Suicide as Social Action – Putting Durkheim and Merton to Work

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.


“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.

Durkheim Would Have Predicted That One

Geez, who could have guessed?

Well, let’s see:

“But after two rescue packages worth ¤210bn, and belt-tightening that has seen the income of the average household drop by 50%, the appetite of Greeks for more measures is clearly running out.

Greece’s great economic crisis has been a gradual war of attrition. Massive job losses, tax increases and galloping inflation have sapped the nation’s energy and, increasingly, Greeks no longer believe what their politicians say. With cuts instead being blamed for slashing consumption, deepening recession and missing deficit-reducing goals, austerity is seen as a pointless exercise that far from exiting the country from crisis has exacerbated its plight.

On the street the view is hardening that the medicine prescribed to rescue Greece’s economy is simply not viable.

“The belt is now at the eighth notch, it’s become so tight there are only two more left, but nothing has improved,” said Georgios Valsamis, a young taxi driver who joined a barrage of strikes that brought public transport to a halt last week. “People in power, MPs, they’re like robots, they do whatever those foreigners [the EU, ECB and IMF] say. We are no longer willing to be a laboratory for failed policies. Low-income earners, those who have been really hit, can’t endure much more.”

That ordinary Greeks, among Europe’s lowest wage earners before the crisis erupted, are being stretched to breaking point is too obvious to ignore. When austerity was first introduced, after the newly elected socialist government discovered the budget deficit to be three times higher than the outgoing conservatives claimed, families took the blow by reining in spending and tucking into savings.

But for pensioners forced to survive on less than ¤500 a month and families hit by unemployment that has reached a record 16%, there is no more room for manoeuvre. The death of faith in the future is the biggest fear.

“The worst part is perhaps psychological because there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no source of hope,” said Dr Thanos Dokos who directs Eliamep, a thinktank in Athens. “When you make sacrifices and you know they will come to something you don’t mind. But that is not the case.”

With the economy set to contract for a fourth year in 2012, Greece is not only mired in a recession not seen since the second world war but has become increasingly unhinged by the crisis. Athens, already strained by a mass influx of immigrants and home to half of the country’s 11 million-strong population, has been the worst hit amid soaring crime and lawlessness.

A new underclass has appeared: in the homeless and hungry who roam the streets; in the spiralling number of drug addicts; in the psychiatric patients ejected from institutions that can no longer offer them a place; in the thousands of shop owners forced to close and board up businesses; in those who forage through municipal rubbish bins at night; and in the pensioners who make do with rejects at fruit and vegetable markets. Suicides have also risen, with help lines reporting a deluge of calls – 5,000 in the first eight months of 2011 compared with 2,500 for all of last year. The announcement this month of a flurry of new taxes, including a draconian duty on real estate, has come as a further shock.

With the prospect of austerity for years to come, a growing number of young Greeks are either returning to their rural roots or fleeing to countries that can offer them a job in what is described as the biggest emigration wave since the 1960s.

“The measures are the blood price Greeks have to pay so that countries like Germany can convince their own constituents they are being punished for years of reckless spending,” said Dokos. “The government’s failure to implement reforms has made the situation worse, but the measures are also counter-productive. The negative impact on the economy is higher than the cash-flow the country needs.”

With desperation has come a collective sense of guilt and depression – more dangerous, say analysts, than even the social tensions that threaten to tear the country apart.

And yet, regional and transnational institutions behave like medieval doctors, prescribing yet more bloodletting or more leeches, focused as they are on a few economic indicators and no obvious concern for the real-life effects of their failed policy prescriptions. And as the Greek society collapses, the witch doctors keep on going “more cuts! more cuts!”.

The state, having been hollowed of its policy-making functions by larger institutions, is now simply administering the toxic medicine to the patient even though it is clear that patient is not responding. As Atrios notes almost daily, we are governed by idiots who do not seem to know what they are doing and are therefore just following the familiar script of neoliberal prescription that they have been imposing on the developing countries. The results will be, surprisingly, the same: developing countries had their lost decade in the 1980s, Western countries are getting theirs now.

