Introduction to suicide

Introduction to suicide

Suicide is:

  • A specifically human problem - only humans can will their death and kill themselves.
  • Ubiquitous - no period of history without records of suicide, no societies where suicide does not occur.
  • Only a small number of people deliberately end their lives but an area of intense sociological interest - about 7000 works.
  • Studied for some time, for example, Mazaryk in 1881.

The classic study is Durkheim (1897) 'Le suicide'. But there is a difference of opinion as to the value of Durkheim's work.

Selvin argues, 'sixty years after it first appeared in print... suicide is still a model of social research.'

But Sachs said, 'In terms of the history of Sociology, nothing is more tragic than that Durkheim's Suicide should be conceived as a model of investigation.'

  • Establish sociology as an academic discipline with a distinct approach to the social.
  • Establish a 'scientific' methodology and approach.

Some texts argue that Durkheim was a positivist. More recent evaluations, for example, Taylor, argue that Durkheim was a realist.

Main findings

Factors uncovered through use of official statistics: suicide varies according to: religion, family size, political/national crises, economic conditions, occupational groups, the divorce rate.

Extended family


  • Within single societies the suicide rate remains constant.
  • Suicide rate varies between societies.
  • Suicide rate varies between different groups within the same society.

Durkheim, therefore, discounted individualistic explanations of suicide. He also eliminated statistically factors such as climate, seasons, alcoholism, heredity and mental state.

Based on 'social bonds' that bind an individual to society:

  • 'Social integration': the individuals commitment to norms, values, beliefs.
  • 'Moral regulation': societal/group control over individual desires.

Equilibrium an appropriate degree of integration and regulation. Any imbalance increases suicide.

Four types of suicide

  • Egoistic - inadequate integration
  • Altruistic - excessive integration
  • Anomic - inadequate regulation
  • Fatalistic - excessive regulation

Emphasis on integration, which protects individual from suicidal forces, is what - according to Taylor (1988) - makes Durkheim a realist.

Anomic suicide

  • Connection between suicide rate and economic crisis - Pierce (1967), Marshall and Hodge (1981).
  • Connection between suicide rate and industrialisation - Labovitz and Brinkerhof.
  • A number of studies have confirmed link with divorce.
  • Sainsbury (1980) links between suicide and social isolation.

Egoistic suicide

  • Suicide rate fell in both world wars.
  • Suicide rate falls during Presidential elections.
  • Eglin suggests that: 'it may be argued that little has been added to the results of Durkheim's work by over 80 years of subsequent research'.


These are criticisms from within the positivist perspective. These sociologists share Durkheim's general approach to the study of suicide - the reliance on statistics - but question some of his findings, or reinterpret the results. So these criticisms are of Durkheim's interpretation of his findings, not of his fundamental approach:

Halbwachs (1930) - several factors Durkheim isolates and associates with suicide are combined in urban living.

Gibbs and Martib (1964) - no adequate operational definition of social integration.

Wasserman (1983) - decline in suicide rate during war due to economic changes, unemployment declines.

Emile Durkheim

Extreme positivists make a number of criticisms of the methodology of Durkheim's work. These criticisms actually illustrate that we should perhaps consider Durkheim a realist:

  • Durkheim fails to consider the issues of reliability and validity.
  • Durkheim failed in his efforts to avoid subjectivity (references to the intentions, purposes or motives of social actors) in his work.
  • Durkheim's definition of suicide refers to the subjective state of the suicidal victim.
  • Many of Durkheim's examples assume/take for granted purposive theories of suicide - for example, the purpose of the officer who commits suicide because he has been a coward.
  • Durkheim refers to healthy and diseased societies - clearly a value judgement.
  • Durkheim's reference to suicidal forces or suicidogenic currents contradicts the scientific and factual approach of positivisms since these forces are unseen and unmeasurable.
  • Because these suicidal forces cannot be seen or measured the theory cannot be falsified - no evidence can disprove it.


These are criticisms from outside the positivist perspective. They make fundamental criticisms of the whole positivist approach to the study of suicide, its use of official statistics and its claim to scientific status. This alternative approach is based on the interpretive perspective.

Interpretivists place central importance on the role of meaning in human action. It is how a person interprets a situation that gives it a particular meaning and therefore calls forth a particular action. Humans do not simply have an 'automatic' response to external stimuli, they think, and thus behaviour reflects a person's interpretation of the significance of external stimuli. Hence people will respond differently to experiences such as unemployment and divorce, they will not automatically go out and kill themselves.

