SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory
|Transcript||Audio||Low Bandwidth Video||High Bandwidth Video|
Foundations of Modern Social Theory
SOCY 151 - Lecture 24 - Durkheim on Suicide
Chapter 1. Suicide Defined [00:00:00]
Professor Iván Szelényi: So good morning. Well today we have a fun topic: suicide. Actually I didn’t realize how much interest there is amongst students in suicide. Once we invited a professor from Australia, who wanted to teach a course on death and suicide, and I was very concerned that no students will take it; and the class was full. So it looks like suicide is a popular topic. And I think I know why. Because when I was your age, occasionally it occurred to my mind, what if I commit suicide? Right? So I think thinking about suicide is probably something what crossed many of yours mind. And therefore hopefully Durkheim will be exciting for you, and will help you to understand why did you consider it and why you did not do it? Right? Or why your friends or acquaintances thought about it. Some of them may have tried; some may have killed themselves.
Anyway, so this is about Suicide. And as I said already before, this is a path-breaking book, in many ways. It’s really the first rigorous empirical study of a social phenomenon–and a very curious social phenomenon, and we will talk about this as the lecture unfolds. Because we tend to think about suicide as something very personal–right?–and individual. And all right, if a psychologist is interested in suicide, it’s understandable. But why on earth a sociologist would be interested in suicide? It is so rare, socially, fortunately–I mean, not in some societies, but in most, very rare. And it looks like it’s so much a question of individual decision. So why should a social scientist try to explain it? So Durkheim sets for himself a very difficult task, and he does it formidably.
I will show you that he does some spectacular methodological innovations. He kind of offers methodological insights, what social scientists are excited about, even today, well over a century after he published this book. Okay, so that’s about Suicide.
And first of all, I will ask a few general questions. And first of all, the question is what is suicide? When do we decide that a death is suicide? And then also I would like to pose the question, what are the reasons for social scientists to study it? And Durkheim gives some very good reasons. And finally, I will introduce Durkheim’s typology of suicide. Many Durkheim scholars were struggling with this, how to make sense of this typology? And I will show you one way how to do it. Sort of there are–his major types are egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic suicide, and I will talk about each of them in turn.
Okay, so let me start with the definition. And this is tricky, by the way. Also it’s extremely tricky, when it comes to statistics, to figure out what statistics do report as suicide. When people die, especially if they do not leave a letter behind, it’s very hard to decide whether that person actually committed suicide or it was just an accident. Well there are occasions when this is quite obvious. Right? Somebody’s hanging himself, or herself,–which is a favorite way of committing suicide, of a certain type of people, in certain instances, right?–and the way how somebody hanged himself makes it quite clear that it was a suicide. But doctors investigating the cause of death very often are puzzled whether this is suicide or not. So you clearly have an overdose of sleeping pills; it’s unclear whether it was an accident, accidentally you took more pills that you should have, or whether this was actually a suicide.
So there is a lot of problem in studying statistical data about suicide, and very often doctors do make judgments on the social circumstances of the person who committed suicide. Right? They read Durkheim, or they have read some social scientist. They tell these are the kind of people, under these circumstances, who commit suicide. So they go to the scene, they look at the dead person, look at the circumstances. This is an old man whose wife just passed away very recently. So that must be, of course, suicide. Right? So therefore what is suicide is being defined by the circumstances, rather than actually by the medical reasons.
Okay, so let’s try to struggle a little bit this, what is suicide; under what circumstances can we talk about suicide? And here is Durkheim’s definition. “The term suicide”–right?–“is applied to all cases of deaths resulting directly, or indirectly, a positive or a negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce these results.” Well looks like a very complicated definition, but a very full and a very good one. And the first point is intention. Right? That in order to call a death suicide, there must be intention on behalf of the person who commits suicide. Well this intention can be varied. Well the aim might not be necessarily self-destruction. The aim may be something else. For instance, you can think about suicide bombers. Right? They don’t want to kill themselves; they want to kill others, but they use their body as a weapon–right?–and they explode themselves in order to cause harm to others. Right? But that’s clearly a case of suicide, because they know that they will die as a consequence of their action, and therefore it can be called suicide, though it is not aimed at the person himself.
