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Durkheim and Suicide Research Papers

A research paper on Durkheim’s literary work pertaining to suicide will establish that it was Emile Durkheim's intent to prove that suicide was as much a sociological phenomenon as it was a psychological one. Your Durkheim and suicide research paper may want to focus on the theory that is condensed from Robert Alun Jones’ book Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works, which begins with  the following quote from Durkheim’s Suicide (1897):Durkheim and Suicide

...our first task... must be to determine the order of facts to be studied under the name of suicide... we must inquire whether, among the different varieties of death, some have common qualities objective enough to be recognized by all honest observers, specific enough not to be found elsewhere and also sufficiently kin to those commonly called suicides for us to retain the same term without breaking with common usage.

Durkheim's Causes of Suicide

In exploring the extra-social causes of suicide, Durkheim examined two causes that were generally perceived as influential. 

  1. First, that the cause was an individual’s psychological predisposition to suicide. He eliminated pathological conditions such as insanity and alcoholism in this case, contending that while either may predispose an individual to suicide, they did not sufficiently or permanently affect the rate of suicide. On the notion that a predisposition to suicide could be explained by psychological factors such as ethnic background or heredity, Durkheim rejected both as causes; on the point of heredity, that it could be explained by other causes and on ethnicity, that patterns of suicide were too varied within racial groups.
  2. Second, on the suggestion that environment or external factors influenced a predisposition to suicide, Durkheim argued that they could have little effect and explained that geographical variations in suicide rates were more likely to be explained by social factors.

The Main Points of Emile Durkheim's Suicide

The issue of suicide is not a topic that is approached carefully by most people.  It is not a topic that one will find being discussed in the midst of a dinner party, for instance.  French sociologist Emile Durkheim, however, studied the topic of suicide in depth, and in his book Suicide, Durkheim does more than simply provide details and statistics about the ugly phenomenon.  Durkheim’s undertaking of this societal issue in his book is impressive; not simply because of the topic itself, but because of the treatment that Durkheim gives it. 

Durkheim writes in the beginning of Suicide that “in the individual constitution, or at least in that of a significant class of individuals, it is possible that there might exist an inclination, varying in intensity from country to country, which directly leads man to suicide; on the other hand, the action of climate, temperature, etc., on the organism, might indirectly have the same effects.” (Durkheim, 57)  Durkheim’s ability to consider the various sides of the issue before reaching a conclusion is one of the remarkable things about his book and his sociological strategy.  Later on in the first chapter, Durkheim is discussing the correlation between marital status and suicide.  He warns that it is irresponsible to give too much value to numerical data without assessing what that data really means.  The initial data shows that married people commit suicide more frequently than those who are not married, but Durkheim does not accept that conclusion.  Instead, he looks at the other sides of the issue.

Durkheim posits that since the label “single people” includes children, that the sample is not reliable.  Children are unlikely to commit suicide, and therefore, negatively weight the data.  After taking children out of the population of “single people”, the data shows that single people commit suicide more frequently than married people.  Yet, again, Durkheim is not satisfied with the result.  Durkheim notes that the population of single people is more likely to include people who are mentally unstable, and are therefore more likely to commit suicide anyway.  Durkheim is finally forced to conclude that a relationship between marital status and suicide cannot be determined because the data is unreliable. 

This is just one of the many examples of Durkheim’s ability to carefully extract conclusions – or to admit the lack of ability to draw those conclusions – from data and research. 

Durkheim’s strategy is shown again when he looks at suicide rates in various countries.  According to Durkheim, suicide rates may be accounted for by looking at the amount of regulation, repression, isolation, and normalcy that a person experiences in their life.  Durkheim looked at suicide statistics from several European countries and found that suicide was not a product of physical or psychological makeup, but was the result of the amount and quality of the social interaction that a person received. 

Durkheim fails to give a comprehensive and conclusive definition of this social interaction, but provides a vague description that relates it to the strength of the attachments that one has made to society, and whether or not that society is a stable one. 

  • Durkheim argues that, “the suicide rate constitutes a single and determinate order of facts – as is shown both by its permanence and its variability.  For that permanence would be inexplicable if it were not related to a cluster of distinct characteristics, associated with one another and simultaneously effective despite different attendant circumstances; and the variability proves the concrete and individual nature of those same characteristics since they vary with the society’s individual character.” (Durkheim, 51)
  • Durkheim did not believe that suicide was an individual act as much as he believed that it was a reflection on that society.  Individuals felt pressure from that society, and those pressures were what pushed individuals to commit suicidal acts. 
  • Durkheim’s most striking contribution in this book is his ability to turn suicide from a term that denotes a heinous and moral crime into a societal fact, just as teenage pregnancy and violent crime are societal facts.  Suicide is not solely the choice of individuals who are sick and deranged, but at times can be the result of societal pressures that have become to difficult to handle. 

Since Durkheim’s book was published over a century ago, scores of sociological studies have looked at Durkheim’s work and have attempted to add to or to find flaws with it.  Certainly, Durkheim, despite his carefulness at maintaining proper objectivity, does make some assumptions in his work.  For one, his reliance on the official statistics of countries is a potential problem; official statistics have the potential to conceal and misrepresent problems, and not all acts of suicide are counted by official statistics.  Also, Durkheim does not rely on individual cases of suicide as much as he examines the overall trend.  Yet, Durkheim’s work is a sociological breakthrough, and began the trend of looking at individual problems as perhaps greater than the individual.

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