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Durkheim: Suicide and Solidarity in Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2037 words Published: 15th May 2017

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Durkheim and Links Between Suicide and Solidarity in Society

Emile Durkheim’s third piece of work was, ‘Suicide’ published in 1897 and was a case study of which the title describes. A subject that Durkheim was very interested in along with suicide rates and the aspects of social life which had an impact on these statistics. Durkheim’s own definition of suicide was ‘applied to all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result’ (Durkheim, extract from ‘Suicide’ p110). This instrumental piece of writing looked more closely at the sociological reasons behind taking ones life rather than the personal or psychological reasons.

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Durkheim gathered suicide rates and statistics from many European countries and these were analysed and played a large part in his beliefs that, changes in social solidarity were linked to suicide rates. He also offered his theoretical opinions on the social aspects that also, played a part in these suicide statistics and this essay shall delve more deeply in to the links between suicide and the changes in social solidarity.

Emile Durkheim was a great believer in sociology, social facts and the aspects of social life that shape our actions as individuals, things like the state of the economy, religious influences or family. (Giddens, 1997). Social facts were important to Durkheim and he believed they ought to be studied seriously and as objectively as any other science. Durkheim was fascinated at how society was changing and transforming. That the very things that were important to society and glued it all together, values, morals and customs were changing with the times and to Durkheim this played a part in his conclusions on suicide and their rates. Durkheim spoke of society having ‘sacred character’ and the emergence of ‘sacred symbols’. These were a key part of his theory.

Durkheim focused much on social solidarity, he describes this as the belief systems and institutions which play a vital part in giving societies ‘coherence and meaning’ in the way we relate to each other. As society changed it created new social situations and along with these came, what he called ‘social conditions’. These were things like severe neurosis and mental fatigue. All coming about as one type of society ends and another is born. He accounted several reasons for the changes in society, the boom of mass media, the vast increase in the use of steam power and scientific rationalism.

Durkheim explained that morality was at the heart of social solidarity and it’s when social cohesion is lacking when those all important symbols, like religion and family, that bind us all together in a moral manner, fall to the wayside. These things taught us how to relate to one another and on their demise, society and how we achieve social solidarity demises also. In Durkheim’s words ‘when society is strongly integrated, it holds the individual under it’s control’ (Durkheim,1982, Excert from ‘Suicide’ p209).

Durkheim makes a distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. The first of which is what he considered to show the traits of a more traditional society. The division of labour was of a more simple nature and individuality was less common. He claims there was a far more ‘collective consciousness’ and religion and god played a far bigger part in society. Mechanical solidarity occurs when individual differences are minimized and the members of society are much alike in their devotion to the common weal (Lewis A. Coser, 1971, Masters of Sociological Thought, p 30).

Durkheim talks of legal codes and how when crimes are committed, they are offensive to the masses, not just the individual. In this type of society crimes and criminal behaviour are punished in a most serious way, sometimes even by death. In Durkheim’s’ own words ‘an act is criminal when it offends strong and defined states of the collective conscience’ (Division of Labour, p 80). This contrasts strongly with how things are in this day and age and indeed when Durkheim noted changes in society, ‘But today, it is said, punishment has changed it character, it is no longer to avenge itself that society punishes, it is to defend itself.’ (Division of Labour, p 86).

Organic solidarity is related to a more modern society, where things are less traditional and things like family and religion are no longer at the very heart. This is a more capitalist society and has a high division of labour and specialised skills. The collective consciousness is less so and individuality is far more common. Social differences are obvious via class, race or gender. Specialized activities, different ways of living and individual dependence are all more common than within mechanical solidarity. Durkheim talks of the differences as individuals and as groups and thus a new form of social solidarity is born. Organic solidarity, presupposes not identity but difference between individuals in their beliefs and actions. The growth of organic solidarity and the expansion of the division of labour are hence associated with increasing individualism. (Giddens, p 77).

Durkheim’s use of an organic analogy explains how he comes to use the term ‘organic solidarity’, Society becomes more capable of collective movement, at the same time that each of its elements has more freedom of movement. The solidarity resembles that which we observe among the higher animals. Each organ, in effect, has its special physiognomy, it autonomy. And moreover, the unity of the organism is as great as the individuation of the parts is more marked. Because of this analogy, we propose to call the solidarity which is due to the division of labour, organic. (Division of Labour, p 131). Durkheim believes that the division of labour, the rights given over more to individuals and that the division of labour was not a natural occurrence that benefited society and this is why organic solidarity was born.

