Durkheim’s Suicide

  • Steve Taylor
Part of the Contemporary Social Theory book series (CONTSTHE)


The spirit of scientific endeavour and the growth of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries increasingly drew the observer towards the conclusion that, as Morris puts it, ‘the things and events he experienced were determined and controlled by forces within the world rather than outside it’.1 The spectacular advances of the natural sciences led many to the belief that diligent application of the same principles and procedures to the study of human behaviour would, ultimately, produce an understanding of the social world equivalent to the scientist’s grasp of the natural world. Thus debating the meaning and morality of social phenomena increasingly gave way to a factual interest in them and traditional concern with the ‘evilness’ (or otherwise) of suicide — should people do it?2 — was transcended by the question of why people do it. In this quest students were encouraged not to search themselves for essences and ultimate truths, but rather, to ‘distance’ themselves from their material; social phenomena were, after all, only ‘facts’, and as such could be analysed objectively.3 In this undertaking the observer must clear his mind of preconception, and base analysis on careful observation and description. Morselli, in his classic study, explained that suicide is ‘connected to the natural development of society’, and that this only became apparent through the adoption of a scientific approach:

This new aspect of suicide could not become clear when metaphysical systems prevailed; it was necessary to collect all the facts, to unite them together, to consider their analogy and differences, to do, in short, precisely the reverse of what philosophy had done up to that time. That is not to start from a preconceived system, but to base arguments on facts supplied by observation and, when possible, by experiment.4


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    T. Morris, Deviance and Control: the Secular Heresy ( London, Hutchinson, 1976 ) p. 79.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    H. Morselli, Suicide: an Essay in Comparative Moral Statistics ( New York, Appleton, 1903 ) p. 1.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    See A. Giddens, ‘The Suicide Problem in French Sociology’, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 16 (1965) pp. 3–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 9.
    A. Lewis, ‘Statistical Aspects of Suicide’, Canadian Medical Association Journal vol. 74 (1956) pp. 99–114.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    H. T. Buckle, History of Civilization in England, vol. I (London, Longman, 1871 ) pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    E. Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, translated by J. A. Spaulding and G. Simpson ( London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952 ).Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    E. Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method translated by S. A. Solvay and J. H. Mueller (New York, Free Press, 1951).Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    I. Taylor, P. Walton and J. Young, The New Criminology ( London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973 ) pp. 70–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 18.
    H. Alpert, Emile Durkheim and his Sociology, ( New York, Russell and Russell, 1961 )Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    R. A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition ( London, Heinemann, 1967 ).Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    A. Giddens, Studies in Social and Political Theory ( London, Hutchinson, 1977 ) p. 29.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    C. Bagley, ‘Review of A Handbook of Suicide’, The Times Higher Education Supplement (2 January 1976 ).Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    R. Bierstedt, Emile Durkheim ( London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966 ) p. 157.Google Scholar
  14. 30.
    R. A. Nisbet, ‘Sociology as an Art Form’ in M. Stein and A. Vidich (eds), Sociology on Trial ( Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1963 ) pp. 148–62.Google Scholar
  15. 36.
    S. Lukes, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: a Historical and Critical Study ( London, Peregrine, 1975 ) p. 205.Google Scholar
  16. 61.
    H. Hendin, ‘Suicide: the Psychosocial Dimension’, Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour, vol. 8 (1978) p. 116.Google Scholar
  17. 62.
    R. J. Havighurst, ‘Suicide and Education’, in E. S. Shneidman (ed.), On the Nature of Suicide ( San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1969 ) p. 55.Google Scholar
  18. 63.
    J. P. Gibbs, (ed.), Suicide ( New York, Harper and Row, 1968 ) p. 7.Google Scholar
  19. 71.
    E. Stengel, Suicide and Attempted Suicide ( Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973 ) p. 51.Google Scholar
  20. 72.
    P. Cresswell, ‘Interpretations of Suicide’, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 23 (1972) p. 143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 78.
    R. Aron, Main Currents of Sociological Thought, vol. 2 (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968 ) p. 34.Google Scholar

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© Steve Taylor 1982

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  • Steve Taylor

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