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Suicide as Social Action – Putting Durkheim and Merton to Work

April 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , ,

Let me bring my handy graph again (and a quick shout out to Simple Diagrams, a software I could not blog and teach without). It was one of the very first insights I learned in my very first sociology course, reading my first sociology book, Durkheim’s Suicide: suicide is not an individual act but a social action, that is, an act embedded in social institutions and cultural values and norms, producing stable suicide rates. Hence, in society, the whole is greater than the sum of its part. Society is a reality sui generis. And social facts influence how we act and respond to social contexts.

So,

“An elderly man killed himself in Athens’s main square yesterday in protest at the debt crisis.

The incident was raised in parliament and an anti-austerity group called for a peaceful protest, accusing politicians of driving people to despair with harsh budget cuts.

The 77-year-old shot himself in the head in Syntagma Square during the morning rush hour. The square, opposite parliament, is a focal point for protests. Police said a handwritten note was found on the retired pharmacist’s body in which he said he was taking his own life due to the debt crisis.”

And then, this as well.

Note the public nature of these suicides and their mode of killing as public spectacles, especially the shooting in Syntagma Square. And, especially the first one was clearly understood as a public action. I am tempted to see those as anomic suicides, that is, as suicides prompted by the removal of regulations and social protections, triggering downward social mobility where individuals are left to fend for themselves, without any road map to figure out how to do it, especially, for the elderly.

The caption for the photo reads:

“Mourners applaud as the coffin of Dimitris Christoulas is carried during a funeral procession. His suicide note said that he had preferred to die rather than be forced to scavenge for food: AP”

And these are not isolated cases:

“The suicide of Dmitiris Christoulas, which triggered a new bout of rioting in the Greek capital, threw a spotlight on the fact which European authorities have gone to considerable lengths to obscure as they struggle to come up with ways to get European economies back on an even keel.

As the British researcher David Stuckler has spelt out in a series of shocking reports in The Lancet, suicide rates have risen right across Europe since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, with strict correlation between the intensity of the crisis and the rise in the statistics.

In 2006 he predicted that the new economic crisis would result in “increased suicides among people younger than 66 years”. Two years on the prediction was vindicated: as job losses increased rapidly, to about 37 per cent above the 2007 level in both parts of Europe, “the steady downward turn in suicide rates… reversed at once.

“The 2008 increase was less than 1 per cent in the new member states, but in the old ones it increased by about 7 per cent. In both, suicides increased further in 2009,” he reported.

The examples of debt-crisis suicides in Greece and Britain have been replicated across the European Union, with Italy, where the state has imposed effective tax rises after many years of empty threats from Silvio Berlusconi, especially badly hit. The suicide rate for economic reasons has increased by 24.6 per cent between 2008 and 2010, it is reported, while attempted suicides have gone up 20 per cent in the same period.

In recent cases, a 78-year-old pensioner threw herself from her third-floor balcony in Gela, in the south of Sicily, blaming a pension cut from €800 to €600, while last Thursday a young construction worker from Morocco set himself on fire outside Verona’s town hall.

The international media’s slowness to notice and draw attention to the suicide epidemic reflects state power to present the crisis and its cure in their preferred fashion, but it has long been obvious to many that you cannot simply downsize a state whose rampant growth has been the obsession of half a century of government policy without consequences.

Mr Stuckler finds that suicide and attempted suicide rise in close conformity with economic hardship, with Greece and Ireland suffering the worst increase over the past three years, and with the loss of dignity and the sense of being the prey of newly empowered state agencies exacerbating the pain in Europe’s south.”

If we were to use Robert Merton’s strain theory to look at these, we would then find forms of retreatism in these suicides as people cope differently to the strain caused by anomic conditions where cultural goals have not changed but the legitimate means have become unattainable due to austerity policies being implemented in these countries.

In other cases, some try innovation:

“In the grimy dockland suburb of Alcantara, Lisbon, a heavy, grey frosted-glass door in an equally forbidding office block currently offers an entrance to what has become the new El Dorado for a growing sector of the Portuguese workforce: Angola.

