Suicide is the ultimate triumph of agency over structure. And by 'ultimate', I mean it in the older sense of the world, the 'very last' triumph of will over circumstance, derived from the Latin ultimatus (or something like that).

This is not to say by any means that I advocate suicide as a solution to any problem; as the cliché goes, 'it is always a permanent solution to a temporary problem'. Reasons why you should not commit suicide are beyond the scope of this writeup, and are best left to your loved ones and trusted proxies for loved ones (ministers, therapists, hotline volunteers, and so on). Here, I choose to use the phenomenon of suicide to illustrate some concepts in the social sciences, namely, 'structure', 'agency' and bit of Durkheim.

Structure and agency

'Agency', as defined in the social sciences, is the capacity for an individual to make choices and exert power, and 'structure' is the background composed of social and environmental factors that guide and influence (and some say, utterly define) an individual's behavior. The social sciences have long been interested in exploring the workings and causes of suicide, ever since Durkheim wrote about it in 1897.

He really hates it when you call him 'Emily'

Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist. His big things were:

  • collective consciousness --- Durkheim called it conscience collective in his writings. Now, I'm told that the French word 'conscience' is a little hard to translate succinctly into English; 'conscience' combines the meanings of its English cognate (in its moral sense) and a sense of 'consciousness' (in the sense of 'awareness'). So, Durkheim's 'conscience collective' (as he put it en français) is something like a common awareness and sense of guidance, essentially a sort of 'social programming'. This is why fashion, morals, hit songs and religion catch on so widely --- they play with our sense of collective conscience.

  • solidarity --- Durkheim divided 'solidarity' into two types: 'mechanical' and 'organic'. The former was seen more often in more 'complex' societies in which people were less interdependent. The latter type of solidarity was exhibited most often in small, 'simple', tightly-knit societies where everyone depended on one another for survival. If your tiny village only has one blacksmith, it doesn't pay to piss him off; if there are a number of blacksmiths available in your large urban conglomerate, you have considerably less impetus to rely on just one.

  • integration --- a feeling of bondedness and connection to society

  • anomie --- (lit. 'namelessness') a feeling of lacking identity and integration into society. Most often found in societies that exhibited mechanical solidarity.

  • having a big, fluffy beard --- because you couldn't be a respectable 19th century social theorist without one (Marx, Freud, but notably absent is Boas, who instead had a fine mustache and some wicked dance moves).

Durkheim on Suicide

Durkheim had a thing or two to say on suicide. He divided up suicides up into four categories: egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic suicides, underlain by his notions of integration, collective consciousnessand anomie.

Egoistic suicides are most commonly seen in societies where individuals show low integration with each other --- in other words, mechanical over organic solidarity. Economic development and population growth work together to create unemployment, and by that, large numbers of people who have no defined role in society. Having no role in society, they perceive themselves to be worthless and the consequences of their taking their own lives to be minimal, even perhaps beneficial. With the current recession in full swing and showing few signs of alleviation in the near future, we'll likely be seeing this a lot more.

Altruistic suicides are seen most commonly in organic societies with strong collective consciousness and tight integration (by the way, if this sounds like Mary Douglas' 'group and grid', it's no coincidence). This is where the individual perceives his or her importance as being subordinate or irrelevant in light of the needs of the group --- 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one'. Speaking of that, Spock sacrificing his life in Star Trek III is a good example of an altruistic suicide.

Anomic suicides are very much akin to egoistic suicides, in that their causes are more or less the same: economic development and population growth undermining solidarity. Anomic suicides are the result of a breakdown in social structures (often engendered by economic breakdown), which results in a lack of legitimate social roles for individuals (as opposed to economic roles). Since people rely on each other less, the consequences of their committing suicide are less. If you want a contrived example of an anomic suicide, try watching 'Reefer Madness' --- the part where the girl jumps out of the window is the best example I could think of of an anomic suicide, since under the influence of drugs, a breakdown in social order was had (I am holding back a snicker as I write this), and nothing prevented the girl from killing herself. There are probably better examples of anomic suicides in contemporary society.

Fatalistic suicides are the result of circumstances in an individual's life that compel him or her to commit suicide in order to escape what he or she perceives to be a greater degree of pain and suffering in the future. Voluntary euthanasia is a good example of this type of suicide, and it is this type of suicide that I had in mind when I originally conceived to write this writeup.

Pourquoi?

Now, the real doozy of a question is: why? Durkheim and his intellectual descendants have since tried to answer this question, and there is yet to be found a satisfactory answer. In the end, it all falls down to whether you lean towards a materialist bent (i.e. environment and circumstance dictate a person's behavior more than individual choice) or an idealist bent (i.e. individual choice counts more than environment and circumstance).

If you are a materialist, then why would society have it such that conditions and circumstances cause people to kill themselves? Why would we have a socioeconomic system in place that exploits and marginalizes massive swaths of the population for the benefit of the few on top, when people are dropping like flies all over the place, in all layers of the socioeconomic wedding cake (but disporportionately in the sagging and dense bottom layer)? Say society can 'withstand' a certain number of suicides before it shows ill effects or collapses. What then is that number? To what extent can a society set in place phenomena that ultimately hurt it, before collapsing? A society with a high suicide rate (or any other maladaptive trait) is like the lungs of a smoker: sure, they may be fine now, but in the long run, it'll all be tar and ash and coughed-up blood.

But you're not off the hook if you're on the idealist side, because you simply cannot dismiss suicides as all subject to individual whim and choice. It's far more complicated than that; there is almost always a cause for suicide, and it differs with each individual case. With some, it's a trauma of some kind. With others, it's some ongoing chronic psychological depression. The closest thing we can get to a purely idealistic suicide is self-immolating monks and suicide bombers, and in the latter case, the families are compensated generously (at least so we're told). There's always some gritty, brute material aspect to a suicide, even if it's something as ephemeral as an unshakable ennui.

Here come the PoMos

Begging the humble reader's pardon for rolling over the grave of a long-dead theorist, but it's a lot more complicated than that. Durkheim had a good classificatory system for suicides, but the distinctions are too neat (at least as they were presented). It seemed to be the trend back then to lean towards binary oppositions and clean-cut typologies, and these days, everything is all continua and complicated interactions between causes and effects that may not be readily apparent at first glance. Just read a little postmodern theory, and prepare to have your mind blown.

Yes, all my ideas about suicide have already occurred to someone else

Hearkening back to the first sentence of this writeup, suicide is the ultimate triumph of agency over structure. It all ultimately boils down to a choice. The trigger does not pull itself. Yea, verily, this choice is influenced by countless factors external to the person intending to commit suicide: self-esteem, socioeconomic standing, access to means, consequences of killing oneself, and so on. But there are people who go through very rough times with very little to see them through it, and there are people who reach for the sleeping pills and malt whiskey at the first sign of trouble. It all is ultimately a choice.

This writeup dedicated to Cordelia Cathor, who died in 2003.

    Works Cited:
  • 1997 Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Altamira Press.
  • 2003 Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. A History of Anthropological Theory. Broadview Press.
  • The wonderful lectures of one particular anthro grad instructor, who sparked my interest in theory.

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