SUICIDE: THE DURKHEIMIAN DILEMMA M. F. ABRAHAM* AND ITS RESOLUTION Ever...
SUICIDE: THE DURKHEIMIAN DILEMMA M. F. ABRAHAM*
AND ITS RESOLUTION
Ever since Durkheim postulated the idea their heightened by the fact that human
of anomic suicide several generations of desires are less disciplined at the very
sociologists have sought to determine the moment when they would need a stronger
inter-relationships among social-structural discipline" (Durkheim, 1951:456). Having
variables, personality attributes, alienation realized that the individual has no built-in
and anomie. During the past two decades structure to control his unlimited propen-
numerous empirical and theoretical analyses sities, Durkheim (1951:452) argued that
have appeared which, in terms of their "only society... is in a position to play
general frame of reference, could be classi-
this restraining role; for it is the only moral
fied into three broad categories: sociologi-
power which is superior to the individual
cal, psychological and social psychological. and which he acknowledges as superior."
To Durkheim suicide was a social fact
Some recent developments in the disci-
and a sociological phenomenon which could pline confirm as well as elaborate the
be explained only in terms of the structure Durkheimian proposition. Parsons (1949:
and functioning of social systems. Since 377), for instance, regards anomie as the
each society has a collective aptitude for antithesis of full institutionalization, the
self-annihilation, the productive causes of "state of disorganization where the hold of
suicide must be sought "directly" in the norms over individual conduct has broken
social concomitants of the society and not down." Stressing, unlike Durkheim, that the
in the personal motives and ideas of in-
deregulation of goals is not the only con-
dividuals who make up the collectivity. dition of anomie, Merton (1968) focuses on
Durkheim identified the three structural the deregulation of means. To Merton,
variables facilitating suicide as absence of anomie is a result of the disjunction between
integration. of individual into his social cultural goals and institutionally available
group, over-integration and deregulation in means for the attainment of these goals.
society. He conceived anomie as a state of And Cloward (1959) adds a third variable
rulelessness resulting from society's inability namely differentials in the availability of
to regulate individual's needs and their illegitimate means which are not readily
satisfaction, or, in other word's, the "weaken-
available to any but differentially distributed
ing of the moral constitution." Serious eco-
depending on the location of persons in
nomic crises, sudden prosperity and abrupt the social structure. According to him,
technological changes lead to some sort of treatment of anomie must take into account
declassification and life is temporarily the relationship between class structure and
thrown out of gear. Individuals face an the accessibility to illegitimate means.
entirely new situation to which society can-
Now let us turn to some psychological
not adjust them instantaneously. The result considerations. Leo Srole's (1956) definition
is a state of rulelessness which is the essence of anomie as "self-to-others alienation"
of anomie in the Durkheimian tradition. reduces it to an individual phenomenon
"The state of rulelessness or anomie is fur-
explicable in terms of interpersonal aliena-
* Dr. M. F. Abraham is Associate Professor of Sociology, Pan American University, Edin-
burg, Texas, USA — on leave from Gandhigram Rural Institute, Gandhigram, Madurai Dt.
M. F. ABRAHAM
tion rather than alienation from norms. Las-
productive causes attributed to specific,
swell (1952) treats anomie as the "lack of hereditary psychopathological conditions.
identification on the part of the primary "His arguments do not, however, apply to
ego of the individual with a 'self that in-
the "environmental" and "functional" types
cludes others. In a word, modern man of mental disturbance of which our under-
appeared to be suffering from psychic iso-
standing has been so greatly increased in
lation. He felt alone, cut off, unwanted, the last generation, especially through psy-
unloved, unvalued." While Riesman equates choanalysis and related movements." Even
anomie with "maladjusted", Maclver (1950: what Durkheim called morphological types
84-92) defines it as "the state of mind of of suicide cannot be treated adequately in
one who has been pulled up by his moral terms of their immediate causes but by the
roots, who has no longer any sense of con-
systematic reconstruction of the life-histories
tinuity, of folk, of obligation." And psycho-
of these suicides. Arguing that in the light
analytic psychiatrists (See Durkheim, 1951: of recent findings of 'psychologic science'
23) argue that every individual possesses a sociological analysis must be brought into
certain degree of self-annihilatory drive harmony with psychoanalysis, Simpson
"established in infancy and early childhood (Durkheim, 1951:25-26) adds: "Neuroses,
by the fears, anxieties, frustrations, loves and suicide seems to present profound neu-
and hatreds engendered in the individual rotic elements even when committed by a
by the family environment in terms of so-called normal person, must be treated
eliminatory processes, weaning, sex educa-
medically as an individual phenomenon,
tion, sibling rivalry, rejection or over-accep-
but their causes may lie deep in the social
tance by parents, degree of dependence."
