Durkheim, E. (1897), Le Suicide: Étude de sociologie, Paris: Ancienne Librairie Germer Bailliere et Cte (Ed. Félix Alcan).
Emile Durkheim's book "Le Suicide" is still relevant and significant for sociology, statistics, philosophy, and psychology. Durkheim's study represents one of the early systematic and organized statistical analyses in sociology. He faced challenges in collecting and analyzing data due to limited statistical resources at the time and had to develop some statistical techniques as he progressed. "Le Suicide" is notable not just for its historical and methodological contributions but also for its sociological approach. It covers a wide range of topics, including psychology, anthropology, religion, marriage, family, social and economic crises, crime, law, education, and occupational groups. Durkheim's central argument challenges theories that attribute suicide to factors outside of society, such as mental illness, race, heredity, climate, or imitation. He argues that these explanations are inadequate and asserts that suicide should be understood as a social phenomenon.
Durkheim introduces three categories of suicide:
(1) Egoistic suicide, which results from the lack of integration of individuals into society. The stronger the forces pushing individuals to rely on themselves, the higher the suicide rate. Durkheim provides evidence of this by examining religious affiliation, showing that Catholics have lower suicide rates due to their strong integration into religious communities.
(2) Altruistic suicide, which occurs in societies where individuals are over-integrated, leading to self-sacrifice based on religious or political principles. Durkheim finds this type still exists in the military, where obedience to higher commandments is emphasized.
(3) Anomic suicide, which arises from a lack of regulation of the individual by society, particularly in modern economies. Durkheim explains that when the individual's needs and their satisfaction are not regulated by social norms, conditions for anomic suicide increase. Examples include sudden wealth and divorce.
These three types of suicide reflect how individuals are structured into society: inadequately (egoistic), excessively (altruistic), or without proper regulation (anomic). He suggests that individual behavior patterns can be categorized into these three types, and individual suicides can display mixed characteristics. Durkheim emphasizes that suicide statistics correlate with social, not biological or cosmic, phenomena, indicating that each society has a collective inclination toward suicide influenced by its social structure. This collective inclination is a social fact that exerts a coercive effect on individuals. Durkheim's analysis reveals that suicide is not solely indicative of immorality but rather reflects societal issues. He suggests that ameliorative measures should address social structure, such as reintegrating individuals into group life, strengthening collective conscience, and re-establishing occupational groups to reduce suicide rates.
Highlights from the book:
The key to understanding suicide lies in the nature of societies themselves. The increase in competition, resulting from improved communication and the division of labor, has not made life worse, but rather the lack of moral direction and social cohesion has led to higher suicide rates.
Life requires an attachment to something beyond oneself for meaning. When society disintegrates or individuals feel detached from it, they experience a crisis of meaning.
The key factor in the relationship between economic crises and suicide is the disturbance of the collective order or social equilibrium.
Individuals can only be happy and exist if their needs are in balance with their means. Human needs, especially non-physiological ones, can be insatiable. This insatiability can lead to discontent and unhappiness because unlimited desires constantly exceed the means available to fulfill them. To address this issue, Durkheim suggests that a regulating moral and societal force is necessary to moderate and harmonize human desires with their means.
No moral idea exists without a combination of three elements: egoism, altruism, and a certain degree of anomy (a sense of normlessness or lack of moral regulation). These three elements coexist in varying proportions within society, shaping individuals' inclinations and behaviors. When these three elements are in balance, individuals are in a state of equilibrium. The strength of these elements depends on three types of factors: (1) General human characteristics, which are relatively immutable, can play a role in the prevalence of suicide. (2) How people are organized and interact within society can influence the prevalence of suicide. (3) Transitory occurrences that disrupt collective life without changing its fundamental structure, such as national crises or economic crises.
Durkheim highlights the decline of traditional social structures, such as family and local communities, and the centralization of power in the state. The family acts as a safeguard against suicide and the level of protection increases with the strength and density of the family structure. Durkheim further advises occupational decentralization. This involves organizing society around occupational groups or corporations that have moral authority and influence over their members.