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Saturday, December 10, 2011


Suicide is divided into three Books. Durkheim’s strategy is quite straightforward. In Book One, he considers any non-social causes of suicide, and one by one dismisses them as inadequate to account for the data on the incidence of suicide that he has collected. In Book Two, he identifies three different types of socially caused suicide, which he labels “Egoistic suicide,” “Altruistic suicide,” and “Anomic suicide.” Each of these species of suicide, he argues, can only be explained by appeal to collective social causes. In Book Three, he discusses what he understands to be the general significance of what he has discovered in Book Two.

Durkheim begins Book One by exploring the claim that suicide is a consequence of insanity. He calls into question the common wisdom concerning madness, and offers some data to show that even on the assumption that some suicide is traceable to forms of insanity, such an explanation at best accounts for only a small proportion of the reported suicides. [An historico-philosophical aside: Spinoza argued that suicide could never be the act of a sane person, because all human beings are guided by rational self-love, and hence could not possibly fully understand what they are doing when they take their own lives. This strikes me as a shrewd psychological insight, whatever its larger sociological importance.]

He then asks whether suicide is in any way rooted in racial differences, or is hereditary, concludes that race is a very questionable scientific category in general, and that race and heredity are simply not satisfactory explanatory causal factors in the case of suicide. Nor, he decides, does climate explain the incidence of suicide. Seasonal variations are equally inconclusive. Surprisingly, he produces data showing that the rate of suicides actually increases as the day gets longer. I confess I would have expected the opposite. So much for “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD, as it is now commonly referred to. Nor do the data support the hypothesis that suicide peaks when the weather first gets hot [or cold]. Durkheim concludes Book One with a discussion of imitation as a significant causal factor.

All of this is rather fun – a kind of throat-clearing as Durkheim prepares for his serious discussion in Book Two. His methodology is one with which we are all now quite familiar, but which was new and important when he was writing. To put it simply, with regard to each hypothesis, he examines statistical records to see whether there is a correlation between variations in the thing to be explained – the incidence of suicide, in this case – and concomitant variations in the proposed explanation. Excessively hot days cause people to kill themselves? Check whether the rate of suicide in a city rises as the temperature goes up and falls as things cool off. We are now so familiar with this mode of argument that it requires a little historical imagination to recall a time when it was not commonplace at all.

Durkheim’s conclusion to the last chapter of Book Two, on imitation as a cause of suicide, is worth quoting, because imitation is a mode of explanation of a social phenomenon that seems to offer a way of reducing the social to the individual. This, as we have seen, would in Durkheim’s view undermine the independence and legitimacy of the discipline of Sociology.

“[W]hat this chapter chiefly shows is the weakness of the theory that imitation is the main source of collective life. No fact is more readily transmissible by contagion than suicide, yet we have just seen that this contagiousness has no social effects. [He means that although one person may be moved to commit suicide by imitating someone else who has done so, this imitation does not alter the social statistics in any significant fashion. Ed.] If imitation is so much without social influence in this case, it cannot have more in others; the virtues ascribed to it are therefore imaginary. Within a narrow circle it may well occasion the repetition of a single thought or action, but never are its representations sufficiently deep or extensive to reach and modify the heart of society.”

And so, by eliminating a wide variety of physical and individual factors, we are brought, as Book Two opens, to the conclusion that suicide “must necessarily depend upon social causes and be in itself a collective phenomenon.” [First paragraph of Book Two.] However, Durkheim suggests, there is not a single species of socially caused suicide, but several different types – what he will go on to identify as egoistic, altruistic, and anomic suicide.

Immediately upon launching his exploration of the types of socially caused suicide, Durkheim enunciates a methodological principle that seems to me deeply flawed. I am not sure the mistake infects his conclusions, but because it is so striking, it is worth looking at for a moment. He begins by acknowledging with some regret that there simply are not useful data on the suicides of sane persons “But,” Durkheim continues, “our aim may be achieved by another method.”

“Let us reverse the order of study. Only in so far as the effective causes differ can there be different kinds of suicide. For each to have its own nature, it must also have special conditions of existence. The same antecedent or group of antecedents cannot sometimes produce one result and sometimes another, for, if so, the difference of the second from the first would itself be without cause, which would contradict the principle of causality. Every proved specific difference between causes therefore implies a similar difference between effects. Consequently, we shall be able to determine the social types of suicide by classifying them not directly by their preliminarily described characteristics, but by the causes which produce them. Without asking why they differ from one another, we will first seek the social conditions responsible for them; then group these conditions in a number of separate classes by their resemblances and differences, and we shall be sure that a specific type of suicide will correspond to each of these classes. In a word, instead of being morphological, our classification will from the start be aetiological.”

Now this is just plain wrong. It is certainly true that different effects must flow from different causes. But it does not at all follow from this that different causes must have different effects. The motion of a ball on a pool table – the observed effect – can perfectly well be the consequence of an infinite number of combinations of forces striking it -- the causes --, so long as all those combinations resolve themselves, by what we used to call the “parallelogram of forces” in high school physics, into the same vector of force. Same causes, same effects – true. Same effects, same causes – false.

Well, enough for today. Tomorrow I shall describe briefly the three types of socially caused suicides identified by Durkheim and bring this Micro-tutorial to a close.


Marinus said...

Isn't Durkheim selling imitation as a cause of suicide short here? By the time he's writing the 'jungen Werther' copycat suicides had come and gone (though the discussion of the Werther effect would come only come much later). They can't function as the sole or even the majority cause of suicide, but they certainly form significant statistical blips.

Ulf said...

Prof Woolff --

This has nothing to do with Durkheim, but you will love it:

Old fogies like us don't get the reference -- Katy Perry, "I Kissed a Girl and I Liked it" as my teenagers have pointed out -- but even without knowing that, it's great.


Ulf said...

Professor Wolff --

This has nothing to do with Durkheim, though it does have to do with things you care about:

It's great fun. Old fogies like us will not get the reference, but those of us with teenage children have an advantage -- Katy Perry, "I Kissed a Girl and I Liked it."