In addition, and that is a major ideological giveaway, all this is couched in moral terms: failing countries and their people are accused of sloth, and in need of puritan belt-tightening and lesson in humility and frugality.

In the meantime, “more shields!”:

At least Captain Picard had the good sense of trying something different when the usual prescription kept producing worse effects.

Social Disintegration – What Would Durkheim Say?

One of my very first blog posts was a review of Amy Chua’s Day of Empire. In the book, Chua argued that in all hyperpowers, increased ethnocentrism, xenophobia and racism are both a symptom of decline and a cause of it. As hyperpowers restrict their immigration policies and make life more difficult for immigrants (documented or not), they lose the human capital that comes with immigration. They also lose the good will of countries that send immigrants.Along with other factors, this is a sure sign and predictor of decline.

The flip side of this is the internal disintegration. In this post, over at Activist Post, the author lists the 10 signs that the US is becoming a third world country. I would no go that far (besides, I don’t like the “third world label) but the signs are all there and they do not point to increased economic, political, ideological or military power (to use Michael Mann’s typology). I’ll just give the list with my own comments when relevant, do go read the whole thing:

  1. Rising unemployment and poverty
  2. Economic dependence
  3. Declining civil rights
  4. Increased political corruption… I would add generalized legitimacy crisis
  5. Militarization of civil life... and a general militarization of foreign policy
  6. Failing infrastructure
  7. Disappearing middle class
  8. Devalued currency
  9. Media control
  10. Capital controls

It is easy to see:

“Call centre workers are becoming as cheap to hire in the US as they are in India, according to the head of the country’s largest business process outsourcing company.

High unemployment levels have driven down wages for some low-skilled outsourcing services in some parts of the US, particularly among the Hispanic population.

At the same time, wages in India’s outsourcing sector have risen by 10 per cent this year and senior outsourcing managers based in the country command salaries above global averages.

Pramod Bhasin, the chief executive of Genpact, said his company expected to treble its workforce in the US over the next two years, from about 1,500 employees now.

“We need to be very aware [of what’s available] as people [in the US] are open to working at home and working at lower salaries than they were used to,” said Mr Bhasin. “We can hire some seasoned executives with experience in the US for less money.”

The narrowing of the traditional cost advantage is also spurring other Indian outsourcers to hire more staff outside India.”

There is no doubt that all this points to social instability first (with the rise of anti- democratic, nativist and nationalist social movements) and social disintegration both physically (infrastructure) and socially: when you lose the middle class, an hour-glass-shaped stratification system is not stable and can only survive through intense repression, militarization (public and private, hence the increased use of private paramilitary groups).

This is institutionalized anomie accompanied with massive population control through the mechanisms of the surveillance society and the power of corporate media.

In this context, it is not surprising to see an increase in racism and xenophobia as minorities and immigrants always provide convenient scapegoats to deflect attention (and hostility) towards structural issues. So, let’s spend a enormous amount of time discussing some religious community center in a large city. Let us discuss immigration only in terms of criminality and militarization, and let us find a foreign enemy.

What one also sees is a rise in internal hostility towards loosely class-based categories: the poor, the unemployed, the uninsured sick, all re-defined in moral terms, lazy, shiftless, sinful (it is so easy to redefine sickness as reflection of moral impurity) in the context of strident religious fundamentalism. These movements get a lot of media play because they do not threaten the status quo. Movements who do tend to be shut out.

Moral Panics 2.0

A binge drinking death at an “apéros Facebook”, that is, a drinking event organized via Facebook, where thousands of people congregate, and out of the woodworks come the moral entrepreneurs, sounding the alarm as to what is happening to our kids these days and what should be done about these apéros géants. There is nothing new to such a script, it was the same invoked against rave parties back in the 1990s.

These kinds of moral panics come and go at regular intervals, triggered by dramatic, yet extremely rare events (such as the binge drinking deaths), and  promoted by dramatic and exaggerated re-dramatization of the (non)-events, ready for sensationalist media consumption. Lost in translation is rational analysis of these episodic phenomena.

Thankfully, Denis Colombi, over at Une Heure de Peine, does the analytical work. His starting point is simple: societies always stand at the ready to panic at the first sign of countercultural expression coming from teenage crowds who provide an easy and convenient targets for moral entrepreneurs, always on a variation of the theme of the socially deleterious effects of sex and drugs and rock-and-roll. Nothing new here.

