Once he discovered that certain types of suicide could be accounted for by anomie, he could then use anomic suicide as an index for the otherwise unmeasurable degree of social integration. This was not circular reasoning, as could be argued, but a further application of his method of analysis. He reasoned as follows: There are no societies in which suicide does not occur, and many societies show roughly the same rates of suicide over long periods of time. This indicates that suicides may be considered a “normal,” that is, a regular, occurrence. However, sudden spurts in the suicide rates of certain groups or total societies are “abnormal” and point to some perturbations not previously present. Hence. “abnormally” high rates in specific groups or social categories, or in total societies, can be taken as an index of disintegrating forces at work in a social structure.
Durkheim distinguished between types of suicide according to the relation of the actor to his society. When men become “detached from society,” when they are thrown upon their own devices and loosen the bonds that previously had tied them to their fellow, they are prone to egoistic, or individualistic, suicide. When the normative regulations surrounding individual conduct are relaxed and hence fail to curb and guide human propensities, men are susceptible to succumbing to anomic suicide. To put the matter differently, when the restraints of structural integration, as exemplified in the operation of organic solidarity, fail to operate, men become prone to egoistic suicide; when the collective conscience weakens, men fall victim to anomic suicide.
In addition to egoistic and anomic types of suicide, Durkheim refers to altruistic and fatalistic suicide. The latter is touched upon only briefly in his work, but the former is of great importance for an understanding of Durkheim’s general approach. Altruistic suicide refers to cases in which suicide can be accounted for by overly strong regulation of individuals, as opposed to lack of regulation. Durkheim argues in effect that the relation of suicide rates to social regulation is curvilinear–high rates being associated with both excessive individuation and excessive regulation. In the case of excessive regulation, the demands of society are so great that suicide varies directly rather than inversely with the degree of integration. For example, in the instance of the Hindu normative requirement that widows commit ritual suicide upon the funeral pyre of their husbands, or in the case of harikiri, the individual is so strongly attuned to the demands of his society that he is willing to take his own life when the norms so demand. Arguing from statistical data, Durkheim shows that in modern societies the high rates of suicide among the military cannot be explained by the deprivations of military life suffered by the lower ranks, since the suicide rate happens to be higher for officers than for enlisted men. Rather, the high rate for officers can be accounted for by a military code of honor that enjoins a passive habit of obedience leading officers to undervalue their own lives. In such cases, Durkheim is led to refer to too feeble degrees of individuation and to counterpose these to the excesses of individuation or de-regulation, which account, in his view, for the other major forms of suicide.