolutely argues the Durkheim’s positivism. The author Ken Browne emphasized the fact that Durkheim made a special accent on social restrictions such as religious communities as the way to keep the behavior of the society members in a certain limits, including suicide. Browne argues the fact that these external factors are the key ones in defining and predicting the human behavior. In simple words people do not kill not only because the Law and religion prohibit it. The author implies that such factors existing outside the individual are the original elements that form the behavior of all society members. According to the Browne Durkheim did not completely explore the true causes of suicide but only gave start base for it and revealed the restraining institutions, without considering the importance of the individual’s personal motives that cannot be left aside.

The main argument of the article is that every single individual is a conscious being and therefore posses “free will, feelings, motives and intentions”. Each person has a personal perception of life and puts a special personal meaning in every single decision he or she takes. The significance of the motives in the life of every human being is not to be underestimated according to the author of the article, because motives are the driving forces of the behavioral manifestations of each person. Another very important thing to mention is that the article questions the capability of sociology as a science to analyze this important element of each personality within the society, but only measures the external behavior with the help of qualitative data that may be deceiving at times.

The main priority of the article is to make a special emphasis on the notion that human behavior cannot be completely predictable and equal circumstance influence different people in diverse ways resulting in completely different manifestations. In other words if two people are put under the same negative conditions it does not mean they will commit suicide, but the one that have a personal motive for it will. The article also mentions the famous Hawthorne effect in order to prove that the behavior of people that are selected for a research may change their behavior unconsciously and therefore make the study results invalid and therefore sociology cannot achieve its original aim.

This article basically puts a parallel between the opinion of positivists sharing the opinions of Durkheim and the interpretivists, believing that it is impossible to predict the behavior of individual only on the basis of empirical data, qualitative data and observation as it is done in sociology. The author goes deep into the defining the true motives of suicide through the set of human motives: “…a sudden, unnatural death only becomes a “murder”…or a “suicide” because people define it as such, and these definitions can change from place to place and from person to person” (Browne, 2005). The article critisies the Durkheim’s theory from the position of interpretivists, who believe that it is impossible to measure the meaning that people put into this or that act, and especially in suicide. The main criticism of Durkheim’s conclusions is presented in the notion that Durkheim was mislead by the actual data he obtained from his studies but still as it does not measure the motives and the meaning this type of data is senseless to make any type of “social laws”. The weakest point is that the article absolutely neglects the important of the observable and measurable data in terms or suicide.


4. The impact of alcohol, divorce, and unemployment on suicide

Thor Norstrom in his article states that Durkheim in his suicide research left out a very important factor such as the alcohol. It is common knowledge that the issue of alcohol abuse is one of the vital problems of the society. The article is based its main key points on the alcohol abuse producing suicidal behavior. The author analyzed the impact of alcohol abuse, unemployment, and divorce on suicide on the level of micro- and macro- levels data.

Norstrom’s research revealed that the effect of divorce on the suicide risk is relatively insignificant on the macro- level, as only 4% of the whole amount of suicides result from the divorce issues . The effect of unemployment is significant but on the background of alcohol abuse effect seems to be inconsistent. The author states that:”…the neglect of the alcohol factor is further indicated by the fact that out of a total of 3,610 references on suicide listed in Social Sciences Citation Index 1981-93, only 28 mention alcohol”(Norstrom, 1995).

As alcoholics are often not accepted in the society at all it causes them to have a low level of social integration and therefore makes them predisposed to suicide. According to the Murphy’s research presented in the article 72% of the alcohol abusers who committed suicide had almost no social support and their interactions with their families were either unproductive or they did not have any at all. 26% of the alcohol abuse suicides were committed due to the lost relationships with important people that occurred because of the alcohol abuse itself.

Though the evidence provided by the author reveals a new factor that has been missed by Durkheim, it still underestimates that importance other factors only concentrating on the alcohol abuse issue. The article supports the emphasis on social integration held by Durkheim, but adds a new key element that from the point of view of the author may cause suicidal behavior.


5. Conclusion

Each of the articles presents its own opinion on Durkheim’s explanation of suicide tendencies, but offers either arguments against or adds new information to it. Nevertheless, each of the articles has one priority – to find to true treason of suicidal behavior and stop it.


1. Van Tubergen, Grotenhuis M. Ultee W.(2005).Denomination, religious context, and suicide: neo-Durkheimian multilevel explanations tested with individual and contextual data. University of Chicago Press

2. Browne K.(2005).Sociology and science. Sociology Review, Feb 2000 v9 i3 p8(4).

3. Norstrom T.(1995).The impact of alcohol, divorce, and unemployment on suicide: a multilevel analysis. University of North Carolina Press v74 n1 p293(22)


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