Suicide, written by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in 1897, was a groundbreaking book in the field of sociology. It was a case study of suicide, a publication unique for its time that provided an example of what the sociological monograph should look like.
In it, Durkheim explored the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. He also found that suicide rates were higher among men than women, higher for those who are single than those who are married, higher for people without children than people with children, higher among soldiers than civilians, and higher at times of peace than in times of war.
Durkheim was the first to argue that the causes of suicide were to be found in social factors and not individual personalities. Observing that the rate of suicide varied with time and place, Durkheim looked for causes linked to these factors other than emotional stress. He looked at the degree to which people feel integrated into the structure of society and their social surroundings as social factors producing suicide and argued that suicide rates are affected by the different social contexts in which they emerge.
Durkheim also distinguished between three types of suicide:
- Anomic Suicide: Anomic suicide happens when the disintegrating forces in the society make individuals feel lost or alone. Teenage suicide is usually cited as an example of this type of suicide, as is suicide committed by those who have been sexually abused as children or whose parents are alcoholics.
- Altruistic Suicide: Altruistic suicide happens when there is excessive regulation of individuals by social forces. An example is someone who commits suicide for the sake of a religious or political cause, such as the hijackers of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11/01. People who commit altruistic suicide subordinate themselves to collective expectations, even when death is the result.
- Egoistic Suicide: Egoistic suicide happens when people feel totally detached from society. Ordinarily, people are integrated into society by work roles, ties to family and community, and other social bonds. When these bonds are weakened through retirement or loss of family and friends, the likelihood of egoistic suicide increases. Elderly people who lose these ties are the most susceptible to egoistic suicide.
Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.