Durkheim’s Four Types of Suicide

Emile Durkheim applied the scientific method to a study of suicide in the United States. Using this objective approach he separated all suicides into one of four categories: altruistic, egoistic, anomic, and fatalistic.

Durkheim defined suicides that were done for the cause of a group (i.e. cult or resistance movement) as altruistic suicides. These individuals are so integrated into the group that they view their own lives as less important than the welfare of the group. Egoistic suicide is the extreme opposite of altruistic suicide. These are the people that are lacking in any sort of group identity or the support that this would give them. Seeing no way to make it through life alone, they take their own lives. Anomic suicides are suicides that result from a lack of stability. Extreme circumstances make life unpredictable and society no longer gives meaning to their lives. Fatalistic suicides are committed because there is too much regulation or stability. Feeling trapped in an unchanging ordered existence, some see no point in living.

While Durkheim’s conclusion is very logical and intuitive, I think that his quantitative methods are a little too removed to form accurate theories about the motivations behind all suicides. I think that a more personal approach (i.e. interviewing) would lead to more accurate detailed findings. However the nature of the subject in question presents a huge obstacle to this method. If someone is alive then one cannot be sure if they are just depressed or if they are really going to commit suicide (not to mention any ethical obligation to try and help someone considering taking their own life) and if someone has committed suicide they obviously can’t be interviewed. In my limited experience with friends and loved ones who have seriously considered suicide I cannot say that I could classify their motivation (as far as I could tell) in any of Durkheim’s aforementioned categories. I suppose my greatest objection to his conclusion is that it is a rather callous approach to this subject and I do not see any value in trying to separate those that have taken their lives into four generalized groups.

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Huntington and “The Hispanic Challenge”

In his article, “The Hispanic Challenge”, Samuel Huntington, Chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, asserts that America’s identity is threatened by the unprecedented influx of Hispanic immigrants. “In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives” (Huntington 2004).

A comparative graph from Huntington's article showing the dramatic increase in Hispanic immigration within the past several decades.

Huntington draws some important distinctions between immigration as it has been historically for America and the new wave of Hispanic immigration. “The experience and lessons of past immigration have little relevance to understanding [Hispanic immigration’s] dynamics and consequences” (Huntington 2004). He essentially argues that Hispanic immigrants do no assimilate into American culture as other immigrants have. They retain their own cultural values, practices, and language above those of this nation. This development of a sort of sub-culture is made all the more possible [and to some threatening] by their numbers. This phenomenon concerns Huntington because he believes that by clinging to their own cultural values they threaten American culture as we know it. He states that Hispanics’ “mistrust of people outside the family; lack of initiative, self-reliance, and ambition; little use for education; and acceptance of poverty as a virtue necessary for entrance into heaven” (2004) are all in conflict with American values. Huntington boldly concludes that, “There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” (2004).

References

Huntington, Samuel P. 2004. “The Hispanic Challenge.” Foreign Policy. Retrieved May 15, 2011 (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2004/03/01/the_hispanic_challenge).


Reputation vs. Reality

Sociologist William J. Chambliss made some rather convicting and compelling discoveries about the disparity between social reputation and behavior in his case study of the two Hanibal High School gangs: the Saints and the Roughnecks. Essentially Chambliss’ findings were as follows. The Saints were a gang that came from wealthier families and were involved in many extracurricular activities. The Roughnecks came from the other end of the economic spectrum. Sports were the extent of their extracurricular involvement. Both gangs showed comparable levels of delinquent behavior. However since the Saints had money and means of transportation they were able to largely remove themselves from public view. The Roughnecks on the other hand had little choice but to congregate in the center of town in plain view of the general public. Also the Saints were very good at impression management at school and in the community. They knew what to say to authority figures to make them think that they were really good upstanding young men. The Roughnecks either lacked the desire or social skill (perhaps both) necessary to manage their reputations as the Saints did.

The reputations of these two gangs seemed to be the deciding factor in how they were treated by the community. Teachers and Police Officers alike were inclined to give the Saints the benefit of the doubt while they expected failure and misconduct from the Roughnecks.

After high school the members of the two gangs for the most part lived up to the expectations of the community. All but one of the Saints graduated and went on to higher education. Many later practiced law or medicine and grew wealthy. Some of the Roughnecks graduated high school and only a few went on to higher education (mainly due to athletic scholarships). They found low paying jobs in the work world and a few even went to prison for violent crimes.

