Official suicide statistics are the result of deaths that have been judged by a coroner’s court to have resulted from someone deliberately taking their own life. The problem is that the cause and intention of death are not always clear-cut. As noted below, coroners operate according to ‘indicators’ and are also sensitive to the feelings of the dead person’s family. Therefore, they tend to side with caution and if they are in some doubt that it might not be a genuine suicide, they will declare the death an ‘accident’ or ‘open verdict’. Critics of statistics conclude that official statistics are therefore little more than a subjective judgement and tell us nothing of the real level of suicide.
This introduction is focused clearly on the question and unpacks the nature of recording suicide and how this is essentially a judgement by coroners and their courts. Note the evaluative tone of the last sentence, introducing AO2 content into the introduction.
The most famous embracement of official suicide statistics was Durkheim’s statistical analysis of suicide based on government records and death certificates. From the statistics he was able to identify some clear patterns between the suicide rates of countries and groups in those countries associated with factors like religion, family size, work and marriage. However, some sociologists have criticised Durkheim’s approach because he cannot say which individuals in any of his categories will be the ones to commit suicide. The specific meanings that lie behind suicide can be lost in quantitative data. For example, if statistics show that suicide rates are higher in affluent areas, this does not mean that wealthy people are more likely to commit suicide; it could be poor people in wealthy areas who are taking their lives because they feel relatively deprived. However, the main criticism about Durkheim’s approach comes from interpretive sociologists who challenge the basic principles of his statistical approach rather than quibbling about details.
Defence of the use of official statistics will inevitably include reference to the work of Durkheim. Note, given the nature of the question, there is little need to cover his ideas in detail, and the bulk of this paragraph on Durkheim is actually evaluative criticism.
Interpretive sociologists question Durkheim’s uncritical use of suicide statistics for failing to address issues like the huge discrepancy between the high number of those who attempt suicide and the relatively small number who succeed. In addition, the very nature of interpretive sociology is to question the reliability and validity of official suicide statistics. For example, Jack Douglas questions the accuracy of official statistics on suicide, claiming that they underestimate the real level. He argues that comparisons between countries are not viable due to the different data-collection procedures. He also points out the systematic biases that exist due to the differing interpretations of coroners. However, Steve Taylor has criticised Douglas for being inconsistent. He implies that suicide statistics can never be reliable, yet concedes that causes of suicide might possibly be found in the future.
Further criticism of Durkheim’s unquestioning acceptance of official statistics on suicide is included in this paragraph, along with the critical work of interactionist Jack Douglas. This, in turn, is followed by evaluation from Taylor.
The French interpretive sociologist Jean Baechler made extensive use of case studies of suicide, discounting the idea that they could be explained in terms of external factors. His argument is that, regardless of which external factor is considered (religion, urban living, bereavement etc.), far more people choose not to commit suicide than the few who do. He argues that suicide can only be really understood by exploring the meanings that lie behind the statistics. However, official statistics can give an indication of patterns and trends associated with suicide.
There is further critical content using official statistics here, this time using the work and ideas of French sociologist Jean Baechler, but note some positive evaluation of official statistics in the final sentence.
J. Maxwell Atkinson, as an ethnomethodologist, totally rejects the value of any official statistics. As a consequence, he challenges the notion that there could ever be an objectively measured ‘true’ rate of suicide. Suicide statistics, he argues, are only the interpretations of coroners of deaths submitted to them because they are unusual. Therefore suicide rates are simply a social construction determined by how deaths get reported and categorised as suicide. From an observational study of coroners, Atkinson concluded that their role necessitates adopting a common-sense approach to suicide whereby if information surrounding a death fits the theory, then it tends to be classified as a suicide. They use a range of ‘cues’ such as location, state of mind, recent bereavement etc. These ‘cues’ point coroners towards or against suicide.
The work of Atkinson is important in responding to the question. Atkinson is critical of the way coroners come to conclusions about suicide, claiming (as an ethnomethodologist) that an official statistic is nothing more than a social construction.
Besides official suicide statistics being a social construct, they are inevitably inaccurate because of the methods of recording them. Given that the only deaths referred to coroners in the first place are those considered sudden or unexpected, it follows that many suicides that appear to be accidents may not be referred in the first place. In addition, it follows that practical constraints, such as time and workload, will also have an impact on a coroner’s decisions. For example, the number and quality of post-mortems depends on access to the resources and technology in pathology. It follows therefore that over time, improvements in technology (especially in toxicology) will inevitably increase the classification of death as suicide. However, if suicide statistics are simply the common-sense interpretations of coroners, then it follows that the view of J. Maxwell Atkinson is also little more than a personal interpretation.
This paragraph considers some of the practical problems with the generation of suicide statistics.
