by Phin Upham
In 1897 the scholar Emile Durkheim wrote Suicide one of the first examples of rigorous sociology. It used the suicide rates in Europe to illustrate the importance of community ties to behavior. To this day it stands as a classic in sociology and has had profound impact on the way economics, sociology and psychology have evolved.
The German scholar Emile Durkeim looks for situations in which things do and do not happen, do and do not exist. Durkeim say the “forces that hold society together are invisible. One learns about them when they are broken, like walking into a plate glass window.” Suicide is his topic, not for its intrinsic nature, for Durkeim explicitly says it is the quality of the data and the elegance of the example that draws him to the topic not any intrinsic interest or importance. Durkeim argues for the central conclusion that “social structures of high density prevent the individual from killing him/herself” could be rephrased to apply to hundreds of other areas in which the density of the social structures would be a predictive link. But more importantly, Durkeim intends this to be an example of a methodology. He wants this to be a model upon which other works could be based, illustrating the power and the versatility of the methodology of sociology.
He is able to tease out from the data of national suicide rates exactly what situations are conducive to suicide, on the cultural, social, and individual level, he is able to toss out widely held preconceptions as well as toss out academic theories about why suicide is committed. He is able to rule out the theory that it is significantly affected by the weather of the country, or that it is determined by how well the economy is doing. It seems that while poverty does increase the suicide level, under conditions of wealth that suicide level does not drop significantly. This implies that while the absence of wealth is an influence the presence of it is not so much. Aristotle made a similar point about happiness, he claimed that while a certain amount of money is necessary to be happy (enough food not to starve, basic necessities, etc) that increases of one’s wealth beyond this point had merely marginal additions to ones happiness.
Durkheim asks: Is it being Catholic or Jewish intrinsically an inhibition to suicide or is it merely the state of being a minority? He will then take an example that differentiates these factors, say in which Catholics are in the majority (e.g. in Spain), and show how it is not this factor. Unlike a psychologist, who often have labs to in which they can repeat experiments in with different variables, Durkeim must re-slice the world up in different examples and arrive at the essence using only the data which the world has provided him. Nevertheless, he seems to succeed. And more than simply revealing the statistical factors that make suicide more or less likely, he is able to abstract from these conclusions and come up with a theory that binds them all together – a theory which “explains” the conclusions. He brilliantly concludes that is the nature of social embededness, to what extent one considerers oneself a part of a larger identity, emeshed and involved, that helps determine this. He shows how this factor interrelates with city dwelling, marriage, divorce, religion, etc. In all cases his data and his hypothesis are consistent. He cannot seem to disprove his hypothesis, no matter how hard he seems to try, so, since it seems plausible, he accepts it.
The brilliance of Durkeim, lies not only in his methodology, but also in his rigor. Logical positivists in the Vienna circle even thought, at one time, that such methods would allow them to build up a true and rational view of the world. Durkeim was their equal, perhaps, in his care in regards to these considerations. This is particularly well exhibited in his Division of Labor in Society in which he often meticulously goes through laws, traditions, and societal divisions in painstaking detail. In this piece, he is able to tease out of the division of labor in society a picture of how this phenomena functions, where it is logically headed, and what consequences it has (e.g. solidarity in its various forms, trust, etc). Society, he concludes, is increasingly dividing up its labor, and this is made possible by not only by the trust and mutual dependence of the members on each other but also by subtle and often brutal societal laws, mechanisms (both social and psychological), and structures that reinforce and support this system. One even gets derivative of the Red effect, as mechanisms to reinforce this system develop the levels of interdependence increases in a mutual escalation.
This form of analysis often seems monstrous in its detachment. The subject of suicide, the most private and painful of decisions, is flayed, skewered and put over the fire without a hint of remorse. A human death is describes as “What does one human being the less matter to society? Or one cell fewer in the organism”. But this detachment is not a sign of heartlessness but instead of trying to show that even at the heart of the most sacrosanct and apparently subjective decisions and aspects of ourselves lies the clear influence of our culture on us, and the clear development of this culture of support or encourage us. That is, that we are not individuals in a void but that we are deeply affected by the social world around us both actively and passively, dynamically and statically, in our actions and our reactions.
It is surprising that Durkheim sees society as so socially integrated and homogenous as a Jew living in France during the time of the Dryfus affair, where rampant anti-Semitism loomed large. How odd his conception of society as he presents it here never recognized that mechanical and organic solidarity, social homogeneity, class distinctions, and in-out groups (reminiscent of conflict models of behavior) were tempered in his life by discrimination and perhaps some cultural isolation. This brings us back to our earlier discussion of his detachment, of his detached discussion of religion, but puts upon it a slightly more serious connotation – Durkheim was not blissfully unaware of racism, persecution, and the heterogeneity and arbitrary dislocations of society, but he often chose to ignore them.
Once we are aware of the factors that influence us to commit suicide (Durkheim) or our approaching increasingly refined division of labor (Durkheim) do we and are we affect/are affected by this knowledge. Is the fact that sociology has brought these factors into the light useful on an individual level (though, of course, it is still interesting). Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone (2000), makes proscriptive suggestions about how to reconnect America and suggests ways individuals can reconnect themselves. Certainly on a social level once we are aware of the laws and the rules of society (which Durkheim seems to imply deeply affect our actions and our social roles) government officials and judges can, perhaps, keep these considerations in mind and mold a society that we find more normatively attractive.
Randall Collins, Four Sociological Traditions, Chapter 3: The Durkheimian Tradition. Read pp. 181-198, then proceed to read the Durkheim works listed below.
Émile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (New York: Free Press,  1984), pp. 1-8, 31-87.
Émile Durkheim, Suicide (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951), pp. 41-276.
Return to Collins, Four Sociological Traditions, and read pp. 198-203.
Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie.” (1938), in Charles C. Lemert, ed., Social Theory (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), pp. 229-241.
Return to Collins, Four Sociological Traditions, and skim pp. 203-234. We will return to these pages in session 9 (see below).
Samuel Phineas Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.