Such findings compel us to wonder how much of our life’s course is determined by our reputations and what is consequently expected of us. As social beings does something compel us to fill the roles that others say we are slated for? If the Roughnecks had been treated with the same leniency and if the community had assumed the best of them, would they have gone on to be more successful in life or were their fates predetermined to a certain degree by their economic status?

References

Chambliss, William. 1973. “The Saints and the Roughnecks”. Pp.180-194 in Down to earth sociology. J.M. Henslin (Ed.). New York: The Free Press/Macmillan.


Falsifiability, the Mark of True Science

Karl Popper, respected scientific philosopher.

In his work Science: Conjectures and Refutations, renowned scientific philosopher Karl Popper lays down a standard for distinguishing science from pseudo-science. This standard he calls testability or falsifiability. In Popper’s own words, “Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it” (1963). In essence Popper writes that if it can’t be proven wrong or if there is no way to test if it is right, then it is not a scientific endeavor. Within science, the more falsifiable a theory, the stronger it is. “Some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks” (Popper 1963).

When we think of scientific inquiry and experimentation we usually think of the traditional life or physical sciences. This standard of what is true science equally applies to the field of sociology however. Sociologists use the scientific method. A hypothesis or conjecture is made based upon preliminary observation. A study or experiment is conducted to test the hypothesis. The only difference with sociology is that these hypotheses result in theories about social behaviors and cultural mores.

References

Popper, Karl. 1963. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge New York: Harper Torchbooks.


Ethnocentrism and “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”

Horace Miner’s somewhat satirical piece “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” is an entertaining social commentary about ethnocentrism.  Miner ambiguously details American cultural practices (particularly those pertaining to cosmetics and hygiene) as one would expect to hear the practices of a technologically primitive, tribal society. By evoking this mode of thinking, Miner attempts to make us unwittingly use our cultural prejudices against our own societal mores. Ultimately I believe Miner hoped to help his readers realize that, just like every other culture, Americans have plenty of cultural practices that when viewed objectively appear highly illogical and even ridiculous. Upon reaching this revelation, it follows that we should view the mores of other cultures with a renewed objectivity and understanding.

One the valued cultural practices Miner helps us see objectively is tooth brushing.

However, I believe it is foolish to think that we can ever completely purge ourselves of all cultural biases or ethnocentricity. Each of us will always look at life through the lens of his or her own worldview. Perhaps this is a truth that Miner wanted us to realize about ourselves. This does create a dilemma for those who conduct scholarly research or scientific pursuits. On the one hand they are [in theory] responsible to present their findings without injecting their own opinions and biases, but on the other hand this is a wholly unrealistic expectation. Try as they might, they will see things through the lens of their particular worldview and any presuppositions that go along with it. If it is impossible to be perfectly impartial would it not be more ethical to abandon all pretensions of impartiality so as to not deceive others, to avoid the risk of masquerading our own opinions as fact?

References

Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” American Anthropologist 58: 503-507.


What Motivates Us?

This post is a response to the RSA Animate – “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” adapted from acclaimed author Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA. The original video can be seen here

Upon hearing Pink’s opening comment in which he challenges the two conventional types of motivational forces, reward and punishment, I already began to get skeptical. But as I continued to listen, I found his assertions to be well supported.

Pink gives the example of a study done at MIT. Essentially there were three levels of monetary rewards (small, moderate, and large) offered for different tasks. It was found that as long as the task was mindless and did not required the participants to use even rudimentary cognitive skills then the performance was proportionate to the reward. However, when the task required cognitive skill or creativity the quality of performance was inversely related to the size of the reward.  The study was also duplicated in India only with an even greater rewards scale and the results were very similar. While these results seem less than intuitive, it’s hard to argue with repeated findings.

Pink goes on to suggest three factors that have been proven to yield better performance: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is the ability to direct yourself and choose your own goals. It makes sense that internal motivation and drive would yield greater results that external or imposed motivation. Pink refers to the desire for self-improvement and the drive to hone one’s skills as mastery. Any sort of recreational artist is a prime example of how mastery as a motivational force. Purpose is largely self-explanatory. If you see no value or lasting meaning in your work you simply won’t be motivated to put forth your best effort.