Well the act of suicide can be indirect, and in fact it can be negative. Sort of you–most suicide is a direct and positive action. Right? You jump from the fortieth floor–right?–and then you kill yourself. You take sleeping pills, an overdose, and you kill yourself. But it can be indirect and negative; I mean, you can starve yourself to death, and that can be called suicide, as long as your intention is to kill yourself. Right? So it becomes very tricky. What do you do with people who are abusing drugs or alcohol? Right? They may actually die as a result of excessive alcohol or drug consumption. If it is not intentional, they don’t want to kill themselves; they just like boozing–right?–they just like cocaine–right?–then it is not suicide. Right? There are lots of Russians who have been dying in the last thirty-five years; their numbers–especially middle-age Russian men were dying like flies because they are drinking too much vodka. In the overwhelming majority of the cases, this is not suicide. Right? They are depressed; they are silly, they think drinking vodka will help their depression, and as a result they will get liver cancer and they will die. Right? So it was not suicide. Well, if you lock yourself into your room, you take sleeping pills and you drink a bottle of vodka in order to kill yourself, then it was suicide. Right?
So anyway, you have to know the consequences of your action. You have to know that what you do will kill yourself, in order for your act to qualify as a suicide. So I think this is really beautifully done, and has been extremely influential for social scientists. As I said, it makes a very big challenge to medical investigators who try to determine the cause of death, because it’s very difficult to establish the intention. Right? And in most of the cases of suicide, you cannot be absolutely sure of the intention. You don’t know whether this was an accident or whether it was intentional, unless the victim of the suicide will tell you, leaves a letter behind and tells that I committed suicide. Okay.
Well, as I said, it looks like that suicide is very much a very personal action. Right? Well occasionally people talk about their intention to commit suicide. When and if they do so, they probably will not do it. Right? Those who are serious about suicide keep it to themselves, and then kill themselves. Those who talk about “I’m suicidal”, very often simply want to have attention. Right? And then even if they attempt suicide, often it’s kind of fake. They’re smart enough, they just take a little overdose of sleeping pills, but not too much. Because they already told they are suicidal–right?–their friend rushes them to the hospital and they will be all right. Right? So anyway, it’s a very individual act. You usually keep your intention to commit suicide to yourself, rather than discussing with somebody else. And it looks like taking your life away is really your own business.
So the question is, why on earth people who study society should be interested in this very individual, very private act? And well he said, “Look at, for instance, the suicide rate, how it varies across countries.” And he said there is a tremendous difference in suicide rate across countries. There are countries with very low, and there are other countries with very, very high suicide rates, relatively speaking. Suicide is nowhere the top-ranking cause of death, though in some countries, in certain age groups, it can easily enter the top five causes of death. And, on top of this, those countries where people commit suicide tend to be countries where people committed suicide for a long time. It’s a very stable indicator. Scandinavian countries are ones where usually the suicide rate is reasonably high. My native Hungary is a country which for a very long time was proud of being number one in committing suicide. Right?
Well incidentally–this is not in Durkheim, but if I may add to this–there were people who were–of course, Durkheim inspired, and still inspires, a lot of research on suicide. He has been challenged on many questions, but he is still, after 110 years, the agenda-setter on suicide research. If any one of you become a biologist, a sociologist, a doctor, and want to conduct research on suicide, you will have to cite Durkheim. Right? You have to start from Durkheim if you are studying this. Well anyway, there were people inspired by him and looked further inside countries. And what is interesting, that within countries there are actually gigantic differences between regions. There are some regions in these countries with very high, and some regions of these countries with relatively low suicide rates, and these are pretty constant as such.
Well I had a colleague–as I said, it’s probably not too parochial for me to refer to Hungary, because now Hungary is I think only number two or three in the world, in suicide rate, but has been number one for a century. So anyway, I had a colleague who did a detailed study in Hungary about suicide, inspired by Durkheim, and found that there were certain regions in the country where the suicide rates were particularly high–as well it was low. And he actually could identify the type of people who committed suicide and the way how they committed suicide, for instance. And that has been stable for a century, as far as it was possible to go back in statistics. Just to give you an example–and it will also help us when we are looking at Durkheim’s typology of suicide. For instance, he found that male farmers, old male farmers, living in detached farms, when their wife passes away unexpectedly–women are expected to live longer than men, right?–when their wife passes away unexpectedly, the typical way what men does: they hang themselves in the attic; and this happens again and again. Detached farms, old men, wife died, people go up and hang themselves. Right?
