Durkheimian Sociology and its Discontents, Part II: Why Culture, Social Psychology, & Emotions Matter to Suicide8 min read

In a previous post, I argued that despite its importance and “classical” status, sociologists have not contributed to the study of suicide as much as they could. While Anna Mueller and I have yet to posit a general or formal theoretical statement on suicide, in this post, I attempt to distill the basic theoretical ideas we’ve been developing for the last five years. Our work began as an effort to “test” Durkheim (Abrutyn and Mueller 2014; Mueller and Abrutyn 2015), but, very rapidly, our first quantitative studies led us to begin writing the first of four theoretical pieces formalizing Durkheim’s arch nemesis’, Gabriel Tarde’s theory of contagion (Abrutyn and Mueller 2014a). We eventually concluded that the data we needed did not exist, and through some luck, we found a field site to begin qualitatively assessing our evolving sociological view of suicide (Mueller and Abrutyn 2016). This fieldwork led to three other theoretical pieces that build on and go far beyond the Tarde piece to emphasize how cultural sociology, social psychological, and emotions shape suicidality (Abrutyn and Mueller 2014b, 2016, 2018)—particularly diffusion and clustering.

Cultural Foundations

In the 1960s, Jack Douglas (1970) offered an important critique of the conventional Durkheimian approach to suicide, arguing that suicide statistics were questionable due to various professional and personal issues surrounding medical examiner’s and coroner’s work. His larger point was that phenomenological meanings mattered more than suicide rates. About a decade later, David Phillips (1974) presented compelling evidence that audiences exposed to media reporting of suicide were at a risk of temporary spikes in suicide rates—e.g., U.S. and British suicide rates jumped 13% and 10%, respectively, following publicization of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide. We argue that there are important lessons gleaned from these two divergences from classic Durkheimian sociology.

First, meanings matter. Meanings are located in (1) general societal schema available to most people, (2) localized cultural codes that draw from and refract these general schema to make sense of the actual experiences of group of people inhabiting a delimited temporal and geographic space, and (3) the idiosyncratic schema any person in that group possesses, built from their own biography and experiences. A small, but growing body of historical (Barbagli 2015), anthropological (cf. Chua 2014; Stevenson 2014), and cultural psychological (Canetto 2012) research confirms this. For instance, some research on Canadian indigenous communities, where the suicide rate can be six times that of the Canadian average, found that youth in one community explain their own suicidality as a means of belonging (Niezen 2009); a counterintuitive finding for sociologists who think of integration as healthy. Nevertheless, these studies stop short of moving beyond broad-stroke assessments of culture. Meanings are, after all made real, embodied, and crystallized in social relationships; and, thus, social relationships—as Durkheim argued, but not quite how he imagined—matter too.

The Meaning and Meaningfulness of Social Relationships

The connection between social relationships and suicide, as studies using network principles have shown, has a structural side (Bearman 1991; Pescosolido 1994; Baller and Richardson 2009), yet they are eminently cultural as well in form and content. They are the social units in which cultural meanings emerge, spread, become available/accessible/applicable, and are stored.

Not surprisingly, and contrary to epidemiological and psychological accounts that favor a “disease” model approach to suicide “contagion,” our work has shown that network ties are only one factor, while having a friend tell you about their suicidality can lead you to develop new suicidal thoughts (Mueller and Abrutyn 2015); and in the case of girls, new suicidal behaviors. At the relational level, the general and local cultural mechanisms are further refracted. The direct, reciprocal nature of these ties, make culture real, imbuing it with affect (Lawler 2002).  This increases the odds that codes will be internalized and integrated with existing understandings of suicide, and, ultimately, mobilized in how people interpret events or situations, make sense of their own problems, and consider options for resolving said problems. In particular, it is the emotional dimension of culture and social relationships that adds the final ingredient to my vision of the future of the sociology of suicide.

The Final Ingredient: Emotions

Since the 1970s, sociologists of emotions—drawing from Cooley’s insights—have argued that social emotions like shame, guilt, or pride act as powerful social forces (cf. Turner 2007 for a review). Externally, social emotions are used as weapons to control others behavior, ranging from public degradation ceremonies used to humiliate and restore order to mundane rituals of deference and demeanor to gossip. The self is a social construct in so far as the primary groups we are socialized in provide meanings that come to make up our (1) “self-construct” or “global” sense of self. Our self is our most cherished possession as it provides a sense of anchorage across social situations. As we develop new meanings anchored in (2) relationships between specific others (role identity), (3) membership in various collectives (group identity), and (4) status characteristics that (a) identify us as belonging to one or more categorical unit (age, race, sex, occupation) and, therefore, (b) obligate or expect us to perform in certain ways and receive certain amounts of rewards and deference (social identity), meanings emerge and are grafted onto our self-concept or become situationally activated.

Social emotions are an evolutionary adaptation (cf. Turner 2007; Tracy et al. 2007). While all animals feel anger (fight) and fear (flight), and mammals also feel various degrees of sadness and happiness, shame and pride seem uniquely human because, as the Adam and Eve story teaches us or our own children’s ease with nudity shows to us, the meanings necessary for eliciting them must be learned. That is because they involve imagining what others, especially significant others, think of us; not just our behavior, but our cherished self. Pride means we’ve lived up to the imagined (and, they are often imagined in so far as they are not accurate reflections of) expectations and obligations of those we care about. Shame is the opposite: we are a failure, contemptuous in the eyes of others, deficient, and, even, polluting. Clinical research finds shame as particularly painful, often verbalized in expressions of feeling small, wanting to hide, and, other phrases like “tear my skin off” or “mortified” (Lewis 1974; Retzinger 1991).

Mortification refers to the death of the self; and, thus, shame is the signal that the self is dying, decaying, or, with chronic shame among violent prisoners, dead (cf. Gilligan 2001). Emotions are the bridge between the structural and cultural milieus we live in and the identities that anchor us in relationships. They saturate cultural meanings such that some become more relevant and essential to our identity (LeDoux 2000). Our memory and, therefore, biography is impossible without emotions, as events “tagged” with more intense emotions are more easily recalled than those that did not elicit intense, long-lasting feelings (Franks 2006). It stands to reason that the next frontier in a sociology of suicide that takes culture and microsociology seriously is one that also mixes social emotions into the theoretical “pot.”

In this spirit, Part III will shed light on where the sociological study of suicide can and should go if we are to reclaim our seat at the table in offering understanding and explanation. And, for becoming truly public in contributing to the prevention of suicide and in post-vention efforts – or those that seek to work with (individual or collective) survivors in the aftermath of a suicide.