Upon considering Pink’s argument and impressive examples like Linux and Firefox, I started to identify these same motivating factors in my own life. As an artist myself, I fully understand the motivational power of mastery. I have spent many a late night slaving over artwork trying desperately to attain that level of perfection or mastery I desired. Often times the artwork I am most motivated to complete is totally extracurricular or part of a project that does not call for the amount of effort I pour into it.

I have also observed the converse to be true in my own life. There have been times when I have been inspired by an idea, but somewhere along the way the motivation to complete the project is externalized and I subconsciously disown the idea and lose all motivation.

I see Pink findings on human motivation as fascinating and cause for an optimistic view of human potential. In what ways could we better harness these powerful motivational forces in work or school? Perhaps many of the current business and education models should be evaluated through the lens of motivation.


Video Games and the Sociology of Anonymity

This image captures the kind of emotions that online gamers express when they "talk trash".

With the continued rise in popularity of online gaming, it is relevant to ask how this new technological phenomenon affects social interaction. Online gaming interactions give a great deal of anonymity to those involved.

Seinkuehler and Williams (both associate professors and published authors in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication) have researched the interactions of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gamers and made many valuable observations (Their research can be found here).  They write that, “In online worlds, interaction is mediated by the virtual avatars of the individuals who inhabit them. These avatars bear no discernable relationship to one’s offline identity, unless one chooses to render one’s own character so identifiable, for example, by using one’s given name instead of a pseudonym (a rare practice) or sharing personal information about one’s offline personae with others within the game. This anonymity provides a safe haven beyond the reach of work and home that allows individuals to engage with others socially without entangling obligations and repercussions…” (2006).

Steinkuehler and Williams believe these attributes of MMOs make them a virtual “third place” or casual social forum where people ignore their differences of status and life circumstances to relax and socialize (another example of a “third place” would be a bar). However, this level of anonymity and lack of repercussions can also facilitate much more negative social behavior.

It has been my experience playing multiplayer online games that the vast majority of gamers that choose to communicate with other players with whom they are not acquainted will by default be hostile, vulgar, and offensive. Such negative social behavior is seldom warranted by any stretch of the imagination. I have observed players putting down their own teammates in games for reasons altogether trivial and immaterial. I have even observed some of my acquaintances “talking trash” (in other words insulting others with liberal usage of profanity) recreationally. Their decision to “trash talk” had nothing to do with the conduct of the other players, but stemmed solely from a desire to put others down.

Does this sort of behavior translate into offline interactions with strangers? Do these same gamers “talk trash” to the person waiting in line ahead of them at a fast food restaurant or the person filling up at the same gas station? While it would not be inconceivable, it would at least be highly implausible that they would carry the same arbitrary hostility with them in their day-to-day offline lives. What then makes their online interactions so categorically different? It is the anonymity that facilitates this kind of behavior. As Steinkuehler and Williams put it, online interactions are “without entangling obligations and repercussions” (2006).

I think the way in which anonymity encourages this kind of social behavior is two-fold. “The interaction is mediated by the virtual avatars of individuals” (Steinkuehler, Williams 2006). In other words the player is distanced from the interaction and thus protected from any reprisals or consequences beyond the same sort of verbal abuse they are inflicting. While that guy in the fast food line or at the pump could identify you to an authority figure or potentially threaten your physical well-being, there is no danger of such reprisals or repercussions with online gaming. Similarly, I believe another contributing factor is that the other player, or shall we say the victim of the verbal abuse, is distanced and perhaps even depersonalized by this communication medium. To the “trash talker” they’re just a voice and a screen name or gamer tag. The effect is similar to what happens in driving. People forget the mutual humanity of the other drivers and instead see them as cars (another sort of avatar) or at best acknowledge only their gender and/or age. Online video game communication is certainly not the only new form of interaction that allows for such anonymity. Similar patterns of behavior are to be found all over the internet. From forums to social networks to even YouTube, similar unwarranted verbal hostility is easy to find.

What then does all this mean? Do these social behaviors give us insight into human nature or is this a recent phenomenon brought about by technological innovation? If this same technology had been present at a different time or place in history would it have resulted in the same patterns of social behavior or are our modern cultural values to blame? Any answers to these questions would be largely speculation and conjecture, but I believe they are still worth pondering.

References

Steinkuehler, C. A. and Dmitri Williams. 2006. “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places’.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11: 885–909. Retrieved April 30, 2011 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00300.x/full).