Suicide, to put in another way, is a way of dying. Right? There are some circumstances in which in certain societies you know that this is the answer to your problem, that you commit suicide. Right? If you are a man–we are usually pretty dumb, we don’t know how to cook, we don’t know how to take care of ourselves–you are old, your wife died, so what do you do? You commit suicide–right?–under certain circumstances. Right? Anyway, I think this is a–this is why it makes it interesting–right?–for social scientists, that there are interesting social patterns, cultural patterns, how people commit suicide. And Durkheim will work on this as much.
And then he said there are, in fact, large, big historical events, which do have an impact on suicide rates. You would think if there is a big social turmoil, then suicide rate will go up. You are wrong. If there is a big social turmoil, suicide rate tends to be going down, because there is–in times of revolution, people don’t commit suicide. Anyway, his point is that suicide is a collective phenomenon. Right? Somehow it is socially determined as a phenomenon.
Okay, now this is the typology of suicide. And I have been struggling with this, and people who know much more about Durkheim have been struggling with this typology. And what of course I was trying to do, as others were trying to do, to do a 2 x 2 table–right?–and to put these types of suicide in this 2 x 2 table. Durkheim, in writing about suicide, seemed to make a distinction between the question of integration and regulation. Right? Integration means how tightly organized a group or society is in which you live. Right? And as I already pointed out in the earlier lecture–right?–Durkheim has this idea of normal versus pathological. And I will talk about this in more detail in the last lecture on Durkheim’s methodology. He has this interesting idea that what is normal is the kind of typical. To put it very crudely, normal is kind of the average. If it is too much or too little, this is pathological or abnormal; that is the idea.
So therefore one dimension in which he uses the typology is integration–right?–how well integrated we are into a social group we are in. And that can be too high or it can be too low. Right? And both too high integration and too low integration can be the cause of social pathologies. And one of the social pathologies is that you kill yourself. Right? And the other dimension is regulation; how much, how tight, how rigorous the norms are which regulates your behavior. Again, it can be too high or it can be too low. And it will affect also the pathologies. If you are away from the golden middle road–that’s what Durkheim’s idea of modernity is. If you are on the golden middle road, then you are normal. If you deviate, you are abnormal. This is a very problematic proposition in Durkheim, and has been challenged.
Well the big trouble is, are these two dimensions independent from each other, or they overlap? And it’s really they are not really completely independent from each other. This is why you could not put this into a 2 x 2 table–right?–because some of the types of abnormalities can be only understood in integration or in terms of regulation. But anyway, I think this is probably the best way I can come up with, or in the Durkheim literature the best way I have read, basically using these two dimensions as– not as a 2 x 2 table; sort of, to put it this way, rather than a 2 x 2 table, it’s like two dimensions. Right? And then you have the two types over here. Right? Too high and too low–right?–and you have integration and you have regulation. And high and low and high and low; this is how you can do it. Right? You can conceptualize it. But it doesn’t work, you put it in a normal 2 x 2 table. Okay.
Chapter 2. Egoistic Suicide [00:23:45]
Well let me start to talk about egoistic suicide. Right? And therefore–right?–egoistic suicide has something to do with social integration, and it is a case when the social integration is too low. And he said, well the more weakened the group to which the person who committed suicide belongs, the less he depends on them. And he calls this egoism. Right? If you don’t–you are yourself and you are not–do not feel responsible to your own group, and therefore you may be committing suicide. Again, people who are considering suicide–just to show the lack of egoism and the importance of the group–well you may think you have a good enough reason to kill yourself: “My life doesn’t have any purpose.” “My boy or girlfriend left me, so therefore I’d rather kill myself.” And then they say, “Well I can’t really do this to Mom.” Right? “I cannot disappoint my parents.” Right? So therefore you are not–you cannot act egoistically. Right? You belong to a group, and because the tightness, the solidarity with the group prevents you to commit suicide. So in order to act egoistically means that you don’t care about others, or you care first of all about yourself, as such.
