Military Sociology

Suicide as a Social Phenomenon


This is the third installment in a series shedding some light on why people die by suicide. The first post is based on the psychological literature, focusing on mental pain; the second post discusses stigma by drawing on the social-psychological literature; and this post is based on a sociological perspective, describing how the structure of society contributes to suicides. In his classic sociological text, Suicide, Durkheim develops a typology of suicide based on the concepts of ‘social integration’, and ‘moral regulation’. He identifies four different types of suicide: altruistic (high integration), egoistic (low integration), fatalistic (high regulation), and anomic (low regulation).

Altruistic suicide results from a very high level of integration into one’s social context; Durkheim gives the example of religious sacrifices, but suicide-bombers are a contemporary version of this. Being so highly integrated, the individual’s own personal aims are completely aligned with those of their social group to the point of self-sacrifice. Although there is a moral distinction between various types of altruistic suicide, Durkheim used the word ‘altruism’ to describe group integration which differs from its popular use to denote acts of normative moral goodness.

Egoistic suicide results from a very low degree of social integration. Durkheim found that this type of suicide was common among the most educated populations in his day. These populations were more prone to social disintegration because the higher levels of critical thinking lead to lower levels of tradition which promoted common beliefs and practices. Although this may still be the case today in some contexts, the experience of post-secondary education can also be the source of social integration for some people. I talk about this in my post, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” discussing Marina Keegan’s reflection on her impending graduation from Yale.

Fatalistic suicide is a concept briefly mentioned in a footnote of Durkheim’s text, referring suicide that results from a very high degree of social regulation (e.g. prison or slavery). For some reason Durkheim lists “young husbands” as being at risk of this type of suicide – but this is one of his more theoretical statements, lacking empirical support in the text.

Anomic suicide results from a very low degree of social regulation. Durkheim gives the examples of large-scale social transitions such as revolutions or economic chaos in the market. The fundamental issue causing this type of suicide is the loss of a guiding morality or a meaningful sense of ‘the good life’ – as I discuss in my post asking, “what is the good life?Social transitions uproot individuals from meaningful moral/ social contexts, thrusting them into a context where pursuing their own individualistic desires is the central guiding principal in their life.

Anomic suicide is most common among developed capitalist nations where wealth is abundant. Durkheim states:

“…those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most. It is too great comfort which turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.”

When the central guiding force in our lives is the pursuit of material luxury, it becomes a bottomless pit requiring ever-more stimulation. As Durkheim states:

“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…”

As restated from my earlier post, “On Missing Combat,” after witnessing the profound tragedy of war, a veteran’s sense of what matters in life may be uprooted in the transition to civilian life. In the memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan Wood writes the following lines regarding the conversations of his civilian co-workers:

“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:

“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”

As a Canadian veteran told me:

“I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at, but you miss the purpose that comes with the combat.”

In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:

The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.

A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:

“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”

Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart.

The social cause of suicide is the macro-level we need to consider when trying to uncover reasons why certain populations experience higher rates of suicide. On the individual level, intense mental pain may be a fundamental driver of suicide. Interpersonally, this pain may be the product of thwarted belonging, a sense of burdensomeness, and hopelessness about this situation. Lastly, this interpersonal situation may be the product of broader social realities; for example, the lack of institutional support during social transitions has the potential to radically uproot individuals from a sense of social solidarity.

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  1. That bit about the strong relationships built on trust among veterans is an aspect I haven’t considered until now. Very interesting aspect that rings significant to my ears. For me, it’s easy to see from this, why veterans, particularly those suffering from PTSD, then often go on to taking their own lives as the relationships in their civilian lives may inadvertently undergo some scrutinity and being held against those left behind in the unit. I wouldn’t be surprised, if many veterans were suddenly overcome with a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness, even when surrounded by family and partners. If I put myself in their skin, I’m already getting a sense of “can’t live up to the trust we had in the unit” kind of feeling. Very insightful and interesting! I think the gravity and significance of certain life events and how they may produce a situation, where one finds themselves emotionally isolated all of a sudden aren’t given the credit they deserve, neither in therapy nor in other contexts. Thanks for sharing, I definitely learnt something from your article!

  2. Always a great read…very enlightening..I was meaning to ask you a question on something psychological in nature but maybe when you write a post on that topic or near to it otherwise…it would be too weird to add a comment totally unrelated to the post.. hehe..
    Thanks for sharing this! 😉

      1. Ohh..great thanks for entertaining.
        I was just wondering.. if Classical Conditioning also works for people and how best way to do it? You see, my dilemma is this: I happen to be a little OC so I like things to be in order and in their rightful place, my hubby on the other hand couldn’t care less and it irritates me that I have to go look for missing things when I knew where I placed them earlier. My idea was to write little notes everywhere (i.e. always return toothpaste cap, always cover caps of condiments, etc) so remind him always to do it and sooner or later, he’ll get the hang of it or something? Or should I add rewards after for positive reinforcement…
        Sorry for the long note but I hope it makes sense? Would appreciate any thoughts/ideas from an expert! Thanks much! 🙂

          1. Thanks for sharing this…yeah, I realized (ironically after I posted my comment) that it was not Classical Conditioning after all.. hehe…I’ll check the link you sent! Thanks much! 🙂

  3. Based on your descriptions of the four different types of suicide, it would seem that anomic suicidal behavior is the driving force of the One Percent’s self-destructive behavior that’s leading the whole of humanity to climatic and ecological disaster.

    1. I think you are for sure on to something! Although anomie doesn’t need to result in suicide, it can also have a great deal of negative social outcomes due to the lack of regulation. Thank you for sharing this thought.

  4. This series of posts has been nuanced and respectful, and given me some new lens through which to view a subject I have already pondered at great length. Thank you for that.

    As someone who has tried (and thankfully failed) to fling herself over that precipice on more than one occasion, I can find myself both tongue-tied and furious when even well-intentioned discussions miss the mark (as I thought most of the public discourse following Robin Williams’ death did, for instance). Thank you for hitting it — or rather, for focusing on just how many “marks” there actually are.

  5. you posted this this morning, and i replied to that post. why did you delete that post and repost it without the original comments or likes? you can just delete individual comments, or edit them and not have to redo the entire post.

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