In Emile Durkheim's (1997) book Suicide, he discusses both the causes of and the reasons for suicide. He also addresses the components of different sociological theories that show that what comes from within a person matters equally with their outside environment when it comes to the issues they face during their lives. Strong evidence is provides that peer pressure and the lack of a strong system of support can affect the suicide rates that are seen in a population (Pope & Danigelis, 1981; Irzik & Meyer, 1987). That is a very important issue to consider, because many researchers simply want to blame a person's genetic makeup or surroundings for suicide, instead of considering that there might be more than one reason for a person to have suicidal thoughts or actions. By making sure it is understood that there is more than one reason or cause for suicide in many cases, it is easier to look for issues that might otherwise go unnoticed when it comes to helping people who are considering suicide as a way to escape their pain.
How Durkheim Showed Social Causes of Suicide
According to Durkheim (1997), one of the reasons that people commit suicide is due to deviance. Egoistic suicide and fatalistic suicide are both used to be deviant. Some people also commit what Durkheim (1997) would call altruistic suicide when they become overwhelmed with group goals, or anomic suicide when they deal with a high degree of moral confusion. All of these terms warrant explanation, because there are the categories Durkheim (1997) felt were important when it came to suicide. He placed people into categories based on the reasons behind their suicide and how those reasons could be related to their social capacity and how they saw themselves.
Egoistic suicide - This particular type of suicide is often carried out by those who feel as though they do not belong, and who have felt that way for some time (Durkheim, 1997). These people feel as though they "have no tether" in the sense that they are not part of an experience, community, or collective (Dohrenwend, 1959). That can make these people feel as though their lives do not have meaning, and when one feels there is no meaning in life, it can be hard to continue moving forward. Weakening or non-existent bonds that would normally be used for social integration can cause a person to choose egoistic suicide as the only way he or she can end the pain that society's lack of perceived compassion is causing (Durkheim, 1997). This is often called "excessive individuation," which means that a person becomes more and more detached to his or her community as a whole. This happens over time, and there are various reasons why it can occur in a particular person.
Some people have never really had ties to their community. Others have had ties in the past, but they are now finding themselves losing those ties. People may divorce, die, move away, or simply become less available, and that can start a person down a path of feeling alone and not included in anything. Without guidance and social support, people are more likely to commit suicide (Durkheim, 1997). For example, it was found that unmarried men were more likely than married men to commit suicide - mostly because they did not have stable goals and social norms to which they could be bound (Durkheim, 1997). When that became the case, there was less desire to remain living, because it often appeared that there was very little for which a person needed to live.
Fatalistic suicide - In contrast to egoistic suicide, fatalistic suicide is carried out by people who are the victims of excessive regulation (Dohrenwend, 1959). They see so much oppressive discipline in their lives and in their future that they do not feel there will be anything left for them at any point. Their passions are blocked, and their futures have been choked out by the way in which they have been controlled (Durkheim, 1997). When societies are extremely oppressive, that can cause people to choose death over continued oppression. While fatalistic suicide is a very rare way in which a person may take his or her own life, it can and does occur. One of the best examples of this would be people who are in prison - especially those who have no hope of every getting back into society again. Some of them have a very difficult time with the oppression and control they must face for the rest of their lives, so they would prefer to die and end that oppression (Durkheim, 1997).
Altruistic suicide - This particular type of suicide occurs when a person becomes completely overwhelmed by the beliefs and goals of a group. Societies that have very high levels of integration sometimes have their problem, because individuals needs are not seen as nearly as important as the needs of a society (Durkheim, 1997). Altruistic suicide would be considered to be the opposite of egoistic suicide. In this case, the person is too involved with society. His or her needs will never be met, because only society's needs are considered to be valued. People who work tirelessly for the good of others (or the whole, or the collective) often become very tired and disenchanted because they give all that they have and really feel as though they never seen anything in return (Dohrenwend, 1959).
For the most part, there would be very little reason for a person in an altruistic society to take his or her own life (Durkheim, 1997). That is mainly due to the fact that people who live and work in altruistic societies generally get at least some of their needs met by the society overall. Altruistic societies focus on the good of all people - including the person who may be working tirelessly for that society. One notable exception, says Durkheim, would be the military soldier, who is expected to commit a kind of suicide in that he or she is expected to give his or her life for the greater good if required (Dohrenwend, 1959). When one is expected to kill oneself on behalf of a particular society, that is considered to be altruistic suicide (Dohrenwend, 1959).
Anomic suicide - This is the fourth and final category that Durkheim (1997) addressed. People who commit anomic suicide do so because they lack social direction and struggle with moral confusion. Most often, this particular state is brought about by economic and social upheaval on a dramatic scale (Dohrenwend, 1959). Moral deregulation and little to no definition regarding aspirations that are legitimate in society can cause this type of suicide to be the choice of some individuals. This moral issue can create a social ethic that is far too restrained, and it can put too much pressure on the meaning and order of the individual conscience (Durkheim, 1997). There is no organic solidarity.
In other words, the division of labor and the development of the society economically have failed, which has allowed people to become confused as to where they fit in with society (Dohrenwend, 1959). They know that they do belong - so this is different from egoistic suicide - but they are not sure as to how and where they belong. They may not be told or shown this information, or they may simply find that they do not fit the mold in which they are trying to fit, and that causes mental and emotional discomfort (Dohrenwend, 1959). They search for belonging but they do not always find it, and those who continually fail to find where and how they belong to their own society are at an increased risk for suicidal behaviors (Durkheim, 1997). Because the desires of man are limitless in this instance, his disappointments are deemed to be infinite (Durkheim, 1997).
Many people who work in the helping professions are very interested in why a person would take his or her own life, and deviance may not be one of the issues they would think of (Stone, 2001). They may not understand how deviance plays into the issue of suicide, but Durkheim (1997) is able to explain that deviance and how it can help unify many individuals in a group or a society. These people have specific behaviors that they accept, and they have norms that must be realized.
However, there are also behaviors that are not part of the norm. Those behaviors are called deviant behaviors, and they are part of what is seen in someone who commits suicide (Giddons, Duneier, & Appelbaum, 2005). Suicide itself can be deviant behavior. Society can have norms that are conflicting or weak, and individuals can also have that same type of issue. Suicide chances go up for people who are struggling with societal norms, because there is not enough structure for those people to feel grounded. They are not sure where they are going, and that makes their lives…