For centuries, the former colony was as ruthlessly exploited by its European masters as any other in Africa. But today, with the Portuguese economy floundering, the boot is firmly on the other foot. For most of the past decade, Angola’s diamond-mining and oil-rich economy has grown by 10 per cent a year. With 7,000 Portuguese businesses already established there and clear linguistic, human and political links, too, when Angola started looking for a huge range of skilled workers from abroad to help rebuild the country, the old “mother nation” stood head and shoulders above the rest.

But for the recession-struck Portuguese to make it out there, there is only one legal path: head to Alcantara and that grim-looking door, behind which the Angolan consulate is currently processing Portuguese immigration papers at an average of more than 20,000 a year.

“It’s for one reason: in Portugal, the recession is here to stay, and that’s true for everybody,” says Ricardo Bordalo, a Portuguese journalist from the Lusa news agency. Based in Angola between 2008 and 2011, he watched the number of his compatriots there increase from 20,000 to 130,000. “In Angola, after the war, the country was completely destroyed, and they needed people there. And many thousands of Portuguese had already lived there before independence. There’s always been a special relationship between Portugal and Angola. Sometimes we hate each other, sometimes we love each other, and now it’s our turn to go there. But it’s not easy to get a visa: they make us suffer a little bit.”

(…)

Migration: Europe loses skilled workers as Indians return

Spain: The economic crisis is forcing 1,200 young Spaniards to emigrate to Argentina each month, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claimed last year. Around 30,000 Spaniards moved to Argentina between June 2009 and November 2010. Some 6,400 went to Chile and 6,800 headed for Uruguay.

Italy: The Italian economy has been at a virtual standstill since 2000 and around 600,000, often highly educated young Italians, have gone abroad in the past decade. Most have emigrated to North and South America. Many blamed Silvio Berlusconi for their country’s rising unemployment rates.

India: India’s rapidly growing economy has triggered a reverse migration of its diaspora previously settled in the UK and US, said a recent report. About 300,000 Indians employed overseas are expected to return to the country by 2015.”

That is indeed interesting. When developing countries were subjected to structural adjustment programs, the downward mobility that followed triggered emigration to wealthier countries. And now, we see the reverse: austerity (the Western equivalent of structural adjustment programs) triggers the same mechanism, but this time, emigration out of mainly Western countries to semi-peripheral or peripheral countries. It will be interesting to see how the recipient countries perceive these new immigrants and whether there is a significant impact to a potential brain drain.

Posted in Anomie, Collective Behavior, Migration, Social Theory, Sociology | 1 Comment »



One Response to “Suicide as Social Action – Putting Durkheim and Merton to Work”

  1.   enrico pozzi Says:

    4 remarks:

    1. publicly staged suicides may belong to the durkheimian category of altruist/heroic suicide (strong integration in a social group or subgroup). In some of the quoted examples, suicide is performed as an individual affirmative vindication of the plight of a subgroup: the we-group of the “victims of the crisis”. Suicide becomes a testimony, which is typical of heroic suicides.

    2. Should the Durkheim/Merton anomic framework apply, the social and media representation of those suicides, and of somewhat ‘normal’ suicide trends, has reframed them as altruistic/heroic. This is THE key point

    3. The David Stuckler’s articles you quote are in my opinion methodologically flawed, they ignore (or don’t quote) most relevant research on the elusive correlation between economic trends and suicidal behaviour, and they twist a key issue: the shifts in the balance between parasuicides (car fatalities, overdose deaths etc) and open suicides. In a nutshell, they use statistically weak evidence to oversimplify the complex issue of absolute vs relative deprivation in the relationship between economic crises and self-destructive behaviour.

    4. Other articles in the same journal (The Lancet) disputed rather convincingly the empirical evidence of Stuckler et al., for instance about Greece, and hinted at an even more contradictory correlation between effective welfare and suicide rates (Finland is a good example).

    In short, suicide as a social event exceeds simple interpretations. Caution is a must, even more so when some results match closely our political values and civil expectations.

    Reply

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