Durkheim’s Theory on Suicide and the Modern Society

Durkheim’s Theory on Suicide and the Modern Society


Poverty, loneliness, losing one’s job, the death of a loved one, chronic illness or the breakdown of a marriage are some of the reasons why individuals fall prey to despair and heartbreak (Schneider, 2006). However many of us, thankfully, usually find a route out of unhappiness and at least come up with ways of overcoming it. Yet for some people, the experience of depression can be so intense that none of the remedies available for overcoming this feeling seem to work. All the assistance and remedies seem valueless and it seems the only way out is to end it all by taking one’s own life. Curiously though, some cultures and societies are more prone to suicide than others. A good example is South Korea where suicide is the fourth most common cause of death, with more than 40 citizens ending their own lives on a daily basis (Gunn, et al. 2014). For the last 8 years, suicide in the country has had the highest suicide rates within the industrialized countries and number two globally behind Guyana. Surprisingly, it is the main cause of death for its people aged between 10 and 30. The aim of this paper is to prove that Durkheim’s theory concerning suicide is applicable to South Korea and that other OECD countries fair well than South Korea when it comes to suicide cases. The choosing of South Korea is simply because as stated earlier, it is ranked second in self killing rates in the world, this is according to WHO and the OECD member state where it is the leading in self-killing rates (Schwartzman 2011). Therefore, this makes South Korea suitable for explaining suicide with regard to Durkheim. This paper will focus on the arguments of Durkheim on suicide, its four types and how they are ‘applicable’ in South Korea. The paper will also compare suicide in South Korea and other OECD countries, bringing out the reasons why South Korea has the highest rates compared to the other countries.

Self-killing is an occurrence that is quite well known in the society. During the 1890’s, Durkheim resolved to look at suicide and study it. He conducted his investigations scientifically so as to get to know the reasons behind people killing themselves (Schmaus 1994). From this, he argued that suicide is brought about by the social factors and not the personalities attributed to individuals as thought earlier (Gunn et al. 2014). The reason behind this argument was that the rates of suicide varied with time and place. In his study, there was no consideration of the emotional stress that led to suicide. He rather looked at the causes of the stress, where he found out that it evolved from the social factors.


Durkheim’s study dwelt on the concept explaining the structure of his suicide theory. This concept was based on the variations of the sociological suicide rates in the society. He came up with two types of variable i.e. integration and regulation and suicide, that were independent. According to Durkheim, when one of these variables is high or low, the rate of self-murder increases very often (Gunn et al. 2014, pg. 22). The reverse is true when the variables are moderate; the suicide rate becomes moderate too. The high and low points of each are known as altruism and egoism (integration), fatalism and anomic (regulation) (Schneider 2006). These variations are what led Durkheim to come up with the four causes of suicide in the society. Integration is used as a variable that refers to the value of content. It is viewed as the attachment to group morals. On the other hand, regulation is seen as referring to the social control strength. Although it has been hard for sociologists to give quite a better distinction between these two variables, it is argued that integration is fundamentally the social bond tying an individual to the society while regulation is tied to what regulates individuals’ desires.

Case selection

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development abbreviated as the OECD, comprises of 34 countries across the whole world. It was founded in 1961 with the main aim of stimulating economic development and trade. Moreover, these countries take part in many different activities, such as comparing their policy experiences, looking at common problems trying to generate solutions, and even co-coordinating both international and domestic policies for the members by looking at good practices. The OECD comprises of countries that are rich and prosperous. This is mainly in terms of economic statuses. Therefore, this brings to light that indeed South Korea is a rich country. But despite this, it has among the highest suicide rates in the world leading in the OECD. This is due to various reasons that relate to Durkheim’s views. It is clear that in South Korea, this applies a great deal just as discussed in the paper.

