Durkheimian Sociology and its Discontents: Why its Time for a New Sociology of Suicide4 min read

Since Durkheim showed that certain social structural factors, external to the individual, had a strong positive relationship to variation in suicide rates, sociologists have maintained the argument that suicide is caused by social forces and, therefore, is a phenomenon squarely in the domain of sociology. Yet, western medical professionals (Marsh 2010) and the average person (Lake et al. 2013) continue to “explain” suicidality mainly via psychological factors; primarily mental illness or disorder, or by cognitive appraisals favored by psychology and psychiatry, like depression, burdensomeness, and hopelessness (Cavanaugh et al. 2003).

As is often the case with sociology, sociologists have done little to argue for the value of their science. Since 1980, sociology has published the second fewest amount of studies (405) on suicide; and it’s not even close (psychiatry has published 9951, while molecular biology (!) has produced 1316) (Stack and Bowman 2012:4). When sociologists study suicide, they overwhelmingly favor retesting Durkheim’s 19th century theses in order to weigh in on the classic’s continued value, as journals love papers that use new data or analytic strategies to test old, foundational ideas (Wray et al. 2011). This does little to help advance the sociological science of suicide and support sociology’s contribution to understanding, explaining, or preventing suicide.

Nevertheless, suicide remains an important phenomenon for sociology. Not only does it constitute a serious social problem—perhaps more urgent today than in Durkheim’s day—it also speaks to theoretical questions central to cultural sociology; particularly one trying to integrate contributions from the cognitive social sciences.

Because suicide is a social act, replete with meanings about why people die by suicide and who we expect to die by suicide, it is fair to ask how people come to acquire proscriptive suicide meanings that make them more vulnerable to suicidality? Of equal importance, are questions about how attitudes become actions:  myriad studies show that while ideation is a risk factor for attempting suicide the two are not neatly linked, as most ideators will never attempt suicide (Klonsky and May 2015).

In short, studying suicide presents opportunities for expanding how sociology makes sense of human behavior because it is a performance that evokes meaning in both the actor and her intended/unintended audience. In most cases, the actor, herself, must overcome the severest of prohibitions, ranging from biogenetic safeguards to informal norms and formal laws. And yet, suicide still occurs; it tends to cluster in certain physical and temporal spaces (Haw et al. 2013; Niedzwiedz et al. 2014); and, its diffusion from one person to the next has been empirically verified for nearly five decades, but remains almost completely unexamined in sociology (for exceptions, see my work with Anna Mueller [Abrutyn and Mueller 2014; Mueller and Abrutyn 2015; Mueller et al. 2014], in addition to Baller and Richardson 2002, 2009; Bjarnason 1994).

A follow-up post will offer a new framework setting up what Anna and I have argued and our work suggests as the agenda for a reinvigorated sociological science of suicide. This framework is synthetic and includes leveraging the powerful insights of cultural sociology, social psychology, and, especially, the sociology of emotions. At various points, these subfields intersect in ways that provide pathways for sociology reclaiming its place at the table for explaining suicide and contributing to its prevention. Moreover, because of both the unique and shared qualities suicide has with any other social behavior, it is hopeful that this move towards synthesis will compliment the current debates and discussions surrounding why people feel, think and do what they do.