Vesagas: Suicide in the eyes of sociologists

Writer’s note: (An article related to today’s piece was published by the writer in this paper back in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Today’s article is a product of both the three-semester worth of lectures in sociological theories the writer had attended during his Master of Arts in Sociology studies at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan and the independent readings he has done throughout the years.)

THE 2017 statistical data from World Health Organization (WHO) inform that close to 800, 000 people die due to suicide yearly. As such, it considers suicide as the second leading cause of death among the age group 15 to 29 years old. WHO likewise maintains that 78 percent of global suicides occur in low-and middle-income countries. Lastly, it highlights the following most common methods of suicide that have been documented worldwide by WHO: ingestion of pesticides, hanging, and firearms.

Undeniably, there are many groups of mental health professionals and social scientists who are equally interested in the study of suicide with each discipline using its own unique theories or body knowledge and methodologies in an attempt to explain such phenomenon.

Predominantly, the study of suicide is a field of interest among psychiatrists (mental health professional MDs) and psychologists (social scientists who study human behaviors and are often specialized to a subfield called “clinical psychology”). These professionals focus their attention on the biochemical, anatomical and physiological bases that govern human behaviors. In sum, they focus on establishing what are normal and abnormal (pathologic) behaviors expected of individuals and then “prescribing” appropriate remedies (pharmacologic, counseling, therapies, etc.) to correct pathologic or maladaptive behaviors, provided further that only psychiatrists are legally permitted to prescribe medicines that alter or “correct” and control behavior.

Less popular are sociologists in the arena of suicide studies. Generally, sociologists are guided by their own distinct paradigms or orientations such as structural-functionalism; symbolic interaction; and social conflict in the explanations that they provide on how the social world operates that affects or influences human behaviors. The normality and abnormality of individual behaviors are none of their concerns and rather shift their focus on variables, which are not limited to class, or ordinal position in the society, socioeconomic standing, level of education that influence group or collective behaviors. All of their interests are reserved at the social level.

Among the intellectual giants in the discipline of sociology is Emile Durkheim, who is cited in several books as the “founding father of sociology.”

In his work, “Suicide: a study in sociology” in 1897, he defined suicide as “all causes of death resulting directly or indirectly from the positive or negative act of the victim himself [or herself] which he [or she] knows will produce this result.”

For Durkheim, there are four major types of suicide: (1) Egoistic, (2) Altruistic, (3) Anomic, and (4) fatalistic suicide.

Regardless of the type of suicide, Durkheim stressed that suicide is either due to high or low integration and regulation.

In his work, he explained that “integration” refers to the strength of attachment that we have for society. On the other hand, “regulation” pertains to the degree of external constrain to the people. These terms were further simplified by Turner and colleagues in their work, “The Emergence of Sociological Theories,” which emphasized that integration involves maintenance of interpersonal ties and the perception that one is part of a larger collectivity. In contrast, regulation limits individual aspirations and needs keeping them in check, it explained.

Egoistic Suicide

This is a type of suicide wherein the person’s ties to groups and collectivities are weakened that results to excessive individualism. This lack of integration leads one not only to feel that he is not part of society but also society is not part of the individual. Durkheim believed that the best part of human beings like morality, values and sense of purpose all came from society. An integrated society, he argued, provide us with the best part of humanity and a feeling of moral support to get us through the daily troubles and disappointments. Without integration, the person is liable to commit suicide at the smallest frustrations.

A person can be well integrated in the social institution of family or a communal religion or find employment in a company which fosters fraternal or family values. These examples prevent egoistic suicide. One can also not underestimate the importance of the informal structure in the workplace as it promotes this so-called “integration.” Ever notice how genuine friendship in the workplace can be de-stressing?

Suicide rates tend to be higher in the metropolitan where relationships are more likely impersonal or “organic” compared to the rural areas where it is more personal.

Altruistic Suicide

In contrast to egoistic suicide, individuals too attached or integrated to their group (family or religion for instance) and has ended their lives is guilty of committing altruistic suicide.

