The social roots of suicide: Theorizing how the external social world matters to suicide and suicide prevention
Mueller, A.S., Abutyn, S., Pescosolido, B., & Diefendorf, S.
The past 20 years have seen dramatic rises in suicide rates in the United States and other countries around the world. These trends have been identified as a public health crisis in urgent need of new solutions and have spurred significant research efforts to improve our understanding of suicide and strategies to prevent it. Unfortunately, despite making significant contributions to the founding of suicidology – through Emile Durkheim’s classic Suicide (1897/1951) – sociology’s role has been less prominent in contemporary efforts to address these tragic trends, though as we will show, sociological theories offer great promise for advancing our understanding of suicide and improving the efficacy of suicide prevention. Here, we review sociological theory and empirical research on suicide. We begin where all sociologists must: with Durkheim. However, we offer a more comprehensive understanding of Durkheim’s insights into suicide than the prior reviews provided by those in other disciplines. In so doing, we reveal the nuance and richness of Durkheim’s insights that have been largely lost in modern suicidology, despite being foundational to all sociological theories of suicide – even those that have moved beyond his model. We proceed to discuss broadly acknowledged limitations to Durkheim’s theory of suicide and review how more recent theoretical efforts have not only addressed those concerns, but have done so by bringing a larger swatch of sociology’s theoretical and empirical toolkit to bare on suicide. Specifically, we review how recent sociological theories of suicide have incorporated insights from social network theories, cultural sociology, sociology of emotions, and sociological social psychology to better theorize how the external social world matters to individual psychological pain and suffering. We conclude by making explicit bridges between sociological and psychological theories of suicide; by noting important limitations in knowledge about suicide – particularly regarding the roles of organizations, inequality, and intersectionality in suicide – that sociology is well situated to help address.