Book review: Durkheim’s “On Suicide”

Introduction

This past week, a student who attempted suicide on BYU campus died in the hospital after sustaining critical injuries. The incident has sparked a conversation about student mental health and resources available to students on the campus, where the ratio of counselors to students in 1 to 1000. I have followed some of the conversation on Twitter, and it has truly been heart-rending:

I haven’t been touched immediately by suicide in my life. The one thing I associate most strongly with suicide is from a book I read at my father’s request, Return from Tomorrow. The book recounts the near-death experience of the author (take it for what you will). In it, he is taken on a tour of the earth, where he witness the interactions of spirits “stuck” here on earth. In one scene, he sees a young man who had committed suicide vainly following his parents around trying to apologize for the hurt he caused them, and they are unable to here him. The book had a strong impression on me as a kid.

But with my limited experience, I wanted to better be able to understand and help those who have experienced suicidal thoughts as well as those affected by it. I also wanted to find out what the science has to say about suicide and the best ways to approach it and to seek improvement in society. I have just recently been reading several works by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who points out that teen suicides, which were fairly steady up until 2010, have since been on the rise: ~30% for boys and ~70% for girls, which is huge. We truly have a crisis that we need to seek to address.

Haidt’s hive hypothesis is classic Durkheim

I wanted to dig into the literature, so I decided to start at a classic on the topic: On Suicide by Emil Durkheim written all the way back in 1897.

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I hadn’t heard of Durkheim until I began reading Jonathan Haidt, where he comes up quite a bit in The Righteous Mind for his ideas on society and the individual. Haidt develops a Durkheimian approach to man where there are really two levels to man:

Human nature is 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. We are like chimps in being primates whose minds were shaped by the relentless competition of individuals with their neighbors. We are descended from a long string of winners in the game of social life.

But human nature also has a more recent groupish overlay. We are like bees in being ultrasocial creatures whose minds were shaped by the relentless competition of groups with other groups. We are descended from earlier humans whose groupish minds helped them cohere, cooperate, and outcompete other groups. That doesn’t mean that our ancestors were mindless or unconditional team players; it means they were selective. Under the right conditions, they were able to enter a mind-set of “one for all, all for one” in which they were truly working for the good of the group, and not just for their own advancement within the group.

My hypothesis is that human beings are conditional hive creatures. We have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch. The hive switch, I propose, is a group-related adaptation that can only be explained “by a theory of between-group selection” It cannot be explained by selection at the individual level. (How would this strange ability help a person to outcompete his neighbors in the same group?) The hive switch is an adaptation for making groups more cohesive, and therefore more successful in competition with other groups.

While the metaphor of 90% chimp, 10% bee is novel, the basic idea isn’t, and is classic Durkheim. This social theory is built into Durkheim’s On Suicide. Society is not the sum of its individual parts, individuals. For example, when Durkheim comments on the fact that the suicide rate stays fairly constant from year to year, he attributes it to this duality of man:

This is what explains the double character of suicide. When it is considered in its external manifestations, one is tempted to see it as a succession of events, independent of one another, because it occurs at separate points, not visibly connected to one another. Yet the sum total of all these particular cases together has its own unity and individuality, since the social rate of suicide is a distinctive feature of every collective personality. This is because, although the particular environments in which it occurs are distinct from one another and broken up in a thousand different ways across the country, yet they are tightly connected to one another, because they are the parts of a single whole, like the organs of a single organism. So the state in which each of them is to be found depends on the general state of society: there is a close connection between the degree of virulence that such and such a tendency reaches here, and its intensity in the whole of the social body.

In fact, Durkheim’s social theory of suicide attributes its cause to a disequilibrium between the individual and society. As explained in the excellent introduction:

Groups in which there is a good balance between individual initiative and communal solidarity have the lowest rates of suicide. That observation led him to argue that late nineteenth-century society was deeply out of balance, that it lacked a life-sustaining equilibrium between the personal and the collective.

Durkheim goes on in his book to outline three types of suicides:

  • Egotistical suicide is when the individual becomes too disconnected from society. By the disintegration of social bonds, life loses its meaning, and the individual seeks to end his life.
  • Altruistic suicide is when the individual is too dedicated to society, and ends his life out of duty or for the greater good. He attributes most of these to the army and to “primitive” societies.
  • Anomic suicide is similar to egotistical suicide, in that an individual is thrust into a new social situation and loses his bearings. For instance, rapidly advancing or declining in social status, both of which seem to be associated with suicide.

Methodological approach

Durkheim’s theory is very well developed, in that it has a lot of explanatory power and is all-encompassing. He has a few pet peeves about data and analysis of his fellow scientists of his day, including the lack of clear definitions. He gets a little bold at times, such as: Yet sociology cannot claim to be considered a science until those who practise it are no longer allowed to propagate this sort of dogma while so manifestly evading the normal obligation to provide proof of what they say. He uses a lot of methods I learned in my epidemiology course to remove the effects of confounding factors in the data, including stratifying by age, region, gender, etc, thereby removing some false notions that had arisen from the data in the past. On the other hand, some of his conclusions would sound out of place today and outright sexist/elitist/racist, including some of his statements on women: In fact, the sexual needs of the woman are less intellectual in character, because, in general, her intellectual life is less developed.

And his ideas on “young” versus “decadent” societies may also sound ungrounded: Indeed, history tells us that suicide, which is generally rare in young societies, which are in progress of development and concentration, increases by contrast as they disintegrate.