Well the solidarity can be different. It can be religion, it can be family, or it can be the society. And let me speak to this. And if this religion, family or society, as such, offers sufficient solidarity, then you will not be likely to commit suicide. Okay, so let me talk about religion and suicide, and also a bit about how religion and education are linked together with suicide. Durkheim does here something really path-breaking. Though the statistical technologies were not available, he really does the logic of multivariate statistical analysis. He almost does a regression model, to put it this way, without numbers. But that’s the logic of the argument. And then he’s talking about what he calls the Jewish exceptionalism. Well this will be interesting, because the fundamental idea is that, in fact, generally people who are more educated are more likely to commit suicide. Right? There is also a relationship between religion and suicide.
Protestants are more likely to commit suicide; Catholics less likely to commit suicide. Catholics are less educated; Protestants are more educated. Being more educated, the Protestant, makes you more susceptible to commit suicide, he argues. But Jews are an exception. Because Jewish suicide rate is generally very low, and Jews are very highly educated. So that’s the Jewish puzzle. Right? Why on earth highly educated Jews don’t kill themselves? If you are–right?–a Lutheran, or a Presbyterian, and you are educated, you kill yourself. Right? Why Jews don’t? Right? That’s the puzzle. What is the relationship between education and religion? And why on earth education leads to a higher level of suicide? Right?
Okay, let me therefore start with this one. Well as I said, he generally finds that there is a higher rate of suicide among Protestants, and lower rates among Catholics, and Jews have the lowest suicide rates among the Judeo-Christian sphere of the world; that’s what he studied, the European countries. In fact, Islamic suicide rate is also low. Well, one possible easy answer would be that there are stricter penalties if you are Catholic and if you commit suicide; that’s why you don’t commit suicide. Right? But that’s not quite true, Durkheim argues. Right? In fact, all religions are against suicide; no religion allows suicide. Well Roman Catholics may be a little more rigorous about it. You do not a get a religious burial. I think most Roman Catholic priests would not bury somebody who committed suicide, in most countries, while Protestant ministers may perform a burial ceremony. But I don’t think if you commit suicide that really you are all that concerned where and how you will be buried. Right?
Now, so the question is why? Right? The first answer, that some religions prohibit suicide more than others is not very persuasive, because all religions prohibit suicide. Well, and here he comes with the idea of integration. He said Protestantism is a less strongly integrated church than the Catholic Church–less of a community. And Judaism actually even more tightly integrated, even more so of a community. So therefore it leaves relatively little room for egoistic suicide, because the high level of integration. And here the rank order is a relatively low level among Protestants, higher level among Catholics, and particularly high among Jews.
Well how on earth comes education into the picture? Well he says as the common and customary prejudice is weakening, there is an increase in the trend of suicide. Well it’s not exactly prejudice in the most conventional sense of the term, what he’s referring to. He’s referring here to the question what we kind of overcome with education, generally speaking. Right? That if you are becoming more educated, you will have less of accepted doctrines. Right? Education–right?–is a critical exercise. Right? That’s what I was trying to do in this course–right?–to challenge you–right?–to be a critical theorist–right?–to subject your own consciousness to critical scrutiny, and to subject the theorists you have read to critical scrutiny. Right? That’s why I asked you in the test to do– find a puzzle–right?–and take sides in this puzzle–offer some criticism of some of the theorists. That’s what education is all about. And therefore prejudice as dogma is declining. Right? And if dogma is declining, there are less given stereotypes for us we believe in, then we are more likely to commit suicide. This is a kind of weakening–right?–of the collective conscience. It’s becoming more of an individual consciousness; the critical thinker is becoming more of an individual consciousness.
Well and he said well, they go together with religion, because Catholics tended to be less educated and Protestants more educated. I don’t know how much this still stands up to scrutiny. But it’s certainly true that traditionally Protestant churches did attribute a greater emphasis to education. One big reason was the relationship between believers and the clergymen. Right? In the classical Roman Catholic theology, the clergyman interprets the Bible–right?–for the believers. The big–right?–revolution of Reformation was that they translated the Bible–right?–into native languages–and printing was just made available–and started to print the Bible, and they wanted lay people to read the Bible. Well in the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, only the priest read the Bible. Right? Sort of Protestantism went together with mass education, massive public education, and an emphasis on education: how to read and write. Right? So therefore I think there is a good claim to be made that on the long-run, and generally speaking, Protestants tended to be more educated than Catholics. I doubt whether you would find much religious differences in contemporary societies. But that, in a way, was simply a correlation pointing in the same direction.
