Durkheim and Bullying By: Julia Crane ’13, Emily Gehrdes ’13, Patrick McKeon ’13, Rich Valeri ’13
Durkheim and Suicide
Durkheim’s theoretical framework proves to be helpful when used to understand the intersection of suicide and modern-day patterns of homophobic bullying. His concept of “collective conscience” offers an explanation for prejudices in society, pervasive attitudes that foster atmospheres in which homophobic bullying can occur (Ritzer 81). While Durkheim’s model of “altruistic” suicide fails to sufficiently explain modern suicides relating to homophobic bullying, his “anomic”, “fatalistic”, and “egoistic” models provide useful tools for understanding data presented in current literature on the issue. His ideas about “integration” and “regulation” not only constitute the basis for the formulation of these four different types of suicide, but also imply possible solutions to this social problem (Ritzer 93).
The way of thinking to which the majority of a society subscribes may be understood as a “collective conscience”. Durkheim describes his concept, writing: “The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society forms a determinate system which has its own life; one may call it the collective or common conscience…It is, thus, an entirely different thing from particular consciences, although it can be realized only through them” (Durkheim 81). Today, one may see Durkheim’s notion of the collective conscience at work in the general aversion to homosexuality in American society. This sort of nonmaterial social fact may be studied through the observation of state laws regarding same-sex marriage; currently, only six out of fifty states (in addition to the District of Colombia) will “issue marriage licenses to same sex couples” (“Defining Marriage” NCSL). The laws of a society often reflect the collective conscience of its constituents, and thus, it may be surmised that many Americans do not condone homosexuality. This relates to the issue of homophobic bullying because widespread mindsets of this sort can create a culture that prompts hostile behavior, which can have dangerous consequences.
Durkheim constructs ideas about social currents of “integration” and “regulation” in order to explain different problems in society that cause individuals to commit suicide. “Integration” may be understood as “the strength of the attachment that [an individual] has to society”, whereas “regulation refers to the degree of external constraint on people” (Ritzer 93). One type of suicide outlined by Durkheim is called “altruistic”. Individuals who commit altruistic suicide do so because their “social integration is too strong”, and resultantly they have developed a mindset that believes “it is their duty to [commit suicide]” (Durkheim 95; Ritzer 95). If Durkheim’s four-type model of suicide is perfect, then one may understand there to be a gap in the current literature on homophobic bullying, for it has not been observed that many victims of this behavior take their own lives out of a sense of duty to society. In this way, it is evident that Durkheim’s framework of altruistic suicide, though useful in other instances, falls short of adequate explanation of the phenomena of suicide resulting from homophobic bullying.
Anomic suicide is one of the four types of suicide that Durkheim discusses. Anomic suicide happens when regulation of a society is too low, leading to disruption and a lack of control over an individual’s passions and life (Ritzer 95). There are two types of disruption; negative disruption such as an economic depression and positive disruption like an economic boom (Ritzer 95). Homophobic bullying is an example of a negative disruption. The very nature of bullying alienates students from their peers, Durkheim believes a way to remedy this is through better regulation. This leads the individual to feel vulnerable and more likely to commit suicide. Young lesbian, gay and bisexual students (LGB) are subjected to bullying in school without the support (regulation) necessary for them to succeed (Birkett, Espelage, Koenig). In a study on hostility against homosexuals, Kingdom, Mason, and Palmer found that, “40% of all violent [bullying] attacks have taken place at school.” According to Durkheim the appropriate way to remedy this statistic would be to implement more regulation in the school setting. However, this may problematic because the power source enforcing the regulation (faculty) are unregulated themselves; “99.4% [of LGB students] said they heard remarks from students and 39.2% heard remarks from faculty or school staff” (Kosciw and Diaz). If the faculty are participating in the bullying then the level of disruption that Durkheim is talking about must be very high, the students are more likely to commit suicide because of this lack of regulation. In Birkett, Espelage, and Koenigs’ study on homophobic bullying in schools, they find that “high rates of negative outcomes for LGB and questioning students might, in fact, be preventable with a positive school climate and absence of homophobic teasing” (Birkett, Espelage, Koenig 991). This call for implementation of new regulations was mirrored in other literature on homophobic victimization (Poteat et al.). Durkheim’s framework is applicable in so far as these researchers use his theory to formulate suggestions for social improvement. If the regulation in school and homes were higher, to an acceptable level, the rate of suicide among LGB students would be lower. This is shown in literature conducted on the subject of homophobic bullying.
