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© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Durkheim's study of suicide: inductive or deductive?

Durkheim's work on suicide is generally held to be an exemplar of positivist sociology. Durkheim emphasised 'social facts' in his work on suicide and it is often assumed, for that reason, that he adopted a primarily inductive approach.

Despite the seemingly individual nature of the act of suicide, Durkheim was concerned to find out what were the structural reasons for suicide. He thought that individual or psychological explanations were inadequate because, although individuals actually commit the act of killing themselves, the causes are social and therefore external to individuals.

The first thing that Durkheim did in his study was to examine the official statistics on suicide in eleven European countries. His careful examination of the similarities and differences in the suicide rates in the various countries led him to three main conclusions:
1. within any given society the rates of suicide are surprisingly constant over time;
2. the rate varies between societies;
3. the rate varies between different groups within the same society.

In attempting to find the social causes of suicide, Durkheim carried out his study in a similar way to the way in which scientists in a laboratory would carry out their work. For example, Durkheim observed from the statistical evidence, that suicide was more prevalent in Protestant countries than in Catholic ones. However, this information alone could not tell him that being Protestant is important.

To show that being Protestant was important Durkheim attempted to discount other possible factors. For example, Germany, a largely Protestant country, had higher rates of suicide than Italy, a Catholic country. Perhaps nationality could be a factor causing suicide? To test this, Durkheim examined the different regions within Germany and he found that Bavaria, a region with the largest number of Catholics, had the least number of suicides. Durkheim's thus concluded that religion rather than nationality was an important factor in suicide.

Durkheim also noticed that people who were married were less likely to commit suicide than those who were not, and that people with children were less likely to commit suicide than those who did not have children. As a result of all these factors he suggested that one social cause of suicide was a lack of integration in society. He called the type of suicide resulting from lack of integration egoistic suicide.

He concluded that religion, marriage and children were all factors that would be likely to integrate people in society. He theorised that the Catholic and Jewish religions were more integrative and family-oriented than Protestant religions, therefore, this would explain lower suicide rates. Durkheim surmised that increases in suicide rates in general could be explained by the transition from the more integrated traditional societies to the less integrated modern industrial societies in which social bonds were breaking down.

Using the same approach, Durkheim concluded that there were three other forms of suicide. When the rules of normal behaviour break down people become in a state of normlessness (that is they become unsure of the rules of society). Durkheim called this anomie and he, therefore, argued that anomic suicide occurs because of a lack of regulation in society. This along with egoistic suicide is the type of suicide that is likely in modern societies.

Altruistic suicide occurs when people are too integrated in society, when their sense of solidarity outweighs their concern for themselves. As a result of this over-integration individuals may sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the group to which they belong.

Finally fatalistic suicide occurs when the rules of society are so strong that people feel stifled and unable to develop a sense of self.

We can see that Durkheim assumed that society is a reality that is external to individuals' consciousness. The suicide statistics provide the raw data, they are the social facts, that are used in the research. Although Durkheim claimed to be following his own rules of sociological method, in which theories are subsequent to the observation of the data, it is debatable whether Durkheim has proceeded inductively from the facts of suicide to the social causes of suicide.

So, although Durkheim was attempting to put into operation a value-free science, that is a science in which facts and values are assumed to be separable, his own assumptions and preconceptions about the transition from traditional to modern societies influenced the way in which he analysed the suicide statistics. Thus, Durkheim was not limiting his enquiry to things that are capable of being directly observed. Durkheim did not simply go out and collect 'facts' about rates of suicide, he theorised about the possible factors that might lead to suicide.

One might argue that Durkheim adopted an approach that was a mixture of induction and deduction. He approached to data inductively, with the data suggestion relationships and then from that Durkhiem suggested reasons beyond the data. These deductions he then explored by looking at the data in different ways, which led to further theorising, and so on.


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