And he also makes this point–which is by now utterly untrue–right?–women are not less educated in advanced societies than men. Women are actually by now more educated than men, in the advanced Western countries, including the United States. Right? In no time you guys, you really have to work harder to make sure that you can catch up with the ladies–right?–because they will be better educated than you will be. Right? But anyway, in his times women were less educated than men, and they were less likely to commit suicide. I think that’s also still the case. I think women are still less, generally speaking, still less likely to commit suicide. In fact, I think women are more likely to attempt suicide, but completed suicide rate is much higher among men than among women. Right? That’s, I think, the basic finding.
But anyway, here it’s more a methodological point. I doubt that whether the Catholic/Protestant distinction still stands, and it certainly doesn’t stand for women. Right? Women by now, in the Western advanced countries, in almost every country, are better educated than men are, especially the younger generation are better educated. But the methodological point is interesting. Right? As I said, he’s beginning to do multivariate analysis. Right? So the dependent variable is tendency to suicide. And he has a little regression model. Right? He looks into the regression model–countries and gender and education and religion–and tries to explain the variance in the suicide rate. In terms of research design, this is very beautifully done. Right? This is social science–right?–as we know it today.
Well, and there is the Judaistic puzzle. Right? Well Jews–I think this probably is still true–is better educated than non-Jews. Again, I would not swear on it. I really have not looked at data on religion and education. But certainly generally has been true, at that time when Durkheim was writing about it, late nineteenth century; Jews were highly educated, in Europe in particular, and by the 1920s and ’30s in the United States as well. Though they are highly educated, well they are less likely to commit suicide. So there is a trouble–right?–with his explanatory model–right?–what’s going on here. And then he tries to understand what is the purpose of learning? And he said the purpose of learning among Jews is different. And that’s the claim. A Jew seeks to learn, not in order to replace his collective prejudices, but merely to better arm for the struggle. Right? So you read the Talmud. Right? You go to the rabbi and you go through all kind of education to better understand the Holy Scripture–right?–and the interpretations of the Holy Scripture. Right? You got a lot of education–right?–if you are preparing yourself for your bar mitzvah. Right? You even have to learn Hebrew–right?–to pass your bar mitzvah. You sweat blood probably meanwhile while doing so. Right? But this is not to challenge the doctrine, it is to better understand the doctrine. Right? And therefore it doesn’t undermine the collective conscience. This education strengthens the collective conscience. Right? I think that’s at least Durkheim’s claim. Very interesting.
Again, I think take it methodologically. I think methodological formidable what this guy is doing–right?–as early as 1897. Right? This is the kind of stuff today, if any one of you will do a Ph.D.–right?–in political science or economics or sociology, if you have this kind of research design, your mentor will say, “Go for it. That’s the right way to do it.” Right? Anyway, so that’s.
So well he says education therefore–it’s a very interesting idea, right? He now does a kind of interaction effect–right?–between education and religion, and he looks at this interaction effect; how these two affect each other. He said it depends what education is all about. You know? Education, if it is weakening the collective conscience, makes you just critical of everything what you learned, will be a cause of suicide; otherwise it’s actually important to reinforce you in society.
And now family and suicide. This is the point what I did make. Right? In fact, if you are integrated in a family, you are less likely to commit suicide. And he said well there should be–if that is true–there should be some evidence that people who are married will be less likely to kill themselves than people who are unmarried and widowed. And that is actually the case. Generally, by the way, marriage seems to have a health advantage. Right? If you are considering never to get married, think about your health. Right? If you get married, statistics will tell you, you will live longer; and actually they also tell you, you will live happier, than if you stay alone. Well, and you probably are less likely to commit suicide. So that’s what he called matrimonial immunity to suicide.
“Why?” he says. And it’s again incredible what the guy is doing here. Right? He said, well one possible explanation is that because you are in a community–right?–therefore you will not commit suicide. “I cannot do to my spouse to kill myself, because my spouse will blame him or herself for my death, and I don’t want to cause harm to my spouse.” Right? Therefore I don’t commit suicide. As I said, young people often don’t commit suicide with respect to their parents. But he said–and this is really extraordinary–he said that it can be caused by matrimonial selection. Right? People who are more likely to commit suicide, to begin with, may not marry.
