The issue of suicide has plagued humanity since ancient times. The Greek and Roman Stoics condoned suicide in certain circumstances, such as extreme illness, loss of faculties or to avoid serving a tyrant; whereas the Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas unequivocally said, “suicide is the greatest crime,” both against oneself and society.
The pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) published a statistical study that outlined four distinct types of suicide: Egoistic, Altruistic, Anomic and Fatalistic.
For Durkheim, each suicide group corresponds to a specific societal orientation.
- Egoistic suicide arises from excessive individualism and lack of integration without a greater social purpose. Along these lines, Durkheim believes that Protestants suicide more frequently than Catholics because the former are not as tightly knit within their Church.
- Altruistic suicide arises from a lack of individualism combined with an excessive identification with some greater social purpose, such as the Japanese Kamikazi pilots of WW-II or the Middle Eastern suicide bombers of the 21st century.
The term “altruistic” sounds strange in this context, but Durkheim claims to not make moral judgments within his theory. He merely seeks to understand the type of relationship between (a) the person committing suicide and (b) their social group.¹
- Anomic suicide arises from feeling alienated in a society characterized by diffuse social ideals and a lack of clearly defined meaning. For instance, Durkheim found that high divorce rates were linked with high suicide rates.
- Fatalistic suicide is the opposite of anomic suicide. Fatalistic suicide is characterized by a sense of helplessness and futility in a harshly regulated social system, as found in societies condoning master-slave relationships.
While his theory has its limitations, Durkheim is important to the history of the social sciences because he looked at European demographics to try to understand suicide as a social phenomenon, just as social psychologists, researchers and advertising agencies gather and interpret data today.
¹ (a) One could argue that a dispassionate study like Durkheim’s implies some kind of moral agenda—e.g. that it’s a good and worthwhile thing to do. (b) The Hale Bopp Comet or Heaven’s Gate suicides of 1997 would probably be seen as altruistic suicide according to Durkheim’s schema. This California-based UFO group believed the Earth was about to be destroyed. For members, the only way to survive was to move to a higher level; and to do so this group believed they had to die at a precise cosmic moment, somewhat like jumping on a train when it’s at the station. Because the Earth is still much the same as it was in 1997, it seems reasonable to say that this community was sadly misguided.
- Revisiting Durkheim (includes an essay about Durkheim’s work, Suicide, in pdf format)