Colombi also notes how easily the media fall into the trap of defining a single event as a sign of the times and  symptomatic and representative of the potential dangers of that new thing: the Internet with its weird new forms of sociability (in the same register, the moral panic of the omnipresence of sex predators online has already run its course). The young man died while participating in an online-organized event therefore, the Internet is to blame. The leaps in (il)logic are consternating.

Other meme that made a comeback: in our post-modern society (whatever the hell that means), the youth lack the clear socializing boundaries of the schools, the church or the factory. Lacking such boundaries result in anomic behavior to which the death can be attributed in retrospect, along with the lament that of the nihilism of young people today, as opposed to the previous generations that changed the world for the better, or so the cultural narrative goes (Colombi even takes a nice little shot at Maffesoli, which is always pleasant even if it’s shooting fish in a barrel).

It is interesting that so much pop history (which tends to be highly revisionist) is invoked (things used to be different) even though the cultural narratives are structurally the same, only the details change. At the same time, it is not surprising to see moral panics emerge relating to Internet phenomena (such as Facebook) although it remains to be seen whether organizing events on Facebook is fundamentally different from gluing flyers on lampposts.

The reactions to such non-events are more interesting and revealing for what they say about the media and moral entrepreneurs rather than the young man who died, whose individuality is quickly swept under the carpet to the benefit of pseudo-analytical pronouncements regarding an undefined category of people.

Morality And Capitalism – A Sociological Overview

The current issue of Social Europe Journal is devoted to the issues of capitalism and ethics, especially in the context of the current crisis and what it revealed about the nature of the global economic system. Sociologist Sam Whimster uses classic and modern classic social theorists to evaluate the relations between capitalism (early and contemporary) and morality.

There is no question that sociology’s founding fathers all addressed the issue of the connections between social structure, economic system and morality. As Whimster explains, Max Weber associated the rise of early capitalism with the Puritan ethic of self-denial and individualization along with social institutions where instrumental rationality prevailed. The moral result of this reorganization of society and economy was the disenchantment of the world along with the trappings of the iron cage of rationalized bureaucracy and productive processes.

Durkheim was even more explicit in factoring the importance of the moral into the social and the effects of economic transformations on the moral underpinning of society.

According to Whimster, However, this is no longer your grandfather’s capitalism:

For Durkheim, a moral community is a necessary counterbalance to the anomic tendencies of capitalism. However, the maintenance of this moral community often rely on the sanctioning of deviants whose behavior generate collective and solidarity-producing moral outrage. In the current context, there certainly has been moral outrage but no real sanctioning beyond a few individual cases:

Then, Whimster explains this “deviants without sanctions” phenomenon by bringing neo-Durkheimian Mary Douglas into the discussion, using her concept of grids (what we could consider the form of sociability in the network society) as opposed to tribe-like groups (much simpler, based on more mechanical solidarity, where deviant is severely sanctioned):

So, things went South when normative pressures were released on certain categories of people (traders, for instance, as mentioned in previous posts) who felt allowed to break norms without fear of sanctioning (the Enron traders were quite explicit about that). Indeed, Whimster also uses Daniel Bell’s argument that it was not organized labor that would be the downfall of capitalism (actually, organized labor has always been a disciplining force on the working class) but the professionals of the system (again, traders). The persistence of huge bonus distribution in bailed-out companies also illustrates this point.

If I were to extend and grossly simplify Whimster’s argument, I would contend that the grid people have won with a near complete looting of national treasuries across the OECD countries. At the same time, if one looks at the US situation, one would see that the tribe people are fighting among themselves, with the lunatic fringe of the far-right (duly manipulated and whipped into a frenzy by the grid people) pushing back against what, in the US, passes for social-democrats, that is, those who wish to reinject some morality into the workings of the economic system (in an oh-so careful fashion with minimal disturbance to the system itself as seems to be the MO of the Obama administration). Both groups are behaving in ways that tries to establish sanctioning against the groups they perceive to be deviating (or to have deviated).

