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So, why do people commit suicide? One traditional commonsense answer is that people inherit the desire to kill themselves. Another view is that sunspots drive people to take their own lives. These explanations will not seem especially convincing if you employ the perspective of sociology, but they do represent two beliefs widely held as recently as 1900.
Sociologists are not particularly interested in why any one individual commits suicide; they are more concerned with why people in general take their own lives. This leads sociologists to examine the social forces that influence people in deciding whether or not to attempt suicide. In order to undertake such research, sociologists develop theories that offer a general explanation of some type of behavior.
In sociology, a theory is a statement or series of statements that uses concepts to explain problems, actions, or behavior. An effective theory will have both explanatory and predictive power. That is, it will help us to develop a broad and integrated view of seemingly isolated phenomena and to understand how one type of change in an environment leads to others.
An essential task in building a sociological theory is to examine the relationship between bits of data, gathered through research, that may seem completely unrelated. For example, suppose that you are given data about the number of reported suicides in various European nations in 1869. You are told that there were 5144 reported suicides in France in that year, 1588 in England, and only 462 in Denmark. If you restricted yourself to those data, you might attempt to develop a theory about why there were so many suicides in France and so few in Denmark. However, in researching this very problem, Emile Durkheim looked into suicide data in much greater detail and developed a highly original theory about the relationship between suicide and social factors.
Durkheim’s Study of Suicide
Durkheim was primarily concerned not with the personalities of individual suicide victims, but rather with suicide rates and how they varied from country to country. As a result, when he looked at the number of reported suicides in France, England, and Denmark in 1869, he also examined the populations of these nations to determine their rates of suicide. In doing so, he found that whereas England had only 67 reported suicides per million inhabitants, France had 135 per million and Denmark had 277 per million. Thus, in terms of national comparisons, the question then became: ″Why did Denmark (rather then France) have a comparatively high rate of reported suicides? ″
Durkheim went much deeper into his investigation of suicide rates, and the result was his landmark work Suicide, published in 1897. Durkheim refused to automatically accept unproven explanations regarding suicide, including the beliefs that such deaths were caused by cosmic forces or by inherited tendencies. Instead, he focused on such problems as the cohesiveness or lack of cohesiveness of religious and occupational groups.
Durkheim’s research suggested that suicide, while a solitary act, is related to group life. Protestants had much higher suicide rates than Catholics did; the unmarried had much higher rates than married people did; soldiers were more likely to take their lives than civilians were. In addition, it appeared that there were higher rates of suicide in times of peace than in times of war and revolution, and in times of economic instability and recession rather than in times of prosperity. Durkheim concluded that the suicide rates of a society reflected the extent to which people were or were not integrated into the group life of the society. In his studies of suicide rates in France, England, and Denmark, Emile Durkheim divided this disturbing phenomenon into four distinct categories, each of what suggests a particular relationship between the individual and society in terms of group solidarity (see Box 1.1).
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