Emile Durkheim, the first person to be formally recognized as a sociologist and the most scientific of the pioneers, conducted a study that stands as a research model for sociologists today. His investigation of suicide was, in fact, the first sociological study to use statistics. In suicide ($1964$, originally published in $1897$) Durkheim documented his contention that some aspects of human behavior- even something as allegedly individualistic as suicide-can be explained without reference to individuals.
Like all of Durkheim’s work, suicide must be viewed within the context of his concern for social integration. Durkheim wanted to see if suicide rates within a social entity (for example, a group, organization, or society) are related to the degree to which individuals are socially involved (integrated and regulated). Durkheim describes three types of suicide: egoistic, anomic and altruistic. Egoistic suicide is promoted when individuals do not have sufficient social ties: since single (never married) adults, for example, are not heavily involved with the family life, they are more likely to commit suicide than are married adults. Altruistic suicide, on the other hand, is more likely to occur when social integration is too strong. The ritual suicide of Hindu widows on their husbands funeral pyres is one example. Military personnel, trained to lay down their lives for their country, provide another illustration.
Durkheim’s third type of suicide – anomic suicide increases when the social regulation of individuals is disrupted. For example, suicide rates increase during economic depressions. People who suddenly find themselves without a job or without hope of finding one are more prone to kill themselves. Suicides may also increase during period of prosperity. People may loosen their social ties by taking new jobs, moving to new communities, or finding new mates.
Using data from the government population reports of several countries (much of it from the French Government Statistical Office), Durkheim found strong support for his line of reasoning. Suicide rates were higher among single than married people, among military personnel than civilians, among divorced than married people, and among people involved in nationwide economic crises.
It is important to realize that Durkheim’s primary interest was not in the empirical (observations) indicators he used, such as suicide rates among military personnel, married people, and so forth. Rather, Durkheim used the following indicators to support several of his contentions: $(1)$ Social behavior can be explained by social rather than psychological factors; $(2)$ Suicide is affected by the degree of integration and regulation within social entities; and $(3)$ Since society can be studied scientifically, sociology is worthy of recognition in the academic world. Durkheim was successful on all three counts.
To support his contentions, Durkheim relied on the following indicators
- social behavior is explicable predominantly through social factors.
- suicide is contingent upon the degree of regulation and interaction.
- recognizing sociology is to acknowledge that the society is susceptible to scientific investigation.
- All of the above.