Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity

Martin Anderson considers the personal tragedies (and the alcohol) behind a grim set of statistics

December 18, 2008

In presenting a sociological study of suicide, Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet start with a wider social-anthropological review of the subject. The text draws us into Durkheim from the start and reflects on the problem of exploring suicide from a sociological point of view. From then on, Durkheim becomes a focus through the text. Yet an important point is made at the outset: the problem with suicide research is that it does not get close to the people who are its subject, because it is grounded largely in statistical evidence. On the other hand, Baudelot and Establet's book serves to demonstrate the importance of this research in our understanding of the phenomenon.

The chapters are well planned, with enticing headings - such as "Take Off" and "The Great Turning Point" - which, although I would not have used them, work well here. Clearly this is a very useful book for sociologists and at its core are some crucial social issues, including often avoided sociological conundrums - higher suicide rates in the Soviet bloc and China, for example, and protective mechanisms in women.

Early on, the authors consider, in detail, the connection between suicide and wealth - in particular, the ways in which suicide has been influenced by related social phenomena. We are asked to consider once again (as many readers will already have reflected) whether "poverty protects", which was one of Durkheim's key conclusions. Yet I think Baudelot and Establet are successful in suggesting that the way that wealth influences suicide remains an enigma. Certainly it requires much further attention.

Given the current economic uncertainty around the world, this is a timely piece of work. Indeed, it makes us think about the issues of globalisation and modernisation - with the latter again drawn from Durkheim's original model. Here, Baudelot and Establet challenge Durkheim and argue for a refocus. They contend that the concept of individualism has impacted on countries such as India, where westernisation has led to increased personal autonomy. China, too, is a good example: where there are economic transformations that may have led to a rise in suicide, especially in the young, the influence of modernisation is flagged up again.

I found the discussion of "the Soviet exception" very interesting. The point is made clearly: "Why do some countries of the former socialist bloc have higher suicide rates? Alcohol." This is a poignant moment, not just for sociologists but for clinicians. The impact of alcohol does indeed play a significant part in high suicide rates around the world. It is becoming even more important in Western countries, and in particular Britain. In the words of a clinical colleague of mine: "If alcohol had not been invented we would have many fewer social problems today, such as suicide." It is frightening to see the statistics and indeed the marked turnaround in suicide rates in some parts of the world.

Baudelot and Establet also consider age. In juxtaposition with alcohol, they explore worrying increases in youth suicide. They quite rightly bring in economic forces as part of their key discussion, but I would have liked to see a little more prominence given to other social dimensions, such as the change in family life. Clearly this is important and can be linked to increases in suicide rates among the young. If we take China, for example, there have been significant changes. How older people are viewed - and how they are valued - in families and society has changed. In addition, there is now increasing pressure on the young to succeed much earlier in life. I felt some of these factors were missed here.

But in a book about modernity, Baudelot and Establet quite rightly give space to the impact of class. They also consider the factors that protect women from suicide (in most countries there is a 3:1 ratio in male and female suicide rates, with the exception of China). It is interesting to read about some of the social factors leading to high rates in other countries, such as revenge suicides in New Guinea.

We know that children and family life can protect women from suicide (although it can also be the reason for it) and that the pressures of masculinity and employment insecurity may contribute to high suicide numbers in men. I really wanted Baudelot and Establet to conclude this chapter by considering this issue. Perhaps women are protected against suicide because they find ways to talk about their emotional problems, whereas men find it more difficult to engage in such interaction. One might argue that this is out of the sphere of a sociological analysis of suicide - although I can't see why, when so often it is the emotional difficulties arising from problems connected to wealth and money, social status and employment that men (and women) need to talk about. This is surely one of the "real" issues (in that it is closer to the person) that society must address.

Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity

By Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet Polity
224pp
£50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780745640563 and 40570
Published 8 August 2008

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