One may consider Durkheim’s model of fatalistic suicide loosely relatable to suicide stemming from homophobic bullying, but it arguably falls short in certain aspects. Fatalistic suicide, as explained by Durkheim, occurs with “persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline” (Durkheim in Ritzer 96). This is the opposite of anomic suicide, where the individual commits suicide due to a lack of social regulation. Durkheim’s fatalistic suicide applies to homophobic bullying because, in certain instances, individuals who self-identify as LGB may feel that excessive social regulations (arising from a homophobic collective conscience) impel them to suppress this aspect of their identity. As previously mentioned, American society may be considered largely homophobic; this homophobic culture is born out of the collective conscience of societal norms, hence setting the stage to enable homophobic bullying. However, the notion that individuals “passions” are suppressed by excessive “regulations” may not be directly relatable to homophobic bullying because collective consciousness is not the same as regulations like laws.
Durkheim’s theory of egoistic suicide is the strongest, contemporary form of suicide practiced in modern society. “LGB people are subject to institutionalized prejudice, social stress, social exclusion (even within families) and anti-homosexual hatred and violence and often internalize a sense of shame about their sexuality” (King et al., 2008). Durkheim would argue that LGB people feel disconnected from society because the prevailing collective consciousness makes them feel they do not belong into any “acceptable” social group (Ritzer, 81). There have been many occurrences of acts, thoughts, and attempts of egoistic suicide resulting from homophobic bullying against LGB people, specifically in educational institutions; these students are victimized through the language, perceptions, and physical abuses of heterosexual students which do not allow them their right to freedom of expression (Birkett et al., Diamond et al., Espelage et al.Ploderl et al.). This relates to Durkheim’s belief that an individual’s privilege is based on a moral or social link of a culture. The larger hetero-normative collective conscience of American Society clearly ostracizes LGB people, causing them to have low levels of social integration. Durkheim concludes that man, “is governed not by a material environment brutally imposed on him, but by a conscience superior to his own, the superiority of which he feels” (Lemert, 85). In modern society, heterosexism governs the dominant attitude of social acceptance. According to scholar, Daniel Chesir-Teran, “We conceive of heterosexism as a systematic process of privileging heterosexuality relative to homosexuality, based on the assumption that heterosexuality and heterosexual power and privilege are normal and ideal” (Chesir-Teran & Hughes 2008).
Durkheim also speculates, “Because the greater, better part of his existence transcends the body, he escapes the body’s yoke, but is subject to that of society” (Lemert, 85). This translates into that one is allowed to express their individuality in accordance with collective society. The heterosexual ideology only allows non-LGB males and females to freely express their sexuality. For instance, “In most settings-including schools- heterosexist regularities are maintained through subtle processes that reinforce LGB invisibility and through explicit expressions of anti-LGBQ discrimination or victimization” (Chesir-Teran & Hughes, 2008). This in turn creates a vulnerable environment and societal isolation for LGB students in that their sexuality is not socially acceptable; this may drive them to extreme measures such as egoistic suicide (Birkett et al., Diamond et al.). To exemplify this, one may consider the case of Tyler Clementi, a gay teen who attended Rutgers University, who committed suicide because his roommate web-recorded him having sexual relations with another male student. His roommate disclosed this recording with fellow students, exposing his personal life, thus destroying his reputation (Egan). This homophobic bullying in the end caused his suicide of jumping off the Washington Bridge. From this example of egoistic suicide, the dominant ideology of heterosexism can be seen as a social force that negatively impacts individuals, leading them to their death.
Durkheim divides motivation for suicide into four categories: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic. Each type is adequate when linking suicide to government or economic systems. However, when looking at a modern tragedy like homophobic bullying only two of his explanations directly apply. Egoistic Suicide is useful because it is based around the isolation of an individual, from society, leading to his or her suicide. An adolescent member of the LGB community is unfortunately not accepted in most middle and high schools, thus becoming a target for bullies. He or she is constantly harassed by and isolated from the majority and the lack of social ties can allow the smallest frustration to lead to suicide (Ritzer, 93). Anomic Suicide is also useful in explaining this tragedy. Anomie, as explained by Durkheim, refers to social conditions in which humans lack sufficient moral restrain (Ritzer, 90). Moral restraint is controlled by regulation and in a school setting teachers are responsible for creating those restrictions. Bullies who target LGB persons do so because there is no intervention by teachers. Without a moderation in levels of integration and regulation suicides will continue to rise among bullied LGB students. Statistics have shown that once that regulation/integration is achieved LGB students will feel they have more control over their life and passions, leading to less suicides.
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