Émile Durkheim is widely regarded as the founder of the French school of sociology. He was born in Épinal, Lorraine, to a Jewish family who expected him to become a rabbi like his father. Instead, his success in secular education led him in 1879 to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then considered the best teachers’ college in France, though he grew disenchanted with the school’s emphasis on superficial philosophical generalizations, and turned to sociology with the aim of establishing a rigorous, objective science of society. He became the first French professor of sociology at Bordeaux and taught social philosophy until 1902; in that year, he was appointed a professor of education and sociology at the Sorbonne, where he remained the rest of his life. Durkheim died a year after his only son was killed in World War I. He left behind a committed following of researchers, including Claude Lévi-Strauss.
In his writings, Durkheim was concerned with religion and education as key instruments in achieving moral and societal reform. In the Rules of Sociological Method (1895), he defined a scientific, rigorous method of study for sociology. He argued for the existence of a societal “collective consciousness” that could not be reduced to individual or biological psychology; social environment is therefore a real entity that can be studied on its own merits.
In 1898, Durkheim founded the Année sociologique, which was intended to bring together social science scholars and encourage the field’s specialization. It was the place of the social sciences and educational reform to help society avoid “anomie,” or, as he later called it, social disconnectedness—the absence, conflict, or weakness of norms for conduct. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim postulated religion’s role as the ultimate representation of communal consciousness; religion is the acknowledged binding force in collective participation that exemplifies the force of social bonds. Durkheim’s systematic and rigorous ideas, resisted during his own life, became the basis for modern empirical research in sociology.
In Suicide (1897), the first book-length treatment of this topic, Durkheim analyzes statistical data on suicides among Catholics and Protestants. Durkheim argued that the forces of social integration and regulation play an essential and complex role in the individual decision to end one’s life; these social forces vary with the type of social organization characteristic of a given group. Durkheim divides these forces and the types of suicide they produce into three, or more accurately, four categories. The first type of suicide is “altruistic”; here, the individual is highly integrated into society and rigorously governed by social custom: suicides occur because they are required by the society in certain circumstances, as in the Hindu custom of sati and Japanese suicides of honor. The second type of suicide is “egoistic”: individuals are loosely integrated into the society and do not respond to social regulations and expectations. The third type is “anomic,” which is the case when society itself fails to provide adequate regulation of its members. Durkheim believed that this third type is characteristic of modern industrial society. A fourth type, “fatalistic suicide,” only briefly discussed by Durkheim in a footnote at the end of Chapter 5, is the opposite of the anomic type, occurring when a person is socially oppressed and sees no other escape from an environment of excessive control (the suicides of slaves, of “very young husbands,” and of “the married woman who is childless”), but Durkheim finds this type not of “contemporary importance” and does not discuss it further.
In the first part of these selections from Suicide, beginning with “The General Nature of Suicide as a Social Phenomenon,” Durkheim explores the interaction of social forces in the historical, legal, and sociological contexts of suicide.
In the second section, beginning with Book 3, Chapter 2, Durkheim surveys the history of prohibitions against suicide in Greek, Roman, and Christian societies. He concludes that the reprobation of suicide has become more universal over time. Concerning the time during the decline of the city-states when suicide was temporarily tolerated, Durkheim writes that such societies “cannot be referred to as an example for imitation; for [their toleration of suicide] is clearly interrelated with the serious disturbances which then affected those societies. It is the symptom of a morbid condition.” Durkheim argues that suicide must be considered immoral because it violates the ideal of collective humanity “as conceived by each people at each moment in history.” No man or society, having accepted this ideal once, now has the right to depart from it; “like every ideal, it can be conceived of only as superior to and dominating reality. This ideal even dominates societies, being the aim on which all social activity depends. This is why it is no longer the right of these societies to dispose of this ideal freely . . . they have subjected themselves to the jurisdiction of this ideal and no longer have the right to ignore it; still less to authorize men themselves to do so.” In order for the “religion of humanity” to maintain its (rightful) authority, suicide as a denial of the individual’s submission to the interests of all human kind “must be classed among immoral acts.”
The third part of this selection, from Book 3, Chapter 3, concerns the changes in modern society that Durkheim believes are necessary to prevent further increases in egoistic and anomic suicides, which are each conditioned by excess individuation. Durkheim argues that in modern society, the formerly central institutions of state, religion, and family no longer provide the constant regulation and power to encourage thorough collective integration what they once did; having lost their socially organizing power, they cannot be reinvested with the compelling collective consciousnesses they once represented. According to Durkheim, “since occupational life is almost the whole of life,” corporations are the best candidates for a type of institution that could persuasively demand the devotion of individuals to a collective consciousness. He coins the term “occupational decentralization” to refer to vast simultaneous conglomeration and internal specialization of corporate activity. “Occupational group” would become the new basis of political organization, and each corporation a “definite institution, a collective personality, with its customs and traditions, its rights and duties, its unity.” The only type of anomie that Durkheim believes would be unaffected by these societal changes is “conjugal anomy.” He argues that divorce should be made more difficult and that, in order to make the constraints of matrimony more agreeable to women, the opportunities for women in society would need to change so that women might come to be as psychologically integrated in collective society as men are.
