Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, died nearly a hundred years ago, but his insights about society and culture seem more relevant now than ever. To understand why, it’s worth turning to the French intellectual’s groundbreaking empirical study Suicide (1897). Durkheim wanted to understand why people killed themselves. Why do some European societies, he wondered, have higher suicide rates than others? It’s an interesting question, one that he answered by looking at the relationship between suicide in men and variables like marriage, education levels, and religious orientation.
Here in the West, we take individualism and freedom to be foundational to the good life. But Durkheim’s research revealed a more complicated picture. He concluded that people kill themselves more when they are alienated from their communities and community institutions. “Men don’t thrive as rugged individualists making their mark on the frontier,” the University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out recently: “In fact, men seem to be much more likely to end up killing themselves if they don’t have traditional support systems.” Places where individualism is the supreme value; places where people are excessively self-sufficient; places that look a lot like twenty-first century America—individuals don’t flourish in these environments, but suicide does.... continue reading at The New Criterion.