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Box 1.1. Around the World. Four Types of Suicide

Altruistic suicide Egoistic suicide Anomic suicide Fatalistic suicide
A person feels a deep sense of moral obligation and is willing to place the group’s welfare above his or her own survival. A spy who is captured and swallows a poison capsule, rather than taking the risk of disclosing secrets, has committed altruistic suicide. This type of suicide is just the opposite of altruistic. It occurs when the individual feels little connection to the larger society and is not affected by social constraints against self-destructive behavior. A lonely person who lives in a skid row hotel room with no friends or family may resort to egoistic suicide. When a society lacks clear-cut rules of social behavior, anomic suicide can result. Such suicides are particularly likely to occur in a time of great social disorder or turmoil, as in the United States shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. People who lost all their savings and were unable to cope with their misfortune turned to anomic suicide. Whereas anomic suicide stems from a sense of disorder, fatalistic suicide is related to the powerlessness that people feel when their lives are regulated to an intolerable extent. A prisoner who can no longer bear confinement may find a ″way out″ through fatalistic suicide.  
Durkheim’s division of suicide into these four categories forms a typology. A typology is a classification scheme containing two or more mutually exclusive categories (types); it is used by sociologists to better understand different forms of behavior.

Emile Durkheim, like many other social scientists, developed a theory to explain how individual behavior can be understood within a social context. He pointed out the influence of groups and societal forces on what had always been viewed as a highly personal act. Clearly, Durkheim offered a more scientific explanation for the causes of suicide than that of sunspots or inherited tendencies. His theory has predictive power, since it suggests that suicide rates will rise or fall in conjunction with certain social and economic changes. It is important to understand that a theory – even the best of theories – is not a final statement about human behavior. Durkheim’s theory of suicide is no exception; sociologists continue to examine factors which contribute to a society’s rate of suicide. For example, people across the United States were shocked by the national news reports in 1987 concerning four New Jersey teenagers who together drove into a garage, closed the door, and let carbon monoxide fumes take their lives, thereby engaging in a collective act of suicide. Within little more than a week, 10 more teenagers in four different states killed themselves in garages using carbon monoxide. These suicides were more than a coincidence; sociological research from 1973 through the present documents that the incidence of suicides increases following nationally televised stories about suicide and that teenagers are especially vulnerable to such ″copycat″ behavior. Studies show that the impact is greatest after the publicized suicide of entertainer or politician and is somewhat less after the suicide of an artist, criminal, or member of the economic elite.

Durkheim’s theory is the first of many introduced in this textbook as a way of better understanding society. One means of classifying sociological theories is by the subject under study; for example, there are theories concerning the causes of criminal behavior or the universal nature of religion. Yet theories can also be distinguished in another way – by level of analysis.

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