One example of this is the mass suicide of the followers of the Reverend Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. They all knowingly drank the poisoned wine and died including their children. They all died due to the strong integration they had to the society of Jone’s fanatical followers.

In the early to late 90s, death by hazing among initiates and novices of fraternities and sororities had made headlines in the Philippines. These too are examples of altruistic suicide as the victims’ integration to the group values of “deadly loyalty and unquestioned lethal faith” were as solid as rock.

And lastly, suicide bombers due to their beliefs of salvation or making the world a better place at their expense for whatever reasons are likewise examples of altruistic suicide.

In Durkheim’s words, “When integration is high, people will commit suicide in the name of greater glory.”

Anomic Suicide

As discussed by Durkheim, anomic suicide is the type that most likely occurs when the “regulative” power of society is disrupted. It must be emphasized that regulation in this context refers to the norms that naturally have coercive powers that compel individuals to behave in a culturally acceptable ways.

In Durkheim’s terms, he used the word “anomie” to pertain to a condition in which society provides little to almost absence of moral guidance to individuals. Anomie results to breakdown of social bonds between the individual and society that diminishes social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. Simply put, anomie is a state of normlessness.

During periods of regulatory disruptions, tides of anomie are unleashed that can result to the so-called anomic suicide.

Good examples when periods of anomie occur are during wars, famine and natural or man-made disasters. This may explain why suicide was more likely during the time of Sendong, Ondoy, and some tsunamis that ravaged low land regions overseas.

The WHO statistics also maintains that suicide rates are high for victims of violence and refugees.

However, Durkheim pointed out that not only in the face of disasters can anomic suicide occur: it can also happen during periods of “positive disruption” such as an economic boom or a highly positive life-changing experience.

Examples consistent to this positive disruption that lead to suicide are the story of successful celebrities or iconic figures who later on claimed their lives. Although many may see the association between excessive fame or stardom and suicide as somewhat spurious and rather accept the idea that the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson or even Robin Williams claimed their lives over depression and substance abuse; Durkheim maintained that disruptions, whether negative or positive, are likely to lead individuals dissatisfied because there is little concern over their passions, which are free to run wild in an insatiable race for gratification.

Fatalistic Suicide

This type of suicide is described as the exact opposite of anomic suicide: there is too much or excessive regulation.

In Ritzer’s published work “Sociological Theories,” he cited slaves who take their own lives because of the hopelessness associated with the oppressive regulation of their every action.

People who commit suicide as an escape from poverty is an example of fatalistic suicide because the excessive regulation of the capitalist economy over their lives perpetuates the chains and wheels of poverty and social injustice that keep them rooted in their lowly economic standing.

Members of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer-Asexual (LGBT-QA) who commit suicide are likewise exemplified by fatalistic suicide as the excessive moral regulation keeps them oppressed, discriminated and miserable. In fact, the recent WHO statistics supports the claim that the LGBT-QA community is at risk for suicide.

For Durkheim, he describes victims of fatalistic suicide as, “persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline.”

It is my initiative to inform readers that theorizing about suicide was the secondary concern of Durkheim in his work about suicide. His primary concern was to show the world of his methodology (with the use of statistical or mathematical models) of empirically studying society. The nitty-gritty of his methodology appeared in his 1895 work entitled, “The rules of the sociological method.”

September 10 of every year is dubbed as the World Suicide Prevention Day.

Comments may be sent to: polo.journalist@gmail.com

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Digressing a bit, I am indebted to Dr. Imelda Pagtolun-an (A Filipino sociologist who received an American-education in the fields of MPH and a PhD Sociology alumna of a prestigious university in USA), my former professor in Sociology for the unparalleled patience she had extended on me in explaining the great details of sociological theories and the history of sociological thoughts the time I attended her classes. I was having difficulty not only of grasping the theories but also accepting the seemingly radical point of view of most social theorists and thinkers as my background was in health being a health professional I was. She may not remember me amongst her students as there are a number of better social scientists who have emerged from her class; but her teachings shall remain immortal in my mind, heart and deeds.