Émile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Introduction: The Social Element of Suicide; Book 2, Chapter 3; Book 3, Chapter 1, Part Iv, trs. John Spaulding and George Simpson, ed. George Simpson (New York: The Free Press, 1951), pp. 297-300, 326-342, 370-392.
The Social Element Of Suicide
Now that we know the factors in terms of which the social suicide-rate varies, we may define the reality to which this rate corresponds and which it expresses numerically.
The individual conditions on which suicide might, a priori, be supposed to depend, are of two sorts.
There is first the external situation of agent. Sometimes men who kill themselves have had family sorrow or disappointments to their pride, sometimes they have had to suffer poverty or sickness, at others they have had some moral fault with which to reproach themselves, etc. But we have seen that these individual peculiarities could not explain the social suicide-rate; for the latter varies in considerable proportions, whereas the different combinations of circumstances which constitute the immediate antecedents of individual cases of suicide retain approximately the same relative frequency. They are therefore not the determining causes of the act which they precede. Their occasionally important role in the premeditation of suicide is no proof of being a causal one. Human deliberations, in fact, so far as reflective consciousness affects them are often only purely formal, with no object but confirmation of a resolve previously formed for reasons unknown to consciousness.
Besides, the circumstances are almost infinite in number which are supposed to cause suicide because they rather frequently accompany it. One man kills himself in the midst of affluence, another in the lap of poverty; one was unhappy in his home, and another had just ended by divorce a marriage which was making him unhappy. In one case a soldier ends his life after having been punished for an offense he did not commit; in another, a criminal whose crime has remained unpunished kills himself. The most varied and even the most contradictory events of life may equally serve as pretexts for suicide. This suggests that none of them is the specific cause. Could we perhaps at least ascribe causality to those qualities known to be common to all? But are there any such? At best one might say that they usually consist of disappointments, of sorrows, without any possibility of deciding how intense the grief must be to have such tragic significance. Of no disappointment in life, no matter how significant, can we say in advance that it could not possibly make existence intolerable; and, on the other hand, there is none which must necessarily have this effect. We see some men resist horrible misfortune, while others kill themselves after slight troubles. Moreover, we have shown that those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most. Rather it is too great comfort which turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh. At least, if it really sometimes occurs that the victim’s personal situation is the effective cause of his resolve, such cases are very rare indeed and accordingly cannot explain the social suicide-rate.
Accordingly, even those who have ascribed most influence to individual conditions have sought these conditions less in such external incidents than in the intrinsic nature of the person, that is, his biological constitution and the physical concomitants on which it depends. Thus, suicide has been represented as the product of a certain temperament, an episode of neurasthenia, subject to the effects of the same factors as neurasthenia. Yet we have found no immediate and regular relationship between neurasthenia and the social suicide-rate. The two facts even vary at times in inverse proportion to one another, one being at its minimum just when and where the other is at its height. We have not found, either, any definite relation between the variations of suicide and the conditions of physical environment supposed to have most effect on the nervous system, such as race, climate, temperature. Obviously, though the neuropath may show some inclination to suicide under certain conditions, he is not necessarily destined to kill himself; and the influence of cosmic factors is not enough to determine in just this sense the very general tendencies of his nature.
Wholly different are the results we obtained when we forgot the individual and sought the causes of the suicidal aptitude of each society in the nature of the societies themselves. The relations of suicide to certain states of social environment are as direct and constant as its relations to facts of a biological and physical character were seen to be uncertain and ambiguous. Here at last we are face to face with real laws, allowing us to attempt a methodical classification of types of suicide. The sociological causes thus determined by us have even explained these various concurrences often attributed to the influence of material causes, and in which a proof of this influence has been sought. If women kill themselves much less often than men, it is because they are much less involved than men in collective existence; thus they feel its influence—good or evil—less strongly. So it is with old persons and children, though for other reasons. Finally, if suicide increases from January to June but then decreases, it is because social activity shows similar seasonal fluctuations. It is therefore natural that the different effects of social activity should be subject to an identical rhythm, and consequently be more pronounced during the former of these two periods. Suicide is one of them.
The conclusion from all these facts is that the social suicide-rate can be explained only sociologically. At any given moment the moral constitution of society establishes the contingent of voluntary deaths. There is, therefore, for each people a collective force of a definite amount of energy, impelling men to self-destruction. The victim’s acts which at first seem to express only his personal temperament are really the supplement and prolongation of a social condition which they express externally.
This answers the question posed at the beginning of this work. It is not mere metaphor to say of each human society that it has a greater or lesser aptitude for suicide; the expression is based on the nature of things. Each social group really has a collective inclination for the act, quite its own, and the source of all individual inclination, rather than their result. It is made up of the currents of egoism, altruism or anomy running through the society under consideration with the tendencies to languorous melancholy, active renunciation or exasperated weariness derivative from these currents. These tendencies of the whole social body, by affecting individuals, cause them to commit suicide. The private experiences usually thought to be the proximate causes of suicide have only the influences borrowed from the victim’s moral predisposition, itself an echo of the moral state of society. To explain his detachment from life the individual accuses his most immediately surrounding circumstances; life is sad to him because he is sad. Of course his sadness comes to him from without in one sense, however not from one or another incident of his career but rather from the group to which he belongs. This is why there is nothing which cannot serve as an occasion for suicide. It all depends on the intensity with which suicidogenetic causes have affected the individual.