Durkheim on Suicide.  How do sociologists study problems? 

          What do sociologists actually do when they conduct research?  What would you do if you were a sociologist faced with a problem or question for which you wanted more in­formation, or a better explanation?

        The usual procedure for conducting so­ciological research is to follow the steps of the scientific method.  These steps include isolating the problem, forming a hypoth­esis, building a research design, collecting the data, analyzing the data collected, and making generalizations.

        The first step is to isolate the problem.  You may think of a problem as something that is troubling you or society.  In terms of the scientific method, however, a prob­lem refers to any question for which we seek an answer.  It is not necessarily a personal or social problem.  It is simply some matter about which we want to know the answer.  Sociologists usually choose to research problems that are related to their areas of interest and their particular spe­cialty in the field of sociology.

        The next step is to develop a hypothesis. In Chapter 1, we defined a hypothesis as a tentative assumption, an untested gen­eralization.  What is the purpose of a hy­pothesis?  Why waste time with assumptions and educated guesses?  The hypothesis is essential because it sets the stage for the research and gives it direction.  A hypoth­esis always states a relationship between two or more situations, events, or factors.  The purpose of the research is to test the hypothesis to see if this statement of the relationship is accurate.

        The third step is to build a research de­sign.  A research design is a set of direc­tions for research.  A builder would have a hard time constructing a house without detailed and accurate blueprints.  Similarly, a sociologist would have great difficulty in carrying out research without a carefully built research design.  To set up a research design, the sociologist must determine the variables and how they will be measured.  The sociologist must then decide what sample will be used.  Finally, the sociologist must determine what tools and techniques to use in collecting the data.  Should ob­servation be used?  Or the survey method?  Or the case study method?

        The fourth step is to collect the data accurately.  The collecting process must be done carefully to avoid error.  If the data are inaccurate, the results will be useless.

        When the data have been collected, the sociologist analyzes them to determine their meaning.  On the basis of the data, the sociologist decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.

        The last step is to decide what generali­zations can be made.  What can we say about the population on the basis of the sample actually investigated?  What con­clusions can we draw about the whole on the basis of examining a part?

        To see how a sociologist follows these steps, we can look at an actual study.  A classic example of sociological research is Emile Durkheim's study of suicide, pub­lished by the French sociologist in 1897.  Let's examine just what Durkheim did, how he did it, and what he concluded.

The Problem

        In Durkheim's France, as in societies today, the question of suicide was one of great popular concern.  For suicide represents a problem.  It raises not only specific questions for the relatives and friends of the victims, but also larger questions of causation.  Why do people commit suicide?  Why don't some people do it?  Why does the rate of suicide vary from place to place?  Durkheim noted that suicide rates differed, depending on the society and the condi­tions.  He felt that differences in the rates of suicides suggested that more than indi­vidual factors were operating.  He thought that suicide must reflect changes in social or environmental circumstances.  The prob­lem was to discover the nature of these circumstances and their causes.

The Hypothesis

        Durkheim first explored the current ex­planations for suicide.  One explanation was that suicide resulted from individual psy­chological conditions.  Another explanation assigned the cause of suicide to factors in the natural environment, such as the time of year, the climate, or the temperature.  After examining case histories and statisti­cal records, however, Durkheim concluded that such explanations were not adequate.  In investigating individual psychological conditions, he found that though many of the people who committed suicide were mentally ill, many others were not.  Further­more, no one type of mental illness was always associated with suicide.  Neither could he find a clear relationship between alcoholic consumption, or between age, race, or sex, and the suicide rate.

        Similarly, such forces as seasonal varia­tion and climate did not cause suicide.  When Durkheim separated these environ­mental factors, he could find no meaning­ful relationship between them and the suicide rate.  For example, if warm weather increased the number of social interac­tions, and the suicide rate was affected, the important factor was the increased social interactions and not the warmer weather.

        By observing available evidence and using reason and common sense, then, Durkheim arrived at his hypothesis that the basic causes of suicide were social in nature.  It seemed to him that the main de­terminants of suicide were such social fac­tors as religion, marital status, and the pace of social change.  He therefore hypothe­sized that the degree of social attachment, or the lack of it, explained the variations in the suicide rate.

The Research Design

        To test his hypothesis, Durkheim rea­soned that he would need statistics on the number of suicides in given areas at given times.  To be able to talk about the rate of suicide, he would also need accurate fig­ures for the total population of these areas.  Furthermore, he would need all these sta­tistics from a variety of places.  Then he could make comparisons between the suicide rate and different social conditions.

        He found that most of the European countries, as well as the United States, had relatively accurate statistics on the number of suicides, who committed them, and the total population. All Durkheim had to do was to get at these already existing sources of information.

        By comparing the suicide rates of Prot­estants and Catholics, of urban and rural areas, and so on, Durkheim could test his hypothesis.  He could find out if the degree of social attachment determined the rate of suicide, and if suicide was, therefore, a social phenomenon.

        Collecting and Analyzing the Data Building a research design and collect­ing data are closely related.  What Durkheim found was that the data he collected did seem to fit a pattern, and that this pat­tern confirmed his hypothesis.

        He found, for example, that the suicide rates were higher among Protestants than among Catholics.  This was so even when he allowed for other differences in the social climate that may have affected the suicide rate.  In other words, he did not simply compare the rates of Protestant countries with Catholic ones.  Instead, he carefully compared Protestant and Catholic villages within a single area, Bavaria, and still found important differences in the suicide rates.

Similarly, taking other factors into ac­count, he found that single people had higher suicide rates than married ones.  Married but childless people had higher suicide rates than people with children.  City dwellers had higher suicide rates than people living in rural areas.  Men had higher suicide rates than women.  And soldiers had a higher suicide rate than civilians.

The Generalizations and Conclusions

        From his evidence, Durkheim concluded that the suicide rate was determined by the degree of social attachment.  He discov­ered, however, that the relationship was a complex one.  Suicide seemed to result from both unusually high levels and unusually low levels of social attachment. From his findings, he was able to generalize that there were three basic types of suicide: altruistic, egoistic, and anomic.

        Altruistic suicide occurs when the degree of attachment of the individual to the society is very great.  It is not always de­fined by the society as suicide.  Rather, the, individuals may be regarded as heroes.  This would be the case with soldiers who volunteer for a dangerous mission, in which they are likely to lose their lives, out of zeal for and devotion to their country.

        Egoistic suicide, on the other hand, results from a lack of attachment of the in­dividual to the society.  The less integrated into society individuals are, and the more they must depend on their own egos or selves, the more likely they are to commit suicide.  He found Protestants, who make more theological decisions on their own than Catholics and are therefore less at­tached to their society, have a higher sui­cide rate than Catholics.  In the same-man­ner single people, city dwellers, and men have higher suicide rates than married people, rural people, and women.  They tend to have fewer attachments and re­sponsibilities, more social freedom, and more dependence on their own egos.

        Anomic suicide, like egoistic suicidal occurs because the individual is forced to make decisions without any strong social attachments.  However, in anomic suicide the individual is unattached because the whole society is undergoing rapid change and the old rules no longer seem to apply.  Anomic means normlessness.  Anomic suicide occurs during periods of uncertainty, such as times of crisis, revolution, or economic depression.

But it is not Durkheim's conclusions that interest us so much as the steps of his sociological research.  His work is an example of a clear, simple, yet thorough ap­plication of scientific procedures.  Other sociologists continue to use his study of suicide as a model for their own work to this day.

Further reading on the subject may be found at: