Classical Sociological Theory
October 1 2012
Suicide Before Durkheim
In Catholic religion
God's will put us here, God shall take it away. Taking ones life is a form of
disobedience. Treated with punishment in the afterlife. Exception: martyrdom.
In French Law
Not born for ourselves but for our country; we do not have the right to take away our
own lives or the lives of others. Only the state can take lives.
In philosophy – Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), author of Essays (1580):
French philosopher > taught in Latin
Saw damage of Protestant-Catholic wars; retired to castle to write essays (weighing of
ideas). Unique in his dispassionate analysis.
Against suicide: people commit suicide for wrong reasons; not doing well economically,
lost status > petty reasons. Peace-of-mind more important. People commit suicide
because it's a show of character > or is it the easy way out? People commit suicide
because they think things will get worse > in fact they may get better.
For suicide: Sign of freedom. Seneca claimed anybody can take our life, but no one can
take our death away from us. We can take our life without the permission of others.
Death can be a solution for suffering; taking life rather than facing suffering.
Montaigne's conclusion: sometimes justifiable > in the case of suffering or remaining
alive will lead to a worse death.
Moral judgements neither central nor clear
Causes are social, not individual
Outcome (the rate of suicide) is social, not individual
Instead of blame, societal responsibility
“Suicide” by Emile Durkheim (1897) A/ a test case
Context: Academics claim there is no reason for sociology because psychology already
exists. Durkheim picks suicide; to show a private individual matter can be explained
sociologically > giving reason for the existence of sociology as a new discipline.
B/ an index of social solidarity (mechanical and organic)
Solidarity > feeling of community
Durkheim claims that in a traditional society the basis of solidarity is “likeness”
(similarity). In a modern society it is interdependence > co-operation.
Position paper question: because the division of labour becomes more complicated and
people become more interdependent does that mean people necessarily don't become
Mechanical: traditional societies
Organic: modern societies; each organ contributes to the whole
The forms of suicide that one finds in each society are different; not that there is less
suicide or more suicide in one or the other. Suicide is a normal phenomenon (present in
all societies); what changes is the type of suicide.
2/ Rates, race and imitation
Race theory: certain races have disposition to certain behaviours than other figures.
Theoretical reservations: 1/ race theories presume that races are pure. Historically there
has been a lot of race mixing. 2/ Races do not have fixed characteristics; they must
change over time and place. Proceeds to look at data: Germanic race, Celto-Roman race,
Slavic race. > Bizarre groupings; points out how arbitrary the groupings are. Finds
tremendous variability of suicide rates among the “races”. Conclusion: society (social
context) is responsible for variation not race.
Imitation theory: Example: small village; old woman hung herself from a tree; many
villagers also hang themselves in the tree. Concludes that distribution of suicide across
France does not lend credibility to theory of imitation; gap between theory and evidence.
A/ rates as social facts
Rates tend to be constant; pattern. Super-individual phenomenon; cannot be explained in
terms of individual behaviours. Social fact (rates) calls for sociological explanation.
B/ Rates: theory and evidence
C/ Imitation: theory and evidence
3/ Social Soli