A note on Durkheim

A note on Durkheim


[...] one should expect to find that the suicide rate increases during cases of economic depression. And this is in fact the case. But Durkheim turned up another fact that was more puzzling, namely, that suicide is frequently caused by sudden success during periods of unusual prosperity. This is difficult for a utilitarian to explain. Why should a man who is just beginning to prosper consider killing himself? Prosperity should make him happy. (George A. Miller, Psychology, 1962, pp.251-252)


Durkheim argued that happiness has little to do with it. Unexpected wealth can disorient a person with respect to all the social values that had previously governed his life; sudden wealth can weaken or destroy his former ties with a social group. The resulting loss of his goals and values, the resulting state of social disequilibrium – Durkheim termed it anomie – might in severe cases lead to suicide. And for the same reason a sudden loss of wealth is dangerous; it weakens a person’s ties with his social group. It is a loss of love, a loss of sympathetic acceptance into the lives of other people, not a loss of material possessions, that can make a man take his own life. To strengthen his argument, Durkheim demonstrated that suicide is relatively rare among the perpetually poor, who are necessarily well integrated into their own social groups.


Durkheim considered himself a thorough positivist, carrying on the scientific traditions of the nineteenth century. He used empirical data on suicide rates and he analysed them statistically with scientific precision; certainly there was nothing metaphysical in his method or his results. Yet his explanation in terms of loosening the sympathetic ties of the individual with his group has an almost spiritual character. How does one measure anomie in centimetres, grammes, and seconds? If Durkheim was right – and his evidence was compelling – then somehow society has claims upon us far subtler and more complex than anyone in the eighteenth century would admit.’


Durkheim has been very fashionable, ‘influential’ as they would say, among philosophers of social science and sociologists for several decades, and one can see why. How does one get from ‘statistically, loss of ties with social group is strongly associated with suicide’, to ‘ society has claims upon us’, presumably with all of us, not just those who are so badly affected by loss of ties with social group that they commit suicide.


Compare: Membership or otherwise of the Boy Scouts is strongly associated with the occurrence of suicide, so the Boy Scout organisation has strong claims upon all members of the population, whether or not they are members, or wish to be. It may well be that a personality type which is badly affected by loss of social ties, or some change in them, is the most liable to suicidal tendencies.


Even if a need for social interaction could be shown to be universally and equally necessary to all members of the population, it is still a non sequitur to assert that this gives society a claim on all members of the population.


But no doubt it is this non sequitur that has made Durkheim so influential in the modern world. The concept of the autonomous, self-determining individual is anathema.