American Sociological Association

Toward a Cultural-Structural Theory of Suicide: Examining Excessive Regulation and Its Discontents

Despite its enduring insights, Durkheim’s theory of suicide fails to account for a significant set of cases because of its overreliance on structural forces to the detriment of other possible factors. In this paper, we develop a new theoretical framework for thinking about the role of culture in vulnerability to suicide. We argue that by focusing on the cultural dynamics of excessive regulation, particularly at the meso level, a more robust sociological model for suicide could be offered that supplements structure-heavy Durkheimian theory. In essence, we argue that the relevance of cultural regulation to suicide rests on the (1) degree to which culture is coherent in sociocultural places, (2) existence of directives related to prescribing or proscribing suicide, (3) degree to which these directives translate into internalized meanings affecting social psychological processes, and (4) degree to which the social space is bounded. We then illustrate how our new theory provides useful insights into three cases of suicide largely neglected within sociology: specifically, suicide clusters in high schools, suicide in the military, and suicides of “despair” among middle-aged white men. We conclude with implications for future sociological research on suicide and suicide prevention.


Seth Abrutyn





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