life-history of the individual." According to
However, these two approaches — socio-
him therefore, "The basic problem for
logical and psychological — although dilate social research must be to inter-relate the
upon the Durkheimian theme of anomie life-histories of individual suicides with
and /or anomie suicide, do not answer one sociological variables, on the hypothesis that
fundamental question: Why only some certain social environments may (a) induce
people in a society commit suicide?
or (b) perpetuate or (c) aggravate the suicide-
There have been several attempts to potential. If we can correlate for masses of
resolve this ambiguity in the Durkheimian data, suicides or attempted suicides with
conception of anomie. Halbwachs (See their having been induced, perpetuated, or
Parsons, 1949:326), for instance, showed aggravated by certain social environments,
that there is no antithesis such as Durkheim then we are in a position to establish laws
expounded between sociological and psy-
of generalized occurrence."
In short, Simp-
chopathological explanations of suicide but son is pleading for a synthesis of sociologi-
that they are complementary. Henry and cal and psychological analysis as an ap-
Short studied 'Suicide and Homicide'
proach to suicide.
ing systematic use of psychodynamic theory
Similarly Inkeles (1965:255) argues that
in combination with Durkheim's theory, and adequate sociological analysis of many
treated suicide as an act of aggression fol-
social problems is impossible without the
lowing from restraint and consequent frust-
explicit use of psychological theory and
data. He deplores what he calls the socio-
As Parsons (1949:326) points out Dur-
logical S-R (state-rate) theory and its ana-
kheim's criticism of psychopathological ex-
logue in the psychological S-R (stimulus-
planation of suicide related only to the response) theory, for their "failure to utilize
SUICIDE : THE DURKHEIMIAN DILEMMA AND ITS RESOLUTION 211
an explicit theory of the human personality." (b) Psychoanalysis' psychological dilemma.
Inkeles (1965:255) suggests the formula (S)
If suicide is the culmination of
(P)-(R) which alone, he contends, could
self-annihilatory drives built into the
"explain why the absence of social integra-
personality of a child during the early
tion should in some cases produce, not
socialization process, do all indivi-
Durkheim's egoistic suicide, but mental
duals with the predominance of
illness, or homicide or nothing."
these drives end up in self-murder?
Recent empirical studies (of Killian and
Even if they do, it still cannot ex-
plain why the Rajput women of
Grigg, 1962; McDill and Ridley, 1962) have
India used to throw themselves into
exposed numerous factors — problems of
their husbands' funeral pyre and
minorities, social disintegration, political
killed themselves. Or, if suicide is
alienation, ethnic prejudice, self-estrange-
simply a form of 'displacement'
ment and level of aspirations — that con-
whereby the suicide kills the intro-
tribute to anomie. Hence the social psycho-
jected object, why should there by
logical explanation posits that the pheno-
such wide variation in suicide rates
menon of anomie is inextricably intertwined
in terms of the integration of a
with social degeneration and individual
domestic society or a religious
maladjustment or as Elwin Powell (1958:
131) put: "Anomie is both a social condi-
tion and psychic state."
