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Durkheim was a functionalist, and theorised that a holistic social narrative could be identified which would explain individual behaviour.
He argued that, whilst society was made up of its members, it was greater than the sum of its parts, and was an external pressure that determined the behaviour of the individuals within it.
Emile Durkheim 1858 – 1917 Durkheim was born in the eastern French province of Lorraine. He was educated in France and Germany, and taught social science at the University of Bordeaux (the first offered in a French University) and the famous French University the Sorbonne.
Durkheim believed that the collective conscience of society was the source of religion and morality and that the most basic values developed in society, especially in primitive societies, are the strong bonds of social order.
At that time, suicide rates in Europe were rising, and so the causes of suicide were on the agenda.
Since suicide is seen as an intrinsically personal and individual action, establishing it as having societal causes would be a strong defence for Durkheim’s functionalist perspective.
Marx devoted the last years of his life to working the three volumes of Das Kapital, (Marx 1867, 1885, 1894) Even though Marx and Durkheim differ towards their view of what the essential elements of modern society are, they were both concerned with the emergence of modern society and capitalism, particularly the rise of the division of labour combined with the beginning of modern society. Marx was especially concerned with how people relate to the most fundamental resource of all, their own power of labour and the problems of alienation.
Marx theorised that the possibility of giving up ownership of their own labour and also their own beliefs and ideas no longer transformed them and therefore are alienated from their own true nature, which in turn causes conflict between the ruling and the working classes.
This supports the idea that it was the external pressures placed on certain groups within society that induced higher rates of suicide, and is the basis of Durkheim’s work.
Durkheim identified four causes of suicide: egoism, altruism, anomie and fatalism. He has been widely criticised for his use of official statistics, which are open to interpretation and subject to possibly systematic misreporting, and therefore may not represent the true pattern or rates of suicide.