Well those of you who took statistics classes, you know what he’s talking about; though at that time this was not in statistics at all. It is called the selection problem. Right? This is exactly the selection problem. He said we cannot really tell why people who are married are less likely to commit suicide, because it is possible people with intention to commit suicide will not get married–right?–because they are lonely people to begin with, and this is why they did not marry. So the lower frequency of suicide among married people is not the consequence of marriage, but marriage is the consequence of people’s likelihood not to commit suicide. This is the classical example what is called the sample selection problem. Right?
And the only–you know what the only solution for this is? Experimental method. Right? That’s the only way how you could deal with this, to solve the problem. Right? And if you took with Professor Green a political science course, you know exactly what I mean. Right? Social scientists really should do experiment: random assignments. You could really come rid of the problem of this sample selection bias if you could randomly assign people to get married or not to get married, and then they will get married or not get married, and then to see whether it had an effect or not. Unfortunately in society we can’t really do random assignments. Right? We hardly can assign people to get married or not to get married, and follow it up thirty years later whether they are still alive. Right? That’s the problem. But otherwise there is–really statisticians do all kind of big tricks around this, but it really cannot be solved. The real solution would be only the experimental method. But what is formidable about this–right?–that he is well ahead of himself. And the whole problem of sample selection issue, I came across of this in statistics. In the 1980s, that’s when it became a big thing, the 1980s. Sample selection model–how you control for the sample selection problem. And he knew about the problem–not the statistical one, but the research design problem–right?–in 1897. Okay, but he said well there is still data which supports actually that matrimonialism has an effect.
Well society. The same; that’s counterintuitive. He said if there are great social disturbances, then actually social sentiments are at high. Revolution, right? You feel identified with your country in the revolutionary cause and you do not commit suicide; if otherwise you would have committed suicide. Therefore suicide rate will be going down. So anyway, this was about egoistic suicide. Now let me–I am running out of time very badly.
Chapter 3. Altruistic Suicide [00:46:43]
Altruistic suicide. Well altruistic suicide is happening when social integration is far too high, unbearably high, and that’s when people will be committing what he calls altruistic suicide. And this can happen–for instance he said, people, old men, the example what I gave, old age, commits suicide; women occasionally on the death of their husband commits suicide because they think this is expected from them. And traditionally often followers or servants, on the death of the chief, committed suicide. So we are talking about altruistic suicide, because people commit suicide because they think it is their duty to kill themselves. Right? And this is a sacrifice which is imposed by society for something like a social end. Right? It can be obligatory in certain societies. If you lost a battle and you were a Japanese soldier–right?–you committed hari-kiri, if you were the general. Even in the Second World War, they committed hari-kiri, killed themselves. Or it actually can be even kind of mystical suicide. For instance, as you know Hindus occasionally jump into the Ganges River to kill themselves. Well today he said this is a relatively rare incident. But it happens in the Army. He says soldiers kill themselves, not because they are not sufficiently integrated but because they are highly integrated, and therefore that individualism is weak, and that’s why they commit suicide.
Chapter 4. Anomic Suicide; Fatalistic Suicide [00:48:47]
And now about anomic suicide. Right? Well you know anomie; anomie is the lack of social regulation. And indeed he said if you find yourself in ever-changing situations where value system is changing, you are likely to–more likely to commit suicide. And well it can be a reason for economic reasons. Traditionally institutions decline. Suicide during the Great Depression, as the bank collapsed, was frequent; people were jumping out of the window. And actually a few of them happened also last fall, with the turndown of the stock market. And it can be–another good example is domestic anomie. Your spouse dies or you get divorced, and then the suicide rate is frequent.
And finally fatalistic suicide. As I pointed out, Durkheim’s notion of fatalism is a twin concept to Marx’s notion of alienation. There is too much regulation and not enough social integration; such as the case of slaves or childless women, then they tend to commit suicide as well. So, so much about Durkheim and suicide. And next lecture, again I will talk to the questions briefly before we go on to Durkheim’s methodologies. So do come. You know? It’ll be helpful for the test. And I appreciate actually your class attendance. It was wonderful all along.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
|mp3||mov [100MB]||mov [500MB]|