One interesting way of looking at cultural, historical, and sociological trends is to extrapolate the individual into society and vice versa. Trends that occur within the individual -- birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, illness, old age, dementia, and death -- also occur within society, albeit at a different pace and severity. The pathology of an empire, for example, the Roman Empire, can be compared to more modern interpretations of the stages and psychopathology of the individual, and not only trends examined and compared, but a clear relationship between the way Rome declined from within, eventually to merge into something quite different, and ways of looking at individual self-destructive behaviors.
Emile Durkeim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist who many consider to be one of the founders of sociology and anthropology. He was instrumental in establishing sociology as a true, scientific discipline, and also studied education, crime, religion, suicide, and the manner humans acted within society. Durkeim was primarily focused on the manner in which societies could maintain integrity and coherence within the modern, post-industrial world when past trends and traits (such as religion and ethnic backgrounds) could no longer be assumed to be a general fact of that society. Durkheim is more concerned with what truly binds individuals together as a society -- as a unit, and what happens to this unit that often causes people to actualize to a great potential -- as a group (collectively) and as self (individually). There must be something, Durkheim reasoned, that describes societal phenomena and that both motivates and controls the psyche, albeit not always in the same manner (Alexander, 2005). For Durkheim, it was the psychopathology of humanity expressed in Le Suicide, and the interdependence and paradigm of religion, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, that ask the seminal questions about the manner in which society is organized, evolves, and indeed, interacts.
Durkheim, like his contemporaries Karl Marx and Max Weber, was concerned with the individual's position in society as a whole. For instance, Durkheim believed that it was education that reinforced society's solidarity and changed the manner in which the individual could interact and actualize. However, even for Durkheim, education often sorted students into levels -- and he encouraged individuals to become proficient in fields best suited to their abilities, which is very close to the Marxist maxim, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Too, Durkheim saw that that even though individuals must move beyond the search for food and shelter and actualize through education, there may always be a hierarchy -- not everyone can be a doctor or physicist, nor can everyone handle agriculture or machinery (Durkheim, 1973; Pappenheim, 1968). It was, however, the interconnectivity of the individual and society -- and the pathology of the individual as expressed through society, that interested Durkheim most.
Le Suicide (Suicide), published in 1897 just before the turn of the century, was a masterpiece in establishing a way to bring together the burgeoning fields of anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, and religious studies into one text that asked the reader to view society more as a body, replete with all the various intricacies, diseases, and abilities that the human being holds. On the surface, it is a case study of suicide, but in the larger context, it became a paradigm of what a scholarly monograph should encompass. Most studies of psychopathology during Durkheim's era focused solely on individual characteristics and individual abnormalities. Instead, Durkheim studied the interconnections between the individual and society; hoping to prove that a very individual act (suicide) was the result of a breakdown in one or more of the connective ties that bind one to culture and society as a whole. Durkheim traced psychopathology as something that occurred in a measured, evolutionary rate throughout the individual's lifespan. He found that the capacity for suicide was innate for all humans -- because all humans experienced or had the ability to experience, deep despair to the point that the only reasonable solution seemed to end one's own (Alexander, 2005; Durkheim, 1972).
Indeed, it is not just the particular individual's lack of an ability to actualize that causes suicide, or the death of the body politic; but a complex set of societal and cultural influences -- perhaps more accurately stated as external links and individual predispositions that simply fail to work properly. Social facts have an independent existence outside the purview of the individual, and those social facts, for Durkheim, exercise coercive power -- with some individuals being able to handle the pressure, but others, like in Rome, giving up their power, and being psychologically unfit to handle the resulting pressures (Martin, 1994, 433).
We can view the individual as the micro, and society as the macro form of the body -- both of which can flourish or decay based on the ability to create something, to overcome obstacles or attrition, and to use conflict to actualize into the future. The ability to recognize, and thrive, in this external conflict tends to move both the society and individual into a stronger, new paradigm, quoting Nietzsche, "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger." Instead, Durkheim's four types of suicide compare decisively with both the individual and Rome as an entity:
(1) Egoistic suicide -- a weakening on bonds which integrate individuals into society. In Rome, the nature of "giving" up the task of governing, banking, and defense to paid outsiders.
(2) Altruistic suicide -- when the individual becomes less important than the needs of the hole. For Rome, the Praetorians pressed their view of society further than the good of any individual.
(3) Anomic suicide -- deregulation and lack of individual aspiration. In Rome, the ruling class became apathetic, inbred, and bored. They had no raison d'etre and no motivation, once some realized that the power was ebbing, it had already been subsumed.
(4) Fatalistic suicide -- in overly oppressive societies, people kill themselves as an alternative to living in their current situation. For Rome, allowing foreign "barbarians" to handle the defense of Rome, the guarding of the Roman points of control, and the use of other foreign labor may have, at an earlier time, be seen as a reward, when in fact, it allowed the alternative of the Republic to literally, fall upon its own sword (Lester, 1994).
Thus, the ideal of a civilization or individual is based on numerous cultural and external factors, many of which can be tied to psychological issues, many of which are tied to the discrepancy between validation and disarray. Contemporary humans are no different in that they continue to be challenged between a longing for the past (religio-conservative nature) and a continued evolution towards modernity. Durkheim sees these dissonances as becoming five sociological factors that society must have in order to continue to survive, at least as sociological analytical tools: humiliation, alienation, demographics, history, and territory. One must look past the rhetoric to find what seeks of alienation and discontent smolder within cultures that eventually cause the individual to subsume themselves entirely to a frenzied rhetoric of service to a greater good. Religion often exists for divine reasons, but tends "to be shielded" from control, and "the categories of human thought are never fixed in a definite form…" (Durkheim, 1995, p. 12). And, if the rewards that are promised, while seemingly naive to the West, have been ingrained as reality from birth, how can one discount the fanatical philosophy of giving up one's earthly existence for one of paradise and honor to one's family? Suicide-murder is spread not individually, but collectively. The type of individual that is ripe for this indoctrination is one who is not an analytical thinker who has been exposed to all sides of an issue, not one who is interested in opposing points-of-view. Both the individual (micro) and society/culture (macro) are predisposed to the nature of this paradigm form of suicide as a way to complete society -- if society fears, lives in trepidation, or inequality, or overdependence on totalitarianism, they are even more predisposed towards violence. Because they often see no real "future" in life as they know it, combined with their youth, lack of experience to other cultures, and poorly developed prefrontal lobes (as are most adolescents in developed countries), recruitment is easy (Stern, 2004).
Crossing the boundaries of centuries, we find this most notable in modern suicide bombers -- martyrs for their religious cause. Sometimes, for many of the suicide-murderers, the only time they have felt that they belonged to anything was during their times within terrorist cells. The prospect of being and feeling important for the first time in their lives becomes almost an opiate -- these are not children who have been actualized through art, music, dance, after school football, baseball, basketball; who go for Happy Meals regularly, who sleep without fear of being shelled at night, who think their biggest problem in school is the note they passed; these are street children who have very little to wear, even less…