Among the OECD, South Korea is the country with the most competitive education system (Ranshida, et al. 2009). This is due to the high rates of competition in the job markets faced by South Korea. This causes stress to most of the students, thus due to lack of reaching the expectations they take their own lives, the fatalistic suicide (Kim 2014). Among the OECD, South Korea has also the highest rate of stressed individuals (Chan 2015). This comes about by the balancing in the work-life, healthy living and casual life. There is a lot of pressure and more time is needed in the works that people lack time for other activities. This has also led to individuals taking their own lives a fact that increases the suicide rates in the country. These stresses are caused by the cultural expectations of individuals in South Korea, the expectations of securing employment and high grades for students. Therefore, the fatalistic suicide from this is greatly tied to lack of cultural expectations that lead to one taking their own lives.

In the past, suicide was not a common thing in Korea as it was in neighboring Japan (Ranshida, et al. 2009). Suicide rates in South Korea started to gradually increase in the early 1990s. Because of the immediate effects of the financial crisis that rippled across the society in 1997–1998, it increased in 1998. When the nation’s economy started to recover, the rates subsequently dropped. However, in 2003, the peak that was observed at the time of the crisis was surpassed and it kept on climbing. Suicide rates again increased in 2009, suggesting a connection to the financial crisis that was experienced in 2008 globally (Schneider, 2006). In 2012, it slightly dropped back (the second drop since 2000). Suicide is a major cause of death in South Korea and this presents an important public health issue.

South Korea, people use more lethal methods and this is one of the reasons why it has the highest cases of suicidal deaths among the OECD countries (Ranshida, et al. 2009). Another factor is the socio-cultural elements that affect attitudes towards death and aging. The main reason why suicide deaths in Japan were overtaken by those in South Korea after 2000 is the increase suicide cases among the elderly people. South Korea was initially an agricultural society but it underwent drastic economic, cultural and social changes, including urbanization and industrial since the 60’s. South Korea is the only OECD that underwent such drastic changes and failed to adapt accordingly (Chan, et al. 2015). Other changes in the country’s society, accompanied by urbanization and industrialization include the shift to nuclear family from larger extended family and a trend to individualism to collectivism. These changes are signs of decreasing availability of households that take care of elderly relatives, rise in intergenerational frictions, and reduced status of elderly individuals in the family. However, the South Korean social welfare or healthcare system is not sufficiently prepared for the rising demand of elderly care which is not the case in the other OECD countries. As a result, as longevity increases, a lot of elderly people with various medical illnesses & poor social support tend to live longer and have very little earning potential and this increases the peril of suicide (Ranshida, et al. 2009). These older adults resolve to more lethal ways of suicide, since they are afraid of being burden on the family when they fail to commit suicide (for example, medical expenses for treatment and hospitalization, being disabled). Although similar changes were witnessed in Japan, and it also faces the same issues of population aging, it has a well-established social welfare program for the elderly and this supports them and it prevents an increase in suicides (Chan, et al. 2015).

Typically, suicide rates are separated by gender and age so as to provide a clear picture of the subgroups within the population that are at a higher risk. In the 10- 19, 20- 29, and 30- 39, suicide is the leading cause of death and it is second in the 40- 49 and 50-50 age groups. It is clear that suicide rates that are gender-standardised increases with age in South Korea. A lot of studies have tried to identify the specific risk factors that are associated with age. Suicide is the number one cause of death on South Korean youth, with significant raise observed in both sexes between 2001- 2009. Peer victimization, academic pressure, relationship problems, and internet addiction are some of the most prevalent risk elements reported (Schmaus, 1994). In the older people, studies focused on relationship between socio-demographic signs and suicide. Suicide has strongly been associated with low socioeconomic status with those who are not married and those living in the rural areas at most risk. Financial hardship, chronic ill-health, and the weakening support of extended family are some of the things that contribute to suicide in this age group (Gunn, et al. 2014). Another reason why South Korea stands out in OECD countries when it comes to suicide rates is because of the country’s strict cultural and societal norms. Typically, East Asian countries are shame societies where people have to keep up with the onus of developing and maintaining the facade of social standing. There is very little interaction between members of the society but a very strong presence of tacit approval is there among individuals. Consequently, rather than lightening the burden by social participation, it creates a lot of pressure on peoples mind. In South Korea there is the South Korea’s Real Culture of Shame and this is the reason why the country has a higher suicide rate than Japan which is also an Asian country (Gunn, et al. 2014). It has also been proven that the suicide deaths are so high because of the lethal methods used in South Korea.

The four types of suicide and how they apply in South Korea

The four types of suicides are all seen to be manifested in the South Korea society. Through the manifestations, Durkheim theory on suicide indicates that the theory currently applies to the modern society of South Korea. Furthermore, the types of suicide are based on the person committing suicide and the surrounding society. How they are prompted by the society’s occurrence rather than their own individual thoughts, they are all manifested by the society as discussed below.

Altruistic suicide

Altruistic is the type of suicide that is committed to those individuals who have a high level of solidarity with unusual social behavior. Its occurrence is always when there is a high degree of social integration by an individual. This means that one who commits this type of suicide may actively be involved in a group, which will lead them to even sacrifice their lives for the whole group’s benefits (Schmaus 1994). There are different types of occurrences of suicides to explain this type of suicide. Here the people who are affected are usually afraid to face life on their own or they believe that there death is a good sacrifice to their colleagues as is the case in military and they tend to think that the only way out for them is taking their own lives

The altruistic type of suicide is manifested in South Korea at a higher level than other societies. This is always seen mostly in the defense forces of the country. The army officers are always taken through one of the harshest training in the world. This makes them loose their sense of life thus they always end up not valuing their own lives with regard to the protection of the country. This makes them give their lives to death, which is mostly in times of wars. The army officers end up dying mostly during wars, not because they are killed with the adversaries but since they give themselves ready for deaths (Gunn et al. 2014). This, according to Durkheim is suicide.

Altruistic suicide is said to occur when one takes their lives to end the suffering they feel they have. This may be based on insufficient individualization (Schmaus 1994). This is where someone may take their own lives with the loss of their loved ones, for instance, the widows. Research has shown that South Korea leads in the OECD countries on the number of older women killing themselves (Chan et al. 2015). Men who have also grown old may also decide to take their own lives on grounds of ending their suffering. These types of suicides fall under the altruistic as they show people committing to a course which they feel is more than living in this world.

In South Korea, the cases of self-slaying on the old, widow and the soldiers have been on the rise (Chan et al. 2015). This is due to the factors stated above, basically, this group of people lacks the sufficient individualization. The lack of sufficient individualization as brought out by Durkheim causes one to commit suicide. The widows, who mostly are left with children behind by their dead husbands, have the thought of life being harsh and difficult to them. This results in them taking their own lives as they view this being better than to remain ‘suffering’ on earth.

The main reason behind this, Ranshida et al. (2009) claims is the state of dependence of their husbands for livelihoods. This means that with the death of the men the widows have no place to get their daily bread with the large numbers of the unemployed women. Therefore, they resolve to kill themselves as they feel that they cannot bare it to see their suffering as well as their kids. This is the altruistic suicide as brought out by Durkheim. Suicide among the over sixty-five years of age is the highest in South Kore than all the other OECD countries. This is according to Chan et al. (2015), the research done in the mid-1990s showed that the older especially the women died at a higher rate in South Korea than the other country, surpassing Japan which was the leading in self-killing rates by then.

Egoistic suicide

This is committed by the people who tend to have low levels of social bonds or rather less social ties. According to Schmaus (1994), he states that Durkheim claims that those people who are not fully bonded in the society than the rest tend to commit suicide at a higher rate. This was based on his studies on the married and non-married individuals, the Christians and non-Christians, with the comparison of the Catholic and the Protestants. The study of Durkheim showed that those people who were not bonded fully in the society, for example, the unmarried committed suicide at a higher rate than those bonded like the married. Egoism is when an individual becomes detached from the society and the consequence of this is weakening of the social fabric and when this occurs, ones goals substitute the society’s goals and they end up depending more on themselves and take away their loyalty from collective life (the most affected are the elderly and those with no religious affiliation).

