As Covid-19 social distancing distorts social bonds, revisiting Durkheim’s theory of suicide

In general, death is a social taboo in post-industrial, consumerist society. Nobody is supposed to talk about it in public. It is anathema – though, in comparison, pornography is not. This evasion is a typical characteristic of a society that seeks to conceal reality with spectacle. It is as if the quality of death is nothing more than a consumer choice. Sociologist Norbert Ilias wrote insightfully about the “loneliness of dying”, facilitated by an industry of service providers. In this situation, suicide triggers sharp reactions: individuals who die by it are deemed to have broken the social compact.

Cases of suicide are often attributed to psycho-medical reasons such as depression, emotional or socio-economic stress. But suicide is more than that. It also reflects a distorted sense of the social cohesion and solidarity: to put it simply, the way we die speaks of the dynamics of the society in which we live.

This is something French sociologist Emile Durkheim noted at the end of the nineteenth century, when he proposed a correlation between social pathology and suicide. It is a state of “anomie”, as he called it, which reveals the disintegration of norms and values, an unravelling of the everyday sense of normal, that facilitates…

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