We usually think of suicide as solely the result of an intensely personal decision. What is Emile Durkheim's explanation for suicide? Define egoistic suicide and describe why, according to...

We usually think of suicide as solely the result of an intensely personal decision. What is Emile Durkheim's explanation for suicide? Define egoistic suicide and describe why, according to Durkheim, more Protestants commit suicide than Catholics.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Emile Durkheim’s book Suicide was one of the first major works of sociology.  In the book, Durkheim set out in part to try to prove the value of sociology, which was a relatively new discipline in his day.  He was trying to show that suicide was not just a personal decision caused by individual psychology.  Instead, it was caused by some aspect of society and individuals’ relationships with society.  In other words, it was a phenomenon that should be studied sociologically, not psychologically.

Durkheim posited four main types of suicide, differentiated by their social causes.  Egoistic suicide is one of these.  This type of suicide occurs when a person is not well integrated into society.  Such a person comes, Durkheim says, to feel that there is no meaning to their lives.  They feel this way because it is generally our integration into some sort of society that gives meaning to our lives.  People who are integrated into society are socialized to have well-defined values and goals and these things give their lives meaning.  People who commit egoistic suicide lack this integration and they end up being aimless and excessively individualistic.  This makes them feel like there is no control in their lives.  This type of suicide, then, comes about when people do not have sufficient connections to their society.  Therefore, married people, for example, (who by definition have stronger ties to society and to others) are less likely to commit suicide.

This ties into Durkheim’s claims (which are controversial) about suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics.  Durkheim says that Protestantism is a more individualistic religion with fewer beliefs and practices that are imposed on all of its members.  In other words, Protestantism does not tell its members what to do as much as Catholicism does.  This means that Protestants are, in a sense, less integrated into their society because their society (their religion) does not give them a clear sense of what is expected of them.  Protestants feel more like individuals while Catholics feel more like members of a group because their group is more tightly controlled and bound together.  Because Protestant sects have lower levels of social control, egoistic suicide is, Durkheim says, more common among them.

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