The people who commit the egoistic suicide mostly often feel that they are neglected. A good example in South Korea is the elderly who live in the rural areas. Research shows that most of the elderly in the rural areas commit suicide and that is why its rates in South Korea are very high (Chan et al. 2015). Though they do this for various different reasons, one of the main reasons for this is because they feel neglected. This is as a result of the poor economic status of the rural areas. Therefore, the elderly feels they are not being considered in the societies and ends up killing themselves. South Korea has one of the least developed rural areas among the OECD states. This, according to Ranshida et al (2009), makes cases of suicide in South Korea’s rural areas more than the rest of the OECD states.

It is clear from research that South Korea is a country that has no major religion. Most of the world known and accepted religions are all available in South Korea. The most recent research has proven that 46% of the people in South Korea have no religious affiliation. The rest are divided in the other religions 29% being Christians while 23% Buddhists. This clearly shows why the suicide rates in South Korea are at a significantly high level. Most of the people who end up killing themselves are mostly not from any of the religions who are the majority with the 46% in South Korea (Ranshida et al. 2009). South Korea, among the OECD states, is the country with the highest percentage of the atheists.

According to Durkheim’s theory of suicide, it is clear that under egoistic suicide, lack of social bonds is what always causes people to end up killing themselves, as they have no close acquaintances to care for. In this from the examples given are those with no religious affiliation. As put by Ranshida et al. (2009), most of those who commit suicide in South Korea are those who never have any religious affiliation. According to Durkheim in the Egoistic Suicide, the cause is always based on the degree of social, religious or political integration (Gunn et al. 2014). It is also clear that in the 29% Christian, there is also a good percentage of the Protestants. These are also involved in great numbers of self-murder according to Durkheim. This is because the religious ties that they always share at times may not be strong enough compared to those of the Catholics.

Anomic suicide

This is the type of suicide committed when one has an extremely low degree of regulation. This may be for example in times of great stress or even changes. This makes people be in a kind of confusion that leads them to decide that the only way out is taking away their own lives (Schneider 2006). This kind of self-murder is common to people who think that their world has crashed and they have no other way out. Therefore, instead of living, they would rather die to evade these challenges. This kind of self-killing is normally related to the dramatic change of the social or even economic lifestyle. Social norms govern the motivations and objectives of people therefore limiting their (potentially endless) aspiration and Durkheim is of the view that the discrepancy between ones aspiration and how to attain them causes frustration, disappointment, and eventually feelings of despair and failure.       The highest rates of deaths in South Korea have been registered by the Anomic suicide. This is with regard to the economic changes that have recently taken place in South Korea. This led people to resolve in taking their own lives as they could not bear to live the kinds of life they were subjected to. During the late 20th Century, the South Korea has suffered a lot as they had the International Monetary Fund Crisis. Schwartzman (2011) claimed that the financial crisis in South Korea led to the closure of the most of the big banks, industries and companies. This was due to the bailout package for South Korea from the IMF.

The closure of the banks, companies and industries means that most of the people loosed their jobs during this time in South Korea. Apart from just losing jobs, there was no hope for living in most of the people. This was when the death rates in South Korea raised to very high rates. This is classified under the anomic type of suicide by Durkheim. This is the economic change as losing a job with no any thought or hopes of getting one from another place is automatically change in the economic status. Chan et al. (2015) say that most of the families had to lose their members during this time. This was due to the stress brought about by the loss of jobs.

It is clear in this kind of suicide that when the status of one drops mostly the economic status, they become stressed up on how they will survive thus end up resolving to die. Kim (2014) claims that stress is one of the major causes of self-slaughter in South Korea. From this, it is clear that many people were stressed by the occurrence of the IMF. This was due to the loss of their jobs and hope for life. Therefore, according to Durkheim’s theory of suicide, these people ended up resolving to their own deaths as they felt it being quite better than to live in a world with no hopes of the future.

After the financial collapse that was experienced in South Korea, the suicide rates increased significantly. This was from the rates of 47.1% to 62.4% (Schwartzman 2014). These rates were not only just from the trauma caused by the financial crisis but also from other different reasons. These are seen to be closely related to the financial crisis and on top of all, they are also under the Anomic suicide. Although they mostly revolve on the losing of hope by individuals at different levels of life, some people even lacked food thus decided to kill themselves so as to be free from the suffering (Chan et al. 2015). The financial crisis in South Korea during this time was the harshest in the world thus rise of stress and suicide in the country.