What Would Durkheim Think – Corporate Suicide And Family Annihilation

I have blogged about econocides before and today, again,

This is highly reminiscent of the Enron suicide. Both involved the fear of investigation and potential loss of reputation and status and possible humiliation rather than individual economic downfall, as we have seen before. Also, these are also masculine suicides. As Pierre Maura notes, anomic conditions might indeed bring their "contingent of voluntary deaths":

Maura also points to this post by Claude Bordes that has a detailed overview of Durkheim’s Suicide. On anomic suicide, for instance,

Indeed, deregulation unleashed wild processes of enrichment with no social limitations. But once the social structure collapses, all of a sudden, all these anomic excesses are exposed. Exposure seems to be crucial factors in these corporate suicides.

On the other hand, in the case of family annihilation followed by suicides, it is the loss of agency and control and the perspective of loss of status that seem to be central, again, as part of a masculine conception of "what men should do."

What is especially interesting is that even though it is men / fathers who murder their families and then commit suicide, this patriarchal dimension is often evacuated. Indeed, look at the Context post "When do people turn to murder-suicide?" But it is not "people" turning to murder and suicide: it is rejected husbands and fathers. And as this post in Sociological Images notes, media report tend to shift blame onto the rejecting wives. To use only one examples of many such headlines,

In such cases, Robert Merton’s Strain Theory seems to apply better, with his redefinition of anomie.

"Merton was mainly concerned with American society, where he detected a universal cultural goal of material success, an unequal distribution of the acceptable means to reach such a goal, and consequent adoption of alternative, illegitimate solution. His interest was in the structural causes of non-conformist (deviant) behaviour." (Thompson, 120)

Hence, Merton’s classical typology of acceptance / rejection of goals and means.

Sociology – Robert Merton’s Social Strain Theory: Helpful in Criminology, Understanding Anomie and Deviance via kwout

But in a patriarchal society, success is not just measured materially but also in terms of social relationships. The common trait in these murders / suicides is the anomie generated by the loss of patriarchal standing (which may have been preceded, as in some cases, by domestic violence) and of the object of one’s dominance and control (wife and children). And since patriarchal families and conjugal relationships are perceived as the only possible form of intimate relationships, once that is seen as gone, the pattern is one of (1) regaining control in an illegitimate way (murder as innovation), but then, faced with societal consequences, (2) suicide as retreatism.

Anomic Murders / Suicides?

I usually don’t write about gun killings but this got my attention:

How much of this is related to the economy and crumbling social structure? To disgruntled men with guns who do not get their way or lose their status?

Like Digby writes,

But again, I don’t think it’s just about guns. Guns just makes it easier for these men to choose this course of action (killing others, usually people one does not like or holds responsible for whatever grievance the shooter has, and then, killing oneself) and carry it out. This attitude is even somewhat condoned and cheered on by the über-conservative talk radio circuit.

What Would Durkheim Say?

Econocides or anomic suicides?

It was also interesting to hear the AIG CEO tell Congress of his worries for the safety of his employees due to the level of hatred of which they are the target as AIG has become the symbol of the greedy corporation par excellence, and an illustration of Wall Street’s sociopathic behavior. Indeed

Wall Street

Social conditions are ripe for populist movements on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum but since the right is out of power, it is more likely to have a subversive and eliminationist component now expressed in pretty openly (see David Neiwert‘s work on this and also this).

Anomic social conditions can constitute dangerous times.

Anomie in The UK

Indeed, looks like social solidarity is down the tube:

How could this possibly happen? Deregulate… Drive policy as if there was "no such thing as a society… only individuals and their families"… slash and burn the social safety net:

Read that again: "Someone in Great Britain loses their home once every seven minutes ."

Let’s not forget that England went through a bloody class warfare and the working class lost as the supposed necessary prerequisite to "reforms" and "modernization of the economy". The implicit promise was that some suffering was necessary but in the end, everything would be fine once that economic upgrade was completed, prosperity would be shared. All that was required was the shedding of the heavily unionized economic sectors, privatization would bring greater efficiency and deregulation would bring creativity.

Now is the time to put that myth to rest once and for all.

London Calling!