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Durkheim on Suicide

How do Sociologists Study Problems?

Scientific Method
This involves
isolating the problem
forming a hypothesis
building a research design
collecting the data
analyzing the data collected
making generalizations
Isolate the Problem
In terms of the scientific method a problem refers to any question for
which we seek an answer.
It is simply some matter about which we want to know the answer.
Sociologists usually choose to research problems that are related to
their areas of interest and their particular specialty in the field of
Develop a Hypothesis
A hypothesis is a tentative assumption, an untested generalization.
The hypothesis is essential because it sets the stage for the research
and gives it direction.
A hypothesis always states a relationship between two or more
situations, events, or factors.
The purpose of the research is to test the hypothesis to see if this
statement of the relationship is accurate.
Build a Research Design
A research design is a set of directions for research.
To set up a research design, the sociologist must determine the
variables and how they will be measured.
The sociologist must then decide what sample will be used.
Finally, the sociologist must determine what tools and techniques to
use in collecting the data.
Collect the Data
The collecting process must be done carefully to avoid error.
If the data is inaccurate, the results will be useless.
Data Analysis
On the basis of the data, the sociologist decides whether to accept or
reject the hypothesis.

Make Generalizations
What can we say about the population on the basis of the sample
actually investigated?
What conclusions can we draw about the whole on the basis of
examining a part?
A classic example of sociological research is Emile Durkheim's study
of suicide, published by the French sociologist in 1897. Let's examine just
what Durkheim did, how he did it, and what he concluded.
But first, a little about Durkheim
Emile Durkheim (1859-1917)
Sought to use sociology to explain the many social problems plaguing
Victorian-era industrialized Europe.
Believed that the application of scientific methods could result in a
more perfect society.
Considered to be the founder of the functionalist paradigm of
Isolating the Problem Suicide
In Durkheim's France, as in societies today, the question of suicide
was one of great popular concern.
It raises not only specific questions for the relatives and friends of the
victims, but also larger questions of causation.
Why do people commit suicide?
Why don't some people do it?
Why does the rate of suicide vary from place to place?
Durkheim noted that suicide rates differed, depending on the society
and the conditions.
He felt that differences in the rates of suicides suggested that more
than individual factors were operating.
He thought that suicide must reflect changes in social or environmental
circumstances. The problem was to discover the nature of these
circumstances and their causes.
The Hypothesis
Durkheim first explored the current explanations for suicide. One
explanation was that suicide resulted from individual psychological
Another explanation assigned the cause of suicide to factors in the
natural environment, such as the time of year, the climate, or the
After examining case histories and statistical records, however,
Durkheim concluded that such explanations were not adequate.
In investigating individual psychological conditions, he found that
although many of the people who committed suicide were mentally ill,
many others were not.
No one type of mental illness was always associated with suicide.
Neither could he find a clear relationship between alcoholic
consumption, age, race, or gender and the suicide rate.
Similarly, such forces as seasonal variation and climate did not cause
For example, if warm weather increased the number of social
interactions, and the suicide rate was affected, the important factor was the
increased social interactions and not the warmer weather.
Durkheim arrived at his hypothesis that the basic causes of suicide
were social in nature.
It seemed to him that the main determinants of suicide were such
social factors as religion, marital status, and the pace of social change.
He therefore hypothesized that the degree of social attachment, or the
lack of it, explained the variations in the suicide rate.
The Research Design
To test his hypothesis, Durkheim reasoned that he would need
statistics on the number of suicides in given areas at given times.
To be able to talk about the rate of suicide, he would also need
accurate figures for the total population of these areas.
He would also need all these statistics from a variety of places.
Then he could make comparisons between the suicide rate and
different social conditions.
He found that most of the European countries, as well as the United
States, had relatively accurate statistics on the number of suicides, who
committed them, and the total population. All Durkheim had to do was to
get at these already existing sources of information.
By comparing the suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics, of urban
and rural areas, and so on, Durkheim could test his hypothesis.
He could find out if the degree of social attachment determined the
rate of suicide, and if suicide was, therefore, a social phenomenon.
Data Analysis
What Durkheim found was that the data he collected did seem to fit a
pattern, and that this pattern confirmed his hypothesis.
He found, for example, that the suicide rates were higher among
Protestants than among Catholics.
This was so even when he allowed for other differences in the social
climate that may have affected the suicide rate.
Similarly, taking other factors into account, he found that single people
had higher suicide rates than married ones.
Married but childless people had higher suicide rates than people with
City dwellers had higher suicide rates than people living in rural areas.
Men had higher suicide rates than women.
Soldiers had a higher suicide rate than civilians.

The Generalizations and Conclusions
From his evidence, Durkheim concluded that the suicide rate was
determined by the degree of social attachment.
He discovered, however, that the relationship was a complex one.
Suicide seemed to result from both unusually high levels and
unusually low levels of social attachment.
The 4 Types of Suicide
From his findings, he was able to generalize that there were four basic
types of suicide: altruistic, fatalistic, egoistic, and anomic.
Altruistic Suicide
Altruistic suicide occurs when the degree of attachment of the
individual to the society is very great.
It is not always defined by the society as suicide.
This would be the case with soldiers who volunteer for a dangerous
mission, in which they are likely to lose their lives, out of zeal for and
devotion to their country.
Fatalistic Suicide
Fatalistic Suicide occurs when the degree of attachment of the
individual to the society is excessive.
Pre-industrial society.
Durkheim thought this type was less important in modern society.
As a means of escape.
High suicide rate among slaves.
Egoistic Suicide
Egoistic suicide, on the other hand, results from low degree of
attachment of the individual to the society.
The less integrated into society individuals are, and the more they must
depend on their own egos or selves, the more likely they are to commit
He found Protestants, who make more theological decisions on their
own than Catholics and are therefore less attached to their society, have a
higher suicide rate than Catholics.
In the same manner, single people, city dwellers, and men have higher
suicide rates than married people, rural people, and women. They tend to
have fewer attachments and responsibilities, more social freedom, and
more dependence on their own egos.
Anomic Suicide
Anomic suicide, like egoistic suicide occurs because the individual is
forced to make decisions without any strong social attachments. However,
in anomic suicide the individual is unattached because the whole society is
undergoing rapid change and the old rules no longer seem to apply.
Anomic suicide occurs during periods of uncertainty, such as times of
crisis, revolution, or economic depression.