But at other times, he challenges some of the awful judgmental theories of the day, such as Bertillon’s who considered single individuals the “human waste of the country:” Those who do not [marry], except in the event of an exceptional combination of favourable circumstances, are therefore – whether they like it or not – rejected, to join the class of the unmarried, which consequently contains all the human waste of the country.

Or similarly, Bertillon’s ideas that the reason people get divorced is that they have weak characters: there are more divorces in countries where there is a higher number of incompatible couples. And the latter come mainly from the number of eccentrics, individuals of weak character and low intellect, whose temperament also predisposes them to suicide.

I am curious to know which of his theories or explanations still hold today, and I’m going to be reading more follow-up on his research. I checked a few of his explanations, including the seasonal changes in suicide rates. I was surprised to find out that suicides peak in the spring and summer months, rather than in winter: you would this that the cold and gloomy time of year would increase suicide rates. But it seems to be just the opposite. Using other datasets as supports (including higher suicide rates in men than in women, higher rates in the city than in rural areas, increased suicide rates when electric lights are installed), Durkheim explains that this has to do with the increased interactions and longer days mixing and mingling with other people. Hmmm! Other theories don’t seem to hold though, like his idea that marriage has a preservative effect, and that married people have lower suicide rates than single people.

Solutions

So, what is the solution? As the cause of suicide according to Durkheim is a disequilibrium between the individual and society, we need to invest more in institutions that can provide that socialization. He goes through several possibilities. Political life is nixed, because it doesn’t have the all-encompassing nature that is necessary for strong social bonds. He also doesn’t think the family will do either, because he already observes that families are getting weaker in his day. Government won’t do, because it is too general. And, I wanted to pause on his ideas on religion, because he also considers it a bad alternative. Durkheim doesn’t hold religion in high regard:

Quite a few writers have seen religion as the sole cure for the ill, but this is because they have misunderstood the source of its power. They attribute this entirely to a certain number of high thoughts and noble maxims which rationalism could actually accept and which (or so they think) it is enough to fix in people’s hearts and minds to protect against failings. But this is to mistake both the essence of religion and, more still, the causes of the immunity that it has sometimes conferred against suicide. This privilege did not derive from the fact that it encouraged in men some vague notion or other of a more or less mysterious ‘beyond’, but because of the strong and minute discipline by which it regulated behaviour and thought. When it is reduced to symbolic idealism and to a traditional philosophy which is debatable and more or less alien to our everyday activities, it is unlikely to have very much influence over us.

Because religion can only provide that socialization by restricting freedom of thought, and the fact that religion already has a weaker hold on society, it too must be discarded. I couldn’t help thinking back on the debates about religion I watched between Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt/Jordan Peterson. I think Durkheim is a little more sympathetic to religion than Sam Harris, and perhaps would even change his views if he saw society today (his proposed solution isn’t faring too well, actually). Haidt, while also an atheist, sees many positives in religion with which secular alternatives can’t compete: exhibit A, religious versus secular communal societies of the 19th century. Secular communal societies failed at a much higher rate, which is attributed to their lack of sufficient “pull” to motivate sacrifices of individuals for the good of the whole.

In line with Durkheim’s ideas of the need to strengthen mediating institutions, Patrick Deneen also arrives at the same conclusion, although addressing a slightly different problem: the failures of liberalism in Why Liberalism Failed. His summation:

The sustenance of existing cultural and religious practices and the building of new communities will require far more conscientiousness than the passive acquiescence now fostered toward liberalism itself. It is an irony (and arguably a benefit of a liberal age) that today it is liberalism itself that silently shapes an unreflective population, and that the development of new cultures is what requires conscious effort, deliberation, reflectiveness, and consent. This is true especially for religious communities in an age in which liberalism has become increasingly hostile to self-imposed limitations and strictures that it finds abhorrent, particularly, but not only, in the domain of personal and sexual autonomy—a stance that many see as betrayal of liberalism rather than its culmination. But this very conflict, by showing the lengths to which liberalism will go to reshape the world in its own image, shows the need for alternative communities and new cultures that will live outside the gathering wreckage of liberalism’s twilight years.

Durkheim arrives at the conclusion that the only viable institution for achieving this socialization is the corporation, work life. Corporations are close enough to individuals to not be too general (like the state) while also giving structure and moral demands that supposedly won’t take away from of thought (like religion). He goes so far as to advocating for organizing the electoral college by profession rather than by region. My response: too bad this guy hadn’t read Divergent, because that sounds like the society he is describing!

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I don’t feel like work life does provide the socialization that Durkheim foresaw. In fact, I feel work life is potentially responsible for a lot of the egotistical/anomic suicides that Durkheim diagnoses in his book. I think of the Disney short Paperman.

I noted as well that Durkheim touches very little on solutions sought out for suicide today: for instance, the call for more mental health professionals. I think this is inherently due to Durkheim’s focus on the sociological roots of suicide. Durkheim acknowledges that suicide can’t be cured by mere legislative measures: It is not through legislation that we shall reawaken our moral sensibility. It is not the legislator who will make us perceive a fact as morally detestable. Durkheim acknowledges that his approach ignores the individual causes of suicide, which should be addressed on the individual level. But I think his warning of the real impacts of social causes are just as real as individual ones. His warning that we invest in our institutions I think is a vital call in our day. They do have value.

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