The Study of Suicide by Emile Durkheim

A Brief Overview

Golden Gate Bridge crisis phone
A sign for an emergency phone is seen on the span of the Golden Gate Bridge October 10, 2008 in San Francisco, California. The Golden Gate Bridge District board of directors voted today to continue with a plan to build a suicide prevention net on the world famous bridge with a price tag of $40 to $50 million dollars. An estimated 1,300 people are believed to have jumped to their death from the bridge since it was opened in 1937. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Suicide by founding sociologist Émile Durkheim is a classic text in sociology that is widely taught to students within the discipline. Published in 1897, the work is considered groundbreaking both for showcasing an in-depth case study of suicide that revealed that there can be social causes to suicide and because it was the first book to present a sociological study.


Suicide offers an examination of how rates of suicide differed by religion. Specifically, Durkheim analyzed differences between Protestants and Catholics. He found a lower rate of suicide among Catholics and theorized that this was due to stronger forms of social control and cohesion among them than among Protestants.

Additionally, Durkheim found that suicide was less common among women than men, more common among single people than among those who are romantically partnered, and less common among those who have children. Further, he found that soldiers commit suicide more often than civilians and that curiously, rates of suicide are higher during peacetime than they are during wars.

Based on what he saw in the data, Durkheim argued that suicide can be caused by social factors, not just individual psychological ones. Durkheim reasoned that social integration, in particular, is a factor. The more socially integrated a person is--connected to society and generally feeling that they belong and that their life makes sense within the social context--the less likely they are to commit suicide. As social integration decreases, people are more likely to commit suicide.

Durkheim developed a theoretical typology of suicide to explain the differing effects of social factors and how they might lead to suicide. They are as follows.

  • Anomic suicide occurs when a person experiences anomie, a sense of disconnection from society and a feeling of not belonging that result from weakened social cohesion. Anomie occurs during a period of serious social, economic, or political upheaval, which results in quick and extreme changes to society and everyday life. In such circumstances, a person might feel so confused and disconnected that they choose to commit suicide.​
  • Altruistic suicide happens when there is excessive regulation of individuals by social forces, such that a person will be moved to kill themselves for the benefit of a cause or for society at large. An example is someone who commits suicide for the sake of a religious or political cause, such as the infamous Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II, or the hijackers of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania on in 2001. In such social circumstances, people are so strongly integrated into social expectations and society itself that they will kill themselves in an effort to achieve collective goals.
  • Egoistic suicide happens when people feel totally detached from society. Ordinarily, people are integrated into society by work roles, ties to family and community, and other social bonds. When these bonds are weakened through retirement or loss of family and friends, the likelihood of egoistic suicide increases. Elderly people who lose these ties are the most susceptible to egoistic suicide.
  • Fatalistic suicide occurs under conditions of extreme social regulation that result in oppressive conditions and a denial of the self and of agency. In such a situation a person may elect to die rather than continue enduring the oppressive conditions, such as the case of suicide among prisoners.