The opposite of positivists are usually referred to as anti-positivists. They are often sociologists who base themselves on interpretive mythology and use qualitative methods in order to understand the meanings. Interpretivists concentrate on how people interact in small settings. They are interested in how people define themselves each other and their situation. This is an important approach on suicide for some sociologists such as Douglas who believe meaning behind suicide is very important.
Emile Durkheim is a functionalist and a positivist. His study into suicide looked at statistics of carious countries and he used these to look into patterns in suicide. Durkheim was able to compare statistics between countries and establish causal laws based on correlations. By using statistics he was first able to see these patterns between countries and find the variations in others. He was able to come to a conclusion which can be generalised and applied universally to many countries. Statistics are extremely useful for practical reasons.
Statistics are collected by a third party and are based on a lot of different issues. For Durkheim’s suicide study this is very important as it enabled him to look at lots of countries and compare, which from a positivist perspective is important for generalisabilty. Ethically suicide statistics fine for published studies as it keeps families anonymous. Suicide statistics are usually found to be published by the Government regardless of studies and so it is unlikely that any individuals are likely to contest the research and so the findings of the study.
From a theoretical stand-point, statistics are great as they do enable the positivist Durkheim to establish links and causal laws; something which is done much easier when the method of research is as quantative as statistics. However, statistics are still a form of secondary data and so can be essentially contested found to be unreliable, which could lead to Durkheim’s suicide study being invalid. Statistics are an essential quantative method which can be used for many topics.
They are essentially quantative in that they are pieces of raw data that give a positivist the opportunity to make a lot of comparisons which can not be realistically made with any other sort of quantative method or a qualitative method. Atkinson is an interpretist sociologist and part of his study into suicide looks into the usefulness, reliability and validity of suicide statistics. Atkinson looked into the validity of suicide statistics by using interpretist methods to look into the meaning behind them.
This is essentially critiquing Durkheim’s research and so he is externally criticising Durkheim’s suicide study. Atkinson looked into how the suicide statistics are constructed. Atkinson used observation and interviewing as the primary methods of looking into how suicide statistics are constructed. Observation is a very anti-positivist method of research which enabled Atkinson to take an in-depth look at how the statistics are formed. Observation has a lot of practical implications which pose a lot of problems when trying to repeat the research or apply it on a large scale.
This is a big problem when trying to criticise suicide statistics as the statistics are formed in various countries and these observations can not be applied on that scale. Suicide is an extremely emotional experience for a family to go through and so to observe a family experiencing this and observe the situation is quite insensitive. The observations used, as well as typical observations, are too small and do not enable the results to be generalised. Atkinson only observed one coroners office and attended inquests in three towns.
This also limits the reliability of Atkinson’s overall findings because of the lack of reliability and validity of the method. The biggest problem, however, with observations is bias. Because a situation being observed is very subjective and it was just done by one sociologist (Atkinson), it makes the findings less reliable. Atkinson also interviewed coroners and families as a method of gaining research; but the big problem with that was a potential lack of validity.
Interviews from an interpretist perspective may not always address the issues which the sociologist is trying to address; this is particularly a problem when interviewing a family about suicide as they can easily mention information which is not relevant. Interviewing a family after a suicide is also highly unethical. It usually involves asking family members highly personal questions regarding the deceased and bringing up very emotional topics. When interviewing someone face to face there are interviewer effects which translate to the interviewee and can affect the answers they gave.
This makes the qualitative method less reliable. Using his methods, however, Atkinson was able to come to sound conclusions regarding the compilation of suicide statistics. He found that an actual rate of suicide didn’t exist or that suicide existed as an objective fact. By basing any study on these ‘facts’, sociologists assumptions have no real meaning. This directly criticises Durkheim’s study on suicide as he used statistics as the basis for his findings. Atkinson was able to use qualitative methods to criticising the compilation of suicide statistics successfully.
As his methods looked in-depth at the situation around suicide he was able to take much more of in-depth view of suicide on the whole, and consciously make subjective decisions he knew coroners were making. This means that the qualitative method were more useful for looking into how suicide statistics are formed. Douglas also criticises Durkheim’s use of statistics as he too criticises their validity. He believes that the decision by the coroner to put down a death as a suicide or accident is influenced by other people, such as the family and friends of the deceased.
This is an important aspect in a topic such as suicide as the situation the family is in is emotionally charged and for various reasons (maybe family embarrassment) they may request an accident verdict. Douglas also used diaries as a source of information for his study. Diaries are a very good source of information for the meanings of suicide because they hold a lot of personal information which other family member would not know about, information which should be able to tell a sociologist about their state of mind before the occurrence.
It can be argued that it isn’t ethically right for a sociologist to look at another person’s diary. That information is usually extremely private and was not in any way meant to be read by another. Diaries may also contain information on other people which the researcher has no right to know about. Although this qualitative method isn’t ethically correct it is definitely an extremely useful source regarding the meanings behind suicide, and is probably the best way of getting inside someone’s mind to understand them after they’re dead.
Douglas’s qualitative methods are very useful for understanding the meanings behind suicide but aren’t very useful for applying the findings; particularly with this qualitative method. Case studies can not be generalised to a country and they certainly can not be generalised to several. This is where qualitative methods fail, and statistics are highly useful. Case studies are another useful way of looking into suicide and accessing the meaning. This is a heavily interpretist method which is very rich in meaning but is very hard to be generalised.
Practically it is very hard to conduct a case study or a series of case studies. After someone has committed suicide it is be difficult to incorporate yourself into the family and be able to get reliable information. This questions the validity of study. Placing yourself into a family after a death can be very insensitive and actually harmful to the family. There is also the practical implication of gaining access to a family after a suicide. During the immediate period after a suicide families are in mourning and gaining access at this time is particularly difficult. This makes the finding less reliable.
Steve Taylor offers another interesting perspective on suicide; he attempted to look at suicide in a way it hadn’t been approached before. He looked at case studies and found 32 instances where people had jumped in front of trains and yet there was no motive behind it. Regardless of that, he found 17 cases which resulted in suicide. Taylor’s examples of supposed suicide perfectly demonstrate the point Atkinson makes regarding the subjective decision the coroner makes. Taylor’s study backs up the work Atkinson did on the composition of suicide statistics and is a good critique of the quantative method of suicide.
The main quantative method used to look into suicide is statistics; and this method has been highly criticised by those sociologists who looked into suicide used qualitative methods. Interpretists and phenomonolgists argue that statistics are a quantative method for studying suicide which is essentially subjective, but, they methods they used to back this theory up are qualitative and therefore also subjective. Therefore, although Durkheim’s study is the most highly criticised of the three, it still has meaning and importance today when looking into suicide.
This is regardless of the method used because his conclusions have been backed up by Gibbs and Martin who did agree that with Durkheim that social integration plays an important part in suicide. However, Durkheim’s look into suicide cannot be deemed successful just on it’s own, a look into suicide with the prospect of fixing the problem also requires an interpretist view and a look into how suicide statistics are formed is needed in order to make the statistics as valid as possible. Therefore, it is clear that a range of qualitative and quantative methods are need to understand the nature of suicide and stop it.