Now the question arises: Is there an
Once again, while these empirical investi-
intervening mechanism between the indivi-
gations and conceptual analysis have thrown dual and his social system that influences
more light on the circumstances leading to the responses of an individual in a given
anomie and suicide, they do not solve the situation? Or, in more specific terms:
fundamental dilemma which has two distinct
(a) Is there an intervening structural
variable that blunts or controls the
(a) Durkeimian sociological dilemma.
suicide-potential inherent in the in-
If suicide is determined by the degree
of structural integration or institu-
(b) Is there an intervening personality
tionalization in a social system why
variable that offsets or regulates the
does it not
affect every member of
impact of normlessness or lack of
the social system uniformly? If eco-
integration in the society on a given
nomic crises and abrupt technological
changes disturb the societal scale and
create a state of deregulation and
The social psychological explanations
declassification causing people to kill detailed earlier take cognizance of these
themselves, why is it that only a questions but seem to be content with the
few individuals in any social system, oft-repeated answer that sociological theory
despite the intensity of such crises, and data must be used in conjunction with
commit suicide? To take an extreme psychological theory and data or that struc-
example, neither the Unitarians nor tural as well as personality variables must
even atheists and several 'free-float-
be looked into. But they do not delve into
ing' intellectuals murder themselves the dynamics either of the personality or of
on a mass scale.
the social system in an attempt to relate
M. F. ABRAHAM
the intervening variables. Therefore, we disintegration and/or deinstitutionalization.
must look for alternative explanations.
A somewhat parallel exposition of indi-
Since there can never be a one-to-one vidual's structured indifference may be
correspondence between personality and found in Durkheim's analysis of organically
social structure, it is highly unlikely that solidary society in which crime is no longer
all that goes on in a given society will affect an offence against the collective conscious-
every individual in it. The social conse-
ness of the community but simply a viola-
quences of normlessness — or lack of inte-
tion of personal rights. In other words,
gration, for that matter — are not evenly crime ceases to be a negation of the moral
distributed over the whole society or among spirit of the collectivity; rather, it is just a
the various components thereof. Moreover, violation of a given statute. Individuals in
individuals in a mass society are particu-
a mass society get so much used to crime,
larly immune to the 'moral weakening of violence, and "corruption" that they fail to
the constitution' or the breakdown of the respond to them emotionally but tend to
normative structure. They have learnt to be dismiss them as the "price for progress",
most selective and least sensitive, more "common ailments", or "structural incon-
rational and less emotional, to ignore and sistencies" which will be taken care of in
forget rather than to absorb and react.
the ordinary process of law and life. This
Simmel's (1969) analysis of metropolis failure of the modern mass man to respond
and mental life seems to provide a remote emotionally to the world around him may
clue. For the sake of self-preservation be termed as emotional vacuum. One of the
modern man tends to develop a defensive latent functions of the modern mass media
reserve around his personality which pro-
is the consistent reinforcement of this' emo-
tects him from the overwhelming social tional vacuum. News and portraits of ever
forces that threaten to engulf him. "The so many victims of flood, hurricane, war
metropolitan type of man — which, of and earthquakes as well as stories of crime
course, exists in a thousand individual and violence are thrust on us everyday that
variants — develops an organ protecting we are constrained to build kinds of defen-
him against the threatening currents and sive mechanisms around our psychic system
discrepancies of his external environment so that these tales of woes and social pro-
which would uproot him. He reacts with blems do not unduly upset the scale of our
his head instead of his heart. In this an emotions. This emotional vacuum in the
increased awareness assumes the psychic urban man is so great that he can transform
prerogative" (Simmel, 1969:48). Indivi-
the metropolitan concentration into a lonely
duals living in today's mass society acquire crowd and he can vanish the most acute
what Simmel calls the 'blase attitude' which social problem in the immediate environ-
involves antipathy, repulsion, unmerciful ment into the thin air of epistemological
matter-of-factness and utmost particulariza-
tion. This attitude precludes them from
Moreover, the emotional vacuum blase
interacting with other men as full, emo-
attitude or the reciprocal reserve is not
tional and concerned human beings. And simply a protective shell that guards the
precisely because in their everyday life men psychic system against the external dangers
interact with one another in the most ra-
