Emile Durkheim saw suicide from a positivist perspective, believing that human behaviour results from external forces. He suggested that suicide was determined by two social factors: social integration, which is the extent that individuals feel a sense of belonging to a social group or to society and feel an obligation to its members, this is achieved through groups such as families and religious institutions, and secondly moral regulation, which is the extent to which that desires and actions of individuals are regulated by norms and values and this is achieved through social control and socialisation. Durkheim suggested that suicide results from either too much or too little social integration and moral regulation- thus there are four possible types of suicide.
Egoistic suicide occurs when the individual is insufficiently integrated within society. This is supported by research showing that there is a higher suicide rate associated with Protestantism as its member are less strongly integrated than in Catholicism. Altruistic suicide, when the individual is so well integrated that they sacrifice their own lives out of sense of duty to others. Anomic suicide takes place when society does not regulate the individual sufficiently causing normlessness, and finally fatalistic suicide, which occurs when society is too restrictive and killing oneself is an escape from a future of despair.
Durkheim’s theory of suicide has received support from Halbwachs who undertook him own research confirming Durkheim’s findings, but there has also been much criticism for the approach. Positivists argue that Durkheim uses concepts that could not be directly observed or measured, undermining the scientific nature of the positivist approach, instead the four types of suicide are based on assumptions about what group membership means to the individuals concerned when this is a highly subjective issue. Furthermore, Durkheim’s work rests on official suicide statistics which could be social constructs. Douglas focuses more on these statistics as social constructs arguing that they are a result of negotiations between the different parties involved rather than objective facts- the decision as to whether a sudden death is suicide is made by a coroner and is influenced by friends and family. Douglas says Durkheim’s theory that low social integration increases the likelihood of suicide is biased because when the individual is well integrated into a family the relatives are more reluctant to believe death was a result of suicide, so in reality the degree of integration simply affects the chances of sudden death being recorded as suicide.
Atkinson, similarly to Douglas, argued that suicide is a construct of social actors, official statistics on suicide are the interpretations made by officials of what is seen as an unnatural death, for example, coroners base their decision on whether or not a sudden death is suicide on a ‘common sense theory’ which included whether or not suicide notes were left or threats of suicide preceded death, the mode of dying, the location and circumstances and finally mental state of the victim. This view has serious implications for Durkheim’s research that treats official statistics as facts.
Realist Taylor developed a balanced approach to suicide, giving 4 types. Submissive suicide is inner directed and occurs when a person is certain about themselves and their life, they believe their life is over and that they are effectively already dead. Thanatation suicide is inner directed and occurs when a person is uncertain about themselves, making the attempted suicide a gamble on whether they will or will not survive. Sacrifice suicides are directed outwards, occurring when someone is certain that others have made their life unbearable, and finally appeal suicides are also outwardly directed and results from a person feeling uncertain of others’ attitudes towards them, making suicide an attempt at communication to see how others respond. This approach helps to explain why some suicide victims leave notes while other do not as well as explaining why some people take their lives in isolation whilst other occur in more public places.
It is however only based on interpretations of meanings for suicide and there is know way of knowing if these are correct, particularly when suicide notes are not left- there may not be one reason for suicide but instead a combination of motives. To develop this theory Taylor only used a small sample of case studies, although this allowed him to discover insights into motives, it is unlikely to be representative of all suicides.
The main issue that sociologists face when researching the causes of suicide is that there is no way to be certain as the victim cannot give their story. The extent to which a person feels isolated from society, uncertain of themselves or regulated are all very subjective, for example, although Protestantism is a more individualistic religion, those who practise it are unlikely to feel that they are not part of the religious community. Furthermore, there are also ethical issues with studies into suicide as they often involve interviewing friends and family of the deceased which could be very traumatic, as a result, the information obtained may not be accurate as the family may wish to remember the victims life as a happy one. In summary it is difficult to class reasons for suicide into different groups as the motives behind someone taking their own life may vary greatly.