The Gendered Landscape of Suicide
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The Gendered Landscape of Suicide

Masculinities, Emotions, and Culture

Anne Cleary

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Gendered Landscape of Suicide

Masculinities, Emotions, and Culture

Anne Cleary

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About This Book

This book is an attempt to understand suicide from the perspective of a group of men who decided to take their own lives. Their stories imply that male suicide is not, as frequently portrayed, an impulsive action arising from particular, sex-specific, causes but relates to a cluster of interlinked issues which accumulate over time. These issues were not distinctively male concerns but were connected to gender in that the men's difficulties were exacerbated by the existence of an emotional culture which inhibited males from expressing specific feelings. The prevailing form of masculinity impeded them in developing knowledge of, and speaking about, their emotional needs and from accessing help and this prolonged their suffering and made suicide a possibility. These men produced compelling accounts of their emotional pain which belied notions of male inexpressiveness but the findings point to a link between emotionally constraining cultures and suicidal behaviour for some groups of men.

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© The Author(s) 2019
Anne ClearyThe Gendered Landscape of Suicide
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction: The Gendered Landscape of Suicide

Anne Cleary1
UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Anne Cleary
End Abstract

Why Study Suicide?

Suicide has been identified by the World Health Organisation (2014) as a global health problem and the fact that an estimated 800,000 people kill themselves each year receives considerable media and public attention. Yet suicide has always exerted a particular fascination for people. This might be attributed to the existential threat implied by suicide, which is effectively a public statement that life is not worth living (Baechler 1979). When a young person completes suicide this effect is probably intensified. Individual suicides are generally the focus of public attention but patterns of suicide are considered by sociologists to be indicative of societal currents or trends—a kind of barometer of wellbeing in a society. Consequently, the distribution of suicide can shed light on critical and or destabilising elements within a culture and in this way map the socioemotional landscape of a society at a particular point in time. The study of suicide therefore extends beyond the examination of a health-related issue, makes visible the ‘…circumstances of individuals caught in life’s troubles’ (Weaver 2009: 345 ) and helps to explain the relationship between the person and his/her society. This is an important objective of sociology and of this book which explores how social and emotional issues are implicated in suicidal action.

Defining Suicide

Although suicide appears to be a clear and conclusive action, defining a death as suicide is problematic and this has significant implications for research in the area. Suicide is only categorised as such when there is clear intent and this is generally only possible to confirm from written information left by the deceased and or the lethality of the method used. Notes are left by a minority of those who kill themselves (O’Donnell et al. 1993 ) and the fact that national statistics often contain an additional mortality categorisation of ‘undetermined death’ indicates the challenges of defining suicide. Cultural aspects (for example, a religious prohibition on suicide) as well as coroners’ practices also influence whether a classification of suicide will be made (Atkinson 1978). In addition, there are philosophical issues concerning the delineation of suicide, whether it is a distinct action or a behaviour, for, as Baechler (1979) noted, suicide is rarely circumscribed by the precise moment when it is accomplished.
The meaning of suicide is contested across cultures and time because suicide is a culturally constructed act performed in the context of a cultural system of meaning (Counts 1991). MacDonald and Murphy (1990) have described how every era and society has its own way of identifying and assigning meaning to deaths by suicide and over time attitudes to suicide have been influenced by shifts in religious, political and philosophical thinking. Until the 1700s suicide was considered both an immoral and a criminal act as people were viewed as the property of God and or of the state. As MacDonald and Murphy (1990) suggest, the move towards greater understanding for suicide followed a shift from a religious to a secular worldview and a change in the relationship between the individual and the state. In these circumstances, suicide could take on an entirely new perspective, for example, as an indicator of human freedom. From the nineteenth century explanations for suicide moved towards psychological and social explanations and with the rise of literacy, suicide could be an expression of one’s life and feelings (MacDonald and Murphy 1990). Suicide could also absorb a variety of meanings (both religious and secular) within a single society, as Paperno (1997) demonstrates in her study of suicide in Russia. Explanations for a reputed epidemic of suicides in nineteenth-century Russia centred on the rise of secularisation while in the twentieth century the Soviet Government cast rising rates of suicide as a residue of the old bourgeois order (ibid.: 15).
Culture exerts a considerable influence on suicide rates particularly in terms of the society’s overall attitude or script in relation to suicide . Western society, operating within a similar religious milieu, has tended to label suicide as deviant either in a religious, social, or psychological sense but there are societies where suicide is condoned or even valorized. There are also cultures where ambiguous attitudes to suicide exist, where the practice is permitted in certain circumstances. This can occur in societies where suicide is strongly prohibited and disguised forms of suicide are required to transform the deed into a positive action or into a feat of individual or political bravery. Political hunger strikes in Ireland and the practice of Jihad in Muslim culture are examples of this practice (Andriolo 1998). Cultural ideas are interwoven with beliefs about gender and class and these factors have an important influence on suicide patterns .
Since the twentieth century, mental illness has become the dominant paradigm for understanding suicide. Within the biomedical framework suicide results primarily from mental illness, particularly depression, but social factors are increasingly cited in these explanations to address high levels of suicide outside the clinical domain (Hamdi et al. 2008 ; Owens et al. 2003 ). Sociology made an early contribution to knowledge about suicide with the publication of Durkheim’s (1951) Le Suicide in the late nineteenth century and there were some important studies in the 1960s and 1970s but thereafter sociological interest in the topic decreased.

The Sociological Understanding of Suicide

Sociological understanding of suicide began in the nineteenth century with Durkheim’s (1951) analysis of the phenomenon and Le Suicide remains one of the best known and most referenced texts on this topic. His choice of subject was deliberate in that he sought to challenge the prevailing nineteenth-century view of suicide as shaped by personal factors including mental illness. Durkheim’s aim was to move the explanatory framework for suicide from the individual to the group and in this way establish the credentials of the emerging discipline of sociology. He used national statistical data, newly introduced in Europe, to map suicide patterns across nations and explained variations in terms of sociocultural factors . Durkheim focused on suicide rates which he believed were social facts reflecting suicidogenic currents or trends in a society. He proposed that each society had a specific tendency towards suicide which is a function of collective consciousness, social relationships and the shared beliefs that bind people together. According to Durkheim the collective tendencies in a society towards suicide dominate the consciousness of individuals and these currents are variously felt across a society. He developed four types of suicide —anomic, egoistic, altruistic and fatalistic—which he maintained were symptomatic of different types of social structure. He attributed egoistic suicide to lack of integration within a society and altruistic suicide to over-integration; anomic suicide as representative of a society lacking regulation and fatalistic suicide to over-regulation in society. His central thesis was that societies require a critical level of integration and or regulation to provide protection from suicide. When levels of integration or regulation are too low, or too high, members of the society lack the necessary social rules or goals, their social-psychological identity is impaired and the most vulnerable among them commit suicide. He examined factors such as the fa...

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APA 6 Citation
Cleary, A. (2019). The Gendered Landscape of Suicide ([edition unavailable]). Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Cleary, Anne. (2019) 2019. The Gendered Landscape of Suicide. [Edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Cleary, A. (2019) The Gendered Landscape of Suicide. [edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Cleary, Anne. The Gendered Landscape of Suicide. [edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing, 2019. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.