from the social system. Rather, it serves as
tional, matter-of-fact and impersonal way a mechanism of two-way defense for the
their psychic system is largely unaffected individual. Just as it helps the modern man
by the disruptive consequences of structural to preserve the autonomy and individuality
SUICIDE : THE DURKHEIMIAN DILEMMA AND ITS RESOLUTION 213
of his existence in the face of overwhelm-
for the purpose of this paper, the suicide-
ing social forces, it also prevents any emo-
potential or self-annihilatory drives inherent
tional imbalances and alienated spirits in every individual (the psychoanalytic ex-
internal to the personality system from planation) as well as the several variants of
seeking overt expression through manifest alienation like self-estrangement and mean-
activities. Thus there is a circular line of inglessness. Even if these forces are parti-
defence surrounding the personality system cularly strong in a given individual, he may
of the individual which, on the one hand, not end his life if he is fully integrated into
keeps within bounds the psychoanalysts' a primary group of his own choice. To the
self-annihilatory drives or Lasswell's 'lack extent the individual identifies himself with
of identification' or 'psychic isolation' and, the social group, it serves as a shock
which, on the other hand, resists the flood absorber and nullifies the self-destructive
of sweeping social consequences resulting tendencies in the individual. Thus the psy-
from Durkheim's normlessness or Merton's choanalysis' suicide-potential built into the
acute disjunction between cultural goals individual in early childhood is later on
and institutionalized means. Thus, what we substantially modified by social factors
have herein called the emotional vacuum such as group identification and cultural
or what Simmel calls the blase attitude or integration and the consequent sense of
the reciprocal reserve is, indeed, a mediat-
belonging in the individual and his percep-
ing mechanism between the Durkheimian tion of being able to satisfy the various
normlessness and the psychoanalytic sui-
needs and aspirations through the primary
However, the protective shell is under the
The external forces of social disruption
recurrent attack from the internal forces of include Durkheim's lack of integration, over-
psychic isolation and the external forces of integration and normlessness. If suicide
social disintegration and might break down could be explained in terms of these social
at some point in time. The forces of social concomitants as Durkheim posited, they
disintegration hit the individual hard or his certainly do not explain why these destruc-
feelings of self-estrangement and alienation tive forces uproot only certain members of
are further aggravated by his perception of society and not others. Let us examine
normlessness in society. As if the walls of another aspect of the ambiguity in the
a big reservoir were to crack all on a sudden, Durkheimian tradition. Referring to specific
the protective fortress around the persona-
instances of altruistic suicide Durkheim
lity structure of the individual gives way and (1951:219) writes: "When a person kills
the individual is carried away by the onrush himself, in all these cases, it is not because
of social disruption. And the individual is he assumes the right to do so but,
uprooted when there is an acute conjunction on the contrary, because it is his
between psychic isolation and social deregu-
duty. If he fails in this obligation,
lation, or more specifically, suicide occurs he is dishonored and also punished, usually,
at a point where anomie meets alienation. by religious sanctions... if such a person
In this perspective, then, Durkheim's anomie insists on living he loses public respect; in
suicide results from a confluence of the ex-
one case the usual funeral honors are denied,
ternal forces of social deregulation and the in another a life of horror is supposed to
internal forces of psychic isolation.
await him beyond the grave. The weight of
A note of explanation is due here. The society is thus brought to bear on him to
internal forces of psychic isolation include, lead him to destroy himself." This means
M. F. ABRAHAM
Durkheim (1951:223) clearly recognized the the very moment when he most needs its
presence of an element of coercion in altrui-
support and strength.
stic suicide and even while distinguishing
The social forces resulting from lack of
between obligatory and optional altruistic integration and normlessness also affect the
suicides, he is explicit that the distinction individual in almost the same manner.
is only a matter of degree and the "word When the internal forces of psychic isola-
(optional) simply means that they (optional tion mingle with the socially generated
altruistic suicides) are less expressly required forces of group alienation resulting from
by society than when strictly obligatory. lack of integration or with society's failure
Indeed, the two varieties are so closely to restrain the individual, that is normless-
related that it is impossible to distinguish ness, alternatives for self-preservation are
where one begins and the other ends." If, denied for the individual and suicide
thus, altruistic suicide is society's death ensues.