Recent studies of suicide have endeavoured to move beyond this positivism versus interpretive debate: for example, Steve Taylor’s realist approach, based not on statistical evidence but on attempts to discover underlying, unobservable structures and causal processes. Looking at data from attempters and completers, he argues that it is impossible to classify suicidal acts as either ‘serious’ (genuine) or ‘cries for help’ (false) as the majority of them fall somewhere between these extremes. From his study of deaths on the London Underground, he concluded that suicidal behaviour is about ‘risk’ and ‘trial by ordeal’ and as a consequence most suicides are parasuicidal. Like Atkinson’s ‘cues’, Taylor believes that specific factors seem to influence verdicts of suicide and that this distorts the accuracy of official suicide statistics. However, unlike Atkinson, he does not believe that such problems make it impossible to explain suicide.
The work and ideas of Taylor are considered here. He studied the deaths of people who were seen to jump in front of London Underground trains. Taylor’s realist approach is a useful contribution to the debate and examiners will reward this paragraph. The last point makes an interesting and evaluative comparison between Taylor and Atkinson.
Taylor has made an important contribution by attempting to understand the motives for suicidal behaviour. He shows that behind the statistics there are people who want to kill themselves, while for others it is a cry for help. However, his theory is hard to test and falls foul of the interactionist criticism that the motives for suicides can be interpreted in different ways.
This is a short paragraph, but it justifies and explains further Taylor’s contribution, and ends with an evaluative point.
In conclusion, the positivistic acceptance of official suicide statistics at face value has been shown by interpretive sociologists to be naïve and flawed. However, only an approach that attempts to cut through the positivism versus interpretive debate by seeing all suicides as parasuicidal (neither ‘genuine’ nor ‘false’) can add meaning to our understanding of suicidal behaviour. Given that most suicidal behaviour is parasuicidal, any concentration on deaths seems to be missing the point.
This conclusion refers explicitly back to the question.
Section B Theory and methods in context
Topic 1 Quantitative and qualitative methods of research
1 A qualitative approach is associated with an interpretive or phenomenological approach centred on researching individuals to try to make sense of the meanings that drive their behaviour, and then using this analysis to understand how society operates. The qualitative approach is usually viewed as successful in collecting data that are high in validity. However, positivists view it as subjective and low in reliability.
2 The interpretive approach is also sometimes called phenomenology and is associated with Alfred Schultz, although its origins lie with the work and ideas of Max Weber. It involves adopting a people-centred approach that attempts to understand the meanings that lie behind people’s actions.
3 Ethnography literally means the study of people. It is used to describe any in-depth observational study of a group of people, such as Sharp and Atherton’s study of ethnic minorities and their experiences of the police. It is therefore often used in A-level sociology synonymously with observation studies. Strictly speaking it refers to the anthropological study of the daily lives and experiences of small groups.
4 Rapport refers to the close relationship and trust that can build up between a researcher and respondent, typically in the context of an interview. The formality normally associated with strangers can inhibit the volunteering of information. By breaking down these barriers and building up a relaxed relationship, it is hoped that more honest, and hence valid, information can be obtained.
5 Unstructured interviews and observation. Note that semi-structured interviews can also be used to collect qualitative data, as can questionnaires with open questions.
6 A quantitative approach is associated with the collection of facts, usually statistical in form, favoured by positivist sociologists. The quantitative approach studies the relationships between different groups of facts to find correlations or the ultimate goal, cause-and-effect relationships. The quantitative approach often results in patterns becoming translated into generalisations about the behaviour and attitudes of wider society.
7 Unstructured interviews and observation are not suitable for the quantitative approach as they are more appropriate to the study of small groups and the collection of qualitative data. Both methods are time-consuming, which would also be a barrier to researching large groups.
8 Experiments are rarely used as a method in sociology because of the practical and ethical problems that are found when applied to sociological research. It is impossible for sociologists to isolate all but one variable, which is the favoured approach of natural scientists when undertaking experiments. Human beings know they are being researched on in laboratories so they rarely behave naturally. On the rare occasions when experiments do occur, they are normally undertaken ‘in the field’.
9 Snowball sampling is frequently used in the research of criminal and deviant groups, such as criminal gangs, illegal drug-users, paedophiles etc. when it is difficult to find a sample. By making contact with one member of the group, the researcher gains an introduction to others. Some violent or deviant groups may mistrust the anonymity and be reluctant to take part. Small sample sizes raise the issue of representativeness.
10 Semi-structured interviews allow researchers to collect both quantitative and qualitative data through the structured and unstructured parts of the interview. These quantitative data can be correlated and compared and analysed to show any possible trends or patterns. This aspect of the method therefore produces data that are reliable in that the findings can be replicated. In contrast, the qualitative data, obtained from the follow-up questions, increase the validity of the findings as people express their emotions and feelings. Therefore, as a method, semi-structured interviews allow some sort of rapport to be built between respondent and researcher that will encourage the respondent to open up and produce valid data of high quality.