A Cultural Theory of Suicide?

Sociology has famously studied suicide using Durkheim’s classic structural framework. For the uninitiated or for those needing a refresher, what that means – or at least the common interpretation of what that means – is that (a) the structure of suicide rates varies based on the structure of social relationships and (b) the structure of social relationships varies according to a collective’s degree of integration or regulation. Plenty of people, including myself, have plumbed the depth of what this means, so I won’t waste time on that (for a recent review, see Mueller et al. 2021). I also won’t bother critiquing this approach without necessarily leaving Durkheim behind, as this is well-covered terrain as well (some of my favorites in addition to the Mueller et al.: Phillips 1974; Johnson 1965; Nolan et al. 2010; Abrutyn and Mueller 2014, 2018). That said, what Durkheim doesn’t do, and in all fairness he was not interested in doing, is ask or answer why do people choose to die by suicide? This silence is deafening.

By Stack and Bowman’s (2011) count, sociology has contributed the second-fewest amount of published studies on suicide since 1980; and the gap between us and the number 1 discipline is massive (~180 papers to 9000+). We are behind disciplines like molecular biology and law, the former of which does not stand out immediately as a typical field of suicide inquiry. How is it that the 16th most assigned reading in the discipline (according to Open Syllabus Project) has not revved up the sociological imagination of generations of sociologists?!? Part of the problem is sociology’s obsessive gaze backward at some halcyon days of classical yore (which I have commented on here, here, and here). Durkheim’s theory is hermetically sealed, while his theoretical frame is often taught as fact; case closed. Suicide consists of four types and is caused by too much/too little integration/regulation.. Sure. Fine.

But, we also know suicide – or the meaning of suicide – varies tremendously across time and space (Barbagli 2015; Baechler 1979; Kitinaka 2012). As sociologists, we know meanings matter in so far as humans make sense of their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (as well as real, imagined, and generalized other’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors). We know that humans are planners, and thus orient themselves to social objects in the course of their planning, while these social objects – physical, social, or ideational – take on meaning through interaction with others. And, thus, we know suicide as a social object varies in meaning according to the cultural beliefs of the time and place. Exceedingly high rates of suicides in a region in south India are interpreted and understood as caused by massive strains between the exceedingly high material aspirations and the structural constraints preventing many from realizing them (Chua 2014). Meanwhile, unfathomably high rates of youth suicide are explained by respondents as caused by historical cultural genocide leading to a search for a way to “belong,” and suicide presents one such pathway to belonging (Niezen 2009). The lesson here is that suicidal behavior, like any other social behavior, is performed and, thereby, signals subjective feelings and thoughts in symbolic form that the attempter or decedent presumably wished to express to some intended audience.

Of course, the audience may misinterpret the meanings, applying their own well-worn schema to the decedent’s performance. Likewise, unintended audiences are free to make sense of the suicide as they see fit. Nevertheless, it is a symbolic act that demands meaning-making and, thus, it is saturated in culture. And yes, culture is a sticky concept with myriad meanings and contested vagaries. But, it is the primary tool through which human societies reproduce themselves, distinguish themselves from each other, and convey what feelings, thoughts, and actions are good, right, appropriate, or bad, wrong, and inappropriate.

Thus, like Becker’s (1953) marijuana user, one must become suicidal. They must acquire the meanings that transform their inner feelings and thoughts into something a suicidal person would feel and think. These meanings must be available, which they always are thanks to various modes of artistic expression that teach us about suicide as well as the very real possibility that through traditional and social media will be exposed to a celebrity’s suicide or just a member of our community. So, the action itself is always “out there.” But, is it accessible and applicable to the person’s reality (Patterson 2014:19)? And, if it is accessible and applicable, how many people are vulnerable to those meanings? Is it just a solitary individual whose struggles mirror or are perceived as mirroring a media report of a suicide? Or, does it fit a pattern of folks, like Niezen found among Indigenous youth in a particular community?

These questions scratch the surface of my larger point: Durkheim’s theoretical and methodological strategy is still important, particularly in measuring wholesale changes over time and place when massive disruptions happen, like the Great Recession in 2008. But, it falls short of asking more interesting questions about suicide that sociology is well equipped to ask and answer.

The sociology of culture has become an exciting space where the types of debates and discussions concerning sociological theory’s biggest questions are occurring. It is a place of promising marriage between those studying suicide and those asking about (1) how/where do beliefs come from, (2) how/why do beliefs cluster or cohere in certain collectives and/or classes of folks, and (3) how/why/when do beliefs come to shape behaviors? Durkheim notably chose suicide for many reasons, but one central one was its extreme finality (it is also its biggest weakness as one cannot interview a decedent to ask the most pertinent questions about why one chooses to do something). He felt that explaining suicide meant being able to explain most other negative outcomes and, implicitly, positive, desirable outcomes. The problem, as noted above, was that he didn’t care to actually ask why people do things, just what social forces impel them to do things.

Fine. But, we can do better. To do so means to heed Atkinson’s (1978) serious critique that “its the theoretical and methodological content of Suicide which has fascinated generations of sociologists and not that phenomenon which members of a society call ‘suicide'” (p. 10). It is to ask anew what suicide is, why it occurs, what it means to society and within the framework of local cultural realities as large as communities and as small as families or even dyads, and how deciphering the meaning of suicide might offer the science behind suicide better understanding and explanation and the sicence of prevention/post-vention tools that allow us to intervene more efficaciously.

About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
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1 Response to A Cultural Theory of Suicide?

  1. Pingback: Cultural Sociology I: Meaning Making and The Psychological Profession | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

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