Interpretivist sociologists make two major criticisms of the traditional sociological approach:

  • Statistical problems
  • Theoretical problems

Interpretists suggest that official statistics are not simply collected but are socially constructed - that is they are a product of a process of interpretation and negotiation and decision making by various officials. The central problems (like all official statistics) centre around the issues of reliability and validity. As regards validity, it is likely that there is an under-recording of the true rate of suicide. As regards reliability, it is clear that there are differences between coroners and officials in determining suicidal intent, consequently it is likely that there will be problems in comparing different regions or countries and developing a general theory to explain suicide.

J. Douglas (1967) The Social Meaning of Suicide

Douglas suggests that:

  • Durkheim did not give enough consideration to how official statistics on suicide are collected. They contain gross inaccuracies.
  • In each case of death an official agency investigates and officials interpret the death to decide cause.
  • What ends up in the official statistics as a suicide is therefore the end result of a process of interpretation and decision-making.
  • These data problems arise from the criteria used by coroners to diagnose death.

J. Maxwell Atkinson, Societal Reactions to Suicide: The Role of Coroner's Definitions.

1. The data problem

Suicide is clearly not easy to study and thus there has tended to be an over reliance on official statistics. Two main data problems have been investigated: investigations into the accuracy of official statistics, and investigations into the validity of such statistics.

2. Problems of the coroner

The coroner has to conduct an inquest where s/he is forced to rely on clues to infer suicidal intent. In fact, a coroner constructs a psychological autopsy.

3. Indicators of suicidal intent

Suicide notes:

1. Surest sign - but notes can conceal homicide and notes are only found in a minority of cases. Additionally, notes might be destroyed (by friends/relatives).

2. Study of suicide notes suggests that genuine notes are rational, give practical advice and have an awareness of the consequences of their death. They also give some idea of the social meaning of suicide.

Mode of death:

1. Certain types of death are more likely to be interpreted as suicide than others. For example, road deaths are unlikely to be viewed as suicide, but hanging is.

2. Some methods are less clear-cut. For example, drug overdoses, because there is the problem of proving intent, rather than a mistake. Atkinson writes:

'In the absence of a suicide note... the way a person died serves as a general initial pointer to the kind of verdict which is expected or to the further kinds of evidence which will be needed to make a decision.'

3. The search for clues can lead to idiosyncratic rules of thumb in making a decision. For example, a thing I look for in a drowning is whether or not the clothes are left folded. If they are found neatly folded on the beach, it usually points to a suicide.

(We are left to wonder why!?)

Location and circumstances of death:

These give clues as to suicidal intent, for example a deserted place is seen as more likely to be a real attempt. There seems to be a belief that if someone wants to kill themselves, they will make a realistic attempt at it and steps will be taken to ensure the maximum probability of death.

Life history and mental condition:

Coroners tend to have ideas about the kinds of circumstance which can lead people to suicide. For example, broken homes, divorce and redundancy. The general belief is that the suicide is unhappy, so coroners search for a possible cause of unhappiness.

Atkinson, Kessel and Dalgaard (1975) The Comparability of Suicide Rates, British Journal of Psychiatry

Suspecting that suicide rates were the product of coroner's judgements, four English and five Danish coroners were asked to decide on forty cases. The Danes were much more likely to pronounce a suicide verdict, since in Denmark the verdict can be used when on the balance of probabilities suicide seems likely, whereas in England, coroners has to find evidence of definite suicidal intent - beyond reasonable doubt.

Consequently, it can be argued that, the higher suicide rate in Denmark is due to the different rules for reaching a verdict rather than any differences in suicidal behaviour between the two countries.

S. Taylor (1982) - Persons Under Trains in Durkheim and the Study of Suicide

Taylor shows how coroners construct a suicidal biography and negotiate the verdict in a number of apparently identical deaths.

Wilkins (1970) Producing Suicides

Wilkins' study examined the demand features of a coroner's work - the constraints on coroners rather than the way they defined suicide. He argues that coroners' decisions are subject to the demands of the organisational conditions of their work.

Lack of assistance by police and doctors. Neither of these standard sources of information on suicide has a compelling reason to be assiduous in reporting suicides. The police are mainly interested in homicide and doctors may protect the family of the deceased.

The ability to make a decision may depend on the quality of the post-mortem, which in turn, depends on availability of resources.

Post mortems are influenced by considerations of budget and ethics. In some areas post-mortems are much more likely to be carried out.

Value of post mortem can be overestimated. A significant minority can fail to find the cause of death, and frequently coroners' inquiries are conducted by telephone.

Death Registration

After the coroner has made a decision, it is recorded on a death certificate and then this goes to a government statistical office. However, death certificates that are poorly completed may well be imaginatively reconstructed in the Registrars Office. This process is illustrated by Datel's study of mortality registration in the US army. Datel compared mortality lists produced by the Office of the Surgeon General with those produced by the Office of the Adjutant General during 1975 - 1976. There was considerable divergence between the two lists and the two organisations produced very different suicide rates for army personnel.