Since Durkheim first tried to prove sociology to be a scientific subject, sociologists of varying perspectives have been trying to explain why people may choose to commit suicide. They may do this through various methods such as looking at official statistics, case studies, interviews of friends and families and also looking at diaries of the dead to try and explain causes of death.
One explanation of suicide is presented by Durkheim. He identifies ‘a number of social causes that could lead to suicide’, such as social integration. A lack of social integration can lead to egotistic suicide, where a lack of social ties to others leads to some individuals committing suicide, whilst too much social integration can cause altruistic suicide, where individuals feel it is their duty to die for others. For example, during World War Two, Kamikaze pilots would purposely crash their planes in order to protect their country and attack another. Durkheim uses these explanations to show that suicide is not a straightforward topic to investigate, as there are many societal reasons as to why people may choose to commit suicide. However, Durkheim has been criticised by Gibbs and Martin on the grounds that he does not specify how social integration can be measured in regards to whether it is the reason why a person may choose to commit suicide or not. They may perhaps be influenced by social integration, but have other reasons as to why they commit suicide, therefore social integration alone cannot be a solid explanation of suicide.
Durkheim’s use of ‘social facts’ also explains suicide through ‘moral regulation’, which refers to the extent to which individuals’ actions and desires are kept in check by society’s norms and values. For example, anomic suicide is cause by too little moral regulation, where rapid social change creates uncertainty in individuals as to what society expects of them, whilst fatalistic suicide is caused by too much moral regulation, resulting in people being blocked by society and having their hopes ‘crushed’, e.g. prisoners and slaves. Durkheim argues that in a modern society, there is more likely to be anomic suicide rather than fatalistic suicide as society today is pragmatic which means norms and values are constantly evolving, whereas fatalistic suicides are more commonly found in traditional societies where members’ lives are strictly limited. However, even though Durkheim uses suicide rates as ‘social facts’ by looking at factors such as the extent to which moral regulation occurred or not, interpretivist sociologists such as Douglas criticise him as he categorises suicide statistics in terms of social causes rather than looking at cases individually, therefore giving an biased/unrepresentative view on suicide.
Atkinson (an interpretivist sociologist) takes a different approach to Durkheim and other sociologists as he claims that we can never know the real rate of suicide, as we cannot know the reason the dead gave to their deaths. He uses ‘ethnomethodology’ to explain that official statistics cannot be social facts as they are simply the interpretive labels that coroners give to deaths. Atkinson argues that treating statistics as facts is potentially dangerous as it means that, for example, if coroners have labelled typical suicidal people as being socially isolated, more of these people will be added to the statistics. This therefore means that suicide statistics cannot be taken at face value or explained as the cause of the suicide cannot be found, but rather is only based on coroners’ ‘commonsense’ theories.
Another sociologist explanation of suicide comes from Taylor, who takes a realist approach and therefore gives different reasons for why people commit suicide. He suggests that not all those who attempt suicide are certain that their actions will kill them, nor are all suicidal, but rather are simply trying to communicate with/send a message to others. He categorises suicides into four types, the first two being ectopic suicide which are when the individual is psychologically detached from others. This includes submissive suicide (where the person is certain they want to kill themselves) and thanataton suicide (where the person is uncertain about themselves and are committing suicide based on a risk). Symphysic suicide is when the individual has an overwhelming attachment to another person/s and is a form of communication, which includes sacrifice suicide (where the person is certain about others and knows they have to kill themselves because they cannot go on living) and appeal suicide (where the person is uncertain about others and commits suicide to try and change others’ behaviour). Although this approach is based on interpretations of suicidal actors’ meanings and case studies, it does not provide a faultless explanation of suicide, however it is a useful approach in observing patterns of behaviour leading to suicide.
There are many different sociological explanations of suicide, which all aim to analyse social actors’ meanings of why they may commit suicide in different ways/through differing perspectives. However, Atkinson’s interpretivist ethnomethodology view takes the most practical approach as he says that there is no real way of knowing why people commit suicide and that official statistics of suicide rates are only the result of coroners’ interpretations of case studies of the dead. Conclusively, all sociologist explanations of suicide are helpful in looking at why people may commit suicide, but they cannot explain the exact reasons as to why people take their own lives.