Monday 22 June 2015

Censoring Durkheim's Suicide

Suicide is commonly understood as a deeply personal act. It is usually linked with mental health problems, and is - rightly - regarded as a tragedy for its victim and all those their life touched. The bereaved are often left with so many unanswered questions: Why? How could I have helped? Could they have been stopped? As a recurring phenomenon, no two suicides are treated the same way. It is a highly individuated response to a unique set of circumstances experienced by the person who passed away. It's down to psychologists to explain and counsellors to prevent. Because it is so private and so individual, this is why Emile Durkheim wrote a book about it. His Suicide, published in 1897, sought to turn the tables on conventional wisdom. It was more than a personal, individual act. Suicide was a social phenomenon and, as such, was a useful topic of study for the then fledgling discipline of sociology. Hailed as a classic since its publication, Suicide has been a touchstone ever since. My cohort studied it when we did our A-Levels. My students had when they did theirs. And before me my teachers had. It's part of how we learn sociology in Britain.

Not any more it seems. It was announced last week that AQA, the exam board that covers the majority of A-Level students is dropping it from the syllabus and expunging it from AQA-compliant text books. This act of disciplinary vandalism, like most things, is done with the noblest of intentions. A spokesperson for the exam board went on the record as saying it has "a duty of care to all those students taking our course to make sure the content isn’t going to cause them undue distress”. Really. What then is so distressing about Durkheim's Suicide?

There are two aspects to Durkheim's study: an analysis of suicide statistics among Protestants and Catholics, and a delineation of various "types" of suicide based on his reading of the data. He found that men were more likely to take their own lives than women, single people over married people, childless people over parents, soldiers over civilians, a correlation between it and higher levels of formal education, and the most stand-out finding: Protestants more so than Catholics. From here, Durkheim moved to explanation.

As a theorist deeply interested in the maintenance and perpetuation of social order, this figured quite heavily. He suggested that suicide fell into four distinctive types. There was egoistic suicide, which was related to being adrift from one's community, of not being integrated into and feeling apart from it. A precipitating factor was excessive individuation that sharply differentiated them from the rest of the community, and without that anchoring suicide became more likely. People falling into this category tended to be those with little or no social bonds, such as single/childless men.

Durkheim's second category was altruistic suicide, or excessive "deindividuation". Think of Spock sacrificing himself in The Wrath of Khan to save the Enterprise, as "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few". In a society with high levels of integration and solidarity, suicide here is arrived at because it has a socially sanctified end and, in some way, protects that social coherence/the greater good (however that is defined). Taking one's life to protect one's/family's honour, or self-sacrifice in times of war typifies this kind of suicide.

Thirdly there is anomic suicide. In his earlier book on the division of labour, Durkheim argued that industrial societies rest on divisions of labour that are only going to get increasingly complex. As it diversified and specialised, so our lives becomes ever more interdependent on one another. Durkheim hypothesised that this could lead to new forms of consciousness, that an 'organic solidarity' may emerge in which each is conscious of everyone's place in the social system, and that we're engaged in a common human enterprise. While regulated by sets of values and expectations, real societies fall somewhat short. The division of labour does not work for everyone. Whole branches of industry can disappear along with jobs and the social fixity they bring. Where social conventions no longer match social realities, dislocation and anomie - a state of normlessness - may prevail, and for some people the new situation is too difficult to cope with.

Lastly, there is fatalistic suicide. If anomie is the outcome of meagre social bonds, fatalism is related to too many. Picture an institution or society that is overbearing, has too much regulation, that intrudes into various aspects of individual life; a social situation in which the power of the collective is as pervasive as it is stifling. With such crushing conformity, some, who for whatever reason cannot escape, may come to the conclusion that life is no longer worth living.

Suicide is a classic text that lends itself to A-Level sociology for a number of reasons. It is a tightly-confined study. It serves as a basic exercise in comparative statistics without getting caught up in complex mathematical procedures that can test their veracity, and so on. It's useful to show that social relations are probabilistic phenomena, not iron laws that grind out predetermined outcomes. It's a good introduction to Durkheimian concepts like anomie, and how scholars attempt to build theory from data. And, lastly, it's an early corrective to the facts statistics baldly state. For example, as Durkheim noted, is it truly the case that Protestant societies have higher rates of suicide than Catholics, or because of the stigma and shame traditionally attached to it by the latter do families and communities conspire to rewrite suicides as death by other causes? Suicide is a simple, straightforward study that, crucially, introduces students to sociological thinking.

Taking Suicide off the syllabus is incredibly shortsighted. It's not as if any A-Level tutor introduces the study as a jolly good larf, rather than a classic 19th century investigation of a vexatious issue. I can understand that AQA are adapting to the "triggering" culture, but then all other awkward and potentially upsetting topics should stay off the course. More students, for instance, are likely to have been touched by domestic violence, racism, and so on than suicide - should these be scrubbed out too? Suicide is upsetting, but ultimately AQA are in flight from their wider social responsibilities. The one thing worse than talking about suicide is not talking about it. Sociology's job, among many other things, is to demythologise social phenomena in a never-ending attempt to understand the patterns of behaviours of huge collectives of human beings. If some areas are ruled out and made taboo, that understanding ceases. It becomes strange and, despite AQA's laudable motives, ignorance can breed insensitivity, potentially leading to more discomfort for the students they aim to protect. It's time for a rethink - leave Durkheim's Suicide on the syllabus.


Bring Your Own Wine said...

This is absolutely outrageous. Great article and deserves wider attention - On Suicide is one of the founding texts of sociology, to remove it from the syllabus is like removing the Bible from RE lessons.

Dawn Robinson-Walsh said...

In the dim and distant past, I used to teach this (and was once a Senior Assistant Examiner for A level Sociology) at A level.
Apart from being interesting in helping students to try to understand something quite complex and perceived as very individualistic, it was a great introduction to comparative statistics.
It is also a sociological classic. Imagine students not studying it. Could we also drop The Protestant Ethic because capitalism may be offensive?
Seriously crazy!

Gary Elsby said...

Men, single men and men with no children basically sums it up.
An undertaker once told me they class suicides as 'FF', female or finance.
Generally true with each having an individual story to be heard.

Phil said...

Who'd have thought that good old Durkers would be too "dangerous" for sociology. I'm all for giving him the allure that attends the banned and the problematic.