Durkheim spoke much on social solidarity and the division of labour. He argued that the process of transcending from mechanical to organic social solidarity was the very cause of ‘new social and economic institutions and relationships’. A more complex and specalised division of labour had not given the outcome Durkheim had predicted. He expected it would result in social economic meritocracy and this was not the case. Class conflict was one outcome of the division of labour.

Anomic division of labour, Durkheim explains, happens in times of economic, commercial or industrial crisis. The unusual situation of conflict may occur between capital and labour and this would be seen as a non usual situation. Organic solidarity begins to break down and a state of anomie occurs. Forced division of labour happens when the division of labour does not continue organically. People may begin to act in ways that are aimed at protecting themselves or their position and constraints in place can cause inequalities between gender, race and or class.

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Durkheim’s interest in suicide and suicide rates within Europe stemmed from his belief that sociology could explain ‘social malaise’. He believed it was the path to modernity that caused social malaise. He also believed that psychology and neurology could only ‘diagnose’ the problem not expose the social genus of condition. His interest in suicide was also stemmed from the division of labour in more modern societies and the importance of social solidarity on people.

In another of Durkheim’s writings, Rules of the Sociological Method, he talked about the concept of anomie. Within his research he studied the suicide rates between catholics and protestants. He concluded that more protestants committed suicide than catholics did. His explanation for this was that catholics being more god fearing. and having more ‘social control’ than protestants, stopped them from committing suicide as often as protestants did.

Durkheim believes that the more ‘social integration’ people have then the less likely they are to kill themselves. Those who have little social integration, less involvement in society, are more likely to kill themselves before they become a serious drain on society. According to Durkheim, changes in the modern world occur at such a speed and with such intensity, that social difficulties are born and these are what he link to anomie. A feeling of aimlessness or despair provoked by modern social life. (Giddens, (1997)

It seems that part of this research could have been flawed. Durkheim didn’t take in to account the guilt and shame that often came with Catholicism. Many times in the past catholic families would not declare their dead family members as having committed suicide for fear of not being given a proper burial or the shame faced by other members of the community. Therefore the statistics at that time could perhaps have been skewed down to these facts.

Durkheim believed that the issues of social solidarity could well explain some of the reasons why people committed suicide. He believed those less involved and or couldn’t identify with society were at risk of committing suicide or indeed those over involved with society too attached or unattached to the rules, morals, values and belief systems of society.

Durkheim spoke of different typology of suicide, the first being Egoism and Altruism. Egoism suicide is when a person forms very little attachment to society. They can’t see any worth in their own lives and suicide feels like a last resort.He claimed married people committed suicide less than people who were single and this was the typology that the protestants versus catholic rates would fall under.

Altruistic suicide is the opposite effect. It’s when a person develops an over attachment to the collective goals of society. He said this type occurs when people who belong to a tight knit group begin to feel threatened and in turn these types of suicide can almost be seen as honourable. More relevant today with suicide bombers, cult members and samurai’s. Durkheim described it as ‘self destruction in defense’.

The second typology of suicide was anomic and fatalistic. The first being related too a person having a sudden and stressful change in their life circumstances. This could be from divorce to financial ruin, those who once held wealth and prestige and then faced to lose it all and become unemployed would perhaps commit anomic suicide. Fatalistic suicide, Durkheim explained was ‘an intense over regulation of an individual by society’. Therefore the types of people who may commit fatalistic suicide are slaves, prisoners of war or in earlier times perhaps women who remained unmarried or without children. Durkheim didn’t consider this type of suicide to be common in the modern society.

Durkheim’s work has been much accredited over the years. It was one of the largest studies carried out in a sociological perspective on suicide. His research methods and use of rates and statistics was innovative at the time it was carried out although as was the case with catholics versus protestants in regards to suicide rates, he did fail to take in to account the natural guilt that came with Catholicism. Some claim Durkheim’s approaches are too positive and or functionalist in nature. Durkheim puts huge emphasis on social facts and perhaps via this he fails to look more closely at personal phenomena. Others have claimed that Durkheim’s’ theories were not empirically supported . Durkheim’s’ work undoubtedly was remarkable in nature and offered a stunning insight in to suicide and the changes of social solidarity.


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