|About the Book|
This is a seriously interesting book. It is an early classic of sociology (and of sociological thinking) and so, as such, it is one of those books you are supposed to at least know-of, if not to have actually read. And, despite it being rather long, it is surprisingly easy to read.In many ways this book is interested in something much deeper than just suicide – that probably sounds daft and perhaps even unfeeling, but there clearly is a deeper problem occupying Durkheim’s attention in this book. And that is – to what extent does the society or the groups within society that we belong to influence us in our most fundamental behaviours? Which is why his using suicide as the theme to this enquiry is so brilliant. Let’s face it, there are few things we can do that would be more likely to be attributed to our own ‘individual choice’ than suicide. Virtually all groups in society frown upon the very idea of taking one’s own life (most religions have remarkably strict rules against suicide – so much so that someone who suicides might even be barred from the afterlife or even face eternal punishment), which would seem to imply that to go ahead and commit suicide anyway would be the ultimate act of self-assertion. Durkheim is seeking to show in this book that the thing most likely to decide whether or not you commit suicide are factors outside of your own control, that is, due to the society you belong to, rather than your individual ‘preferences’ or ‘choices’. He shows that men are more likely to suicide than women, that Protestants are more likely than Jews or Catholics to take their own lives – and even that more educated people are more likely to do so as well. So, why might that be the case?His answer (after disposing of a string of other explanations that at first glance appear to make sense) is the level of social integration someone feels strongly influences who will take their own life. That is, the more isolated you feel from society, or the less clear you feel that your role in society is, the more likely it is that you will kill yourself. Catholics feel they belong to a community more than Protestants (who have a ‘personal’ relationship with god, rather than a community one, per se). I read a number of years ago that when the Conservative Party win elections in the UK that the suicide rate increases. And that this was explained in Durkheim’s terms – that everyone knows that Conservatives basically hate people who can’t look after themselves, and so this general lack of social compassion drives people to kill themselves. Whether this still holds true today that the Labour Party in the UK is hell bent on also being the party of rugged individualism is hard to say, but perhaps people still do see the Labour Party in Britain as the last hope for community spirit and engagement.He points out that suicide has become an increasing problem as society has become increasingly more ‘civilised’ – as people become more educated and, concomitantly, as people increasingly feel they are themselves ‘individuals’ that are personally responsible for their position in life. Such personal responsibility linked with a sense of social isolation lays the ground for the possibility that people will choose to end their lives.Durkheim presents four varieties of suicide –these all being due to imbalances in a person’s moral or social integration – but the point is that what, to all intents and purposes, looks like the supreme act of individualism is in fact strongly influenced by socially explicable causes. So that, if one were to take the case of the Jews, you might think that a group that was greatly loathed within Europe at the time would have much more reason to commit suicide in greater numbers than those around them who were relatively better liked. That this didn’t prove to be the case was explicable by Durkheim on the basis that Jews protected themselves by forming very strong intra-group bonds – that is, they look out for each other and make sure everyone feels they are looked after and valued. People look out for each other and are looked after in turn. In other cases people had clear roles in life and therefore were much less likely to end their lives, as such an act would abandon that ‘needed’ role within their community. Essentially, when we feel we have a larger role than merely ourselves, we are less likely to want to kill ourselves. Despite all of the protestations of free-market types, we are social animals and happiest within social groups.There has been criticism of some of the conclusions drawn in this work – but as a case study it really does have the power to make you gasp in wonder. The incredible amount of work this book required, the thought that has gone into ensuring the data was able to be compared, and the effort in thinking through possible objections to the conclusions drawn from the data is really quite stunning.As I said at the beginning, this is a foundation work of modern sociology. It is also a remarkable look at a topic it is hard to not find fascinating and one that helps show that a careful analysis can help to challenge some of our primary assumptions and provide us with tools likely to explain ‘why’.