sentence for the individual and if "it com-
This formula alone can resolve the ambi-
pels and is the author of conditions and guity inherent in the Durkheimian tradition.
circumstances making this obligation coer-
Now we can identify the factors—structural
cive," (Durkheim, 1951:220) then one might concomitants as well as psychological attri-
question whether an obligatory death sen-
butes — that induce, inhibit, facilitate, or
tence could be treated on the same con-
aggravate the suicide-potential inherent in
ceptual level as egoistic and anomie suicides the individual and the collective aptitude
which are purely voluntary. Whereas in for suicide that Durkheim attributed to cer-
egoistic suicide individual violates the tain social groups. They are:
mandate of society which forbids death,
from altruistic suicide individual has no
(a) Individual's state of mind i.e. the
honourable escape. This compulsive com-
psychic predispositions of the social
ponent built into the concept of altruism
lends support to our theory in a way that
(b) The state of society or the structural
Durkheim did not anticipate.
situation of the social system.
Altruistic suicide is not necessarily a
(c) The strength of the protective shell
simple function of over-integration. Rather,
surrounding the individual's perso-
over-integration leads to suicide because it
facilitates the intermingling of over-whelm-
(d) Individual's own perception of the
ing social forces surrounding the commu-
social situation. The theory may now
nity's mores and psychological forces of
be summarized in terms of the fol-
alienation. The Rajput women in India on
the death of their husbands and in Gaul
the followers and servants on the death of
1. Alienation is an individual phenome-
their chief suffer intense psychic isolation
non of psychic isolation.
and life itself becomes devoid of any mean-
2. Anomie is a social phenomenon of
ing and precisely at a time when the psy-
deinstitutionalization which includes
chic forces of alienation are most intense
normlessness as well as lack of social
in the individuals, society rejects them as
outcastes and leaves no alternatives for 3. Suicide occurs when there is a conjunc-
self-preservation but forces them to dispose
tion between individual alienation and
themselves of. In other words, the social
group rejects or alienates the individual at
4. The intensity of suicide-potential varies
SUICIDE : THE DURKHEIMIAN DILEMMA AND ITS RESOLUTION
directly with the individual's percep-
socially uprooted as either of the two
tion of normlessness in society.
forces — psychic forces of alienation
5. The emotional vacuum is a function
or social forces anomie — supersede
of mass society.
6. The strength of the protective shell 10.
The intensity of the two forces varies
deteriorates with the consistent attack
independently as their roots are in two
of internal (meaninglessness, self-
different systems — one in the persona-
estrangement or alienation) and exter-
lity system of the individual and the
nal disruptive consequences or social
other in the social system of his so-
deregulation) forces pressing on it all
ciety or group.
the time. 11.
The simple supersession of either of
7. The breakdown of the reciprocal
the forces by the other is not a suffi-
reserve is a necessary but not sufficient
cient — although necessary — condi-
precondition for the self-annihilation
tion for the physical destruction of the
of the individual.
individual. For example, the disruptive
8. When the blase attitude fails him and
social forces may not, be themselves,
when the reserve breaks down, the
be able to shake off a strong persona-
individual seeks to identify more
lity from its solid foundation. Similarly,
closely with his social group — a
forces of alienation and the cumulative
primary group. But when he perceives
influences of built-up frustration may
that such identification with or inte-
not destroy an individual who is root-
gration into the social system is im-
ed in and solemnly committed to a
possible because of deregulation or
normlessness, then the individual sees 12.
The individual is engulfed only by a
no alternatives for self-preservation,
confluence of destructive social and
and is inclined to end his own life.
psychic forces which eliminate all alter-
9. The individual may be mentally or
natives for self-preservation.
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(ed.), Sociology Today.
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Charles M. Grigg.
67 (May): 661-65.
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Maclver, Robert M.
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M. F. ABRAHAM
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