Fatalistic Suicide

Fatalistic suicide is where people take away their lives when they are living under tight regulations. It involves when they do not have good choices to make thus resolving to taking their own lives. There are many people who are liable to committing fatalistic suicide. These may include those who are in hospitals with a terminal illness, long term jailed in prisons and even students (Gunn et al. 2014). These groups of people may also include students in South Korea who lead in suicide cases (Ranshida et al. 2009). In South Korea, fatal suicide is mainly caused by the high pressure that students are usually subjected to by their parents and teachers to obtain high grades because of the competitive nature of the country’s job market and the fact that many people who are seriously sick resolve to ending their own lives so as to stop their agony.

In South Korea, there is a very high competition in the educational sector as compared to the rest of the world. The job market is very competitive therefore the need of having to pass highly in school so as to acquire jobs. This has basically led to the raise in pressure to students in schools since they have to pass highly from schools. Parents tend to be very nagging thus giving their children pressure so as they can work hard to acquire good grades. Ranshida et al. (2009) approve this as a cause for the rise in suicide rates in South Korea.

The reason for self-murder by these students is that most of their grades are not satisfying with accordance to the pressure they are subdued to. This is because teachers and parents seem not to be satisfied by what the students acquire in schools. This basically stresses the children as most of them always think what they are the worst in the society. The College Scholastic Ability Test is also among the stress caused for the students. It is claimed that the children aged 10-19 die due to suicide from the imposed stress and pressure on them as they are expected to succeed highly (Ranshida et al. 2009).

It has also been clear that many people take their lives in hospitals due to some terminal illness. In South Korea, people have killed themselves in hospitals as they feel that death is better than their current conditions. These illnesses include cancer, which when at a higher level has no treatment. Chan et al. (2015) claim that these people have a feeling that they have no reason to stay on this earth awaiting their death. Therefore, they take away their own lives to get rest as they claim, according to Kim (2014), living has been harsh than they can endure. Therefore, this has led to the fatalistic suicide in the South Korea.


In conclusion, it is evident that the Durkheim’s theory concerning suicide is applicable to South Korea and that other OECD countries are way much better than South Korea when it comes to suicide deaths. It is clear that the increase in the use of lethal suicide ways and the South Korea’s Real Culture of Shame have added to the increase in suicide rates among the country’s people particularly the elderly adults a fact that has made the country to have the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries. Targeted efforts to lower the accessibility to lethal suicide ways and social acceptability might result to reduced suicide rate among the elderly individuals in South Korea. There has been a consideration of the four types of suicide which are the altruistic, egoistic, anomic, and fatalistic suicides. The paper has explained these types of suicides according to Durkheim with reference to South Korea as one of the countries with the highest rates of suicides. He posited that integration and regulation which are social conditions determine the suicide rate at a given society at a particular time. Social integration is the bonds that attach a given society. Religion, family and polity are the social institutions that Durkheim used to analyze the impacts of integration on suicide. He argued that family offers the protection against suicidal thoughts because of the many and strong social bonds as it were the case in South Korea during problems in twentieth century. He also used social regulation which is moderation of peoples’ aspirations by social norms. In South Korea, the realization of social status is s greatly ingrained cultural goal that dates back to the Confucian past of the nation and this explains why there are high suicide rates in the country. The suicide theory of Durkheim is a powerful conceptual tool of shedding more light on the main causes of suicide. His theoretical framework is important in explaining the high suicide rates in South Korea. Embracing a sociological perspective to suicide makes it possible to gain more insight into the underlying causes and this will enable us to come up with a more effective strategy of dealing with the issue at its core. This has brought to light that Durkheim’s arguments on suicide are applicable in modern life as they are all seen in South Korea. There has also been a consideration of the OECD countries where South Korea has the highest rates of suicide. The paper has brought to light the Durkheim’s argument on suicide are applicable to the modern world as proved by the case study of South Korea.


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