"So,Dad, why did kids in Tabor Alberta and Columbine kill other kids?" -- A Sociological Explanation of Suicide and Alienation for my Children


This morning (my 12-year old son) Joel asked me a question similar to the one above, and I promised  him an answer when he returned from school. Well, it occurs to me that I should give both of you (kids) my thoughts on the matter, so here is my best attempt.

By the way, this is exactly what the science of sociology is all about. It's a pretty recent science, as these things go, and it's all about what makes society tick' or how groups of people live together, peacefully or otherwise.

Emile Durkheim, the sociologist

Earlier today I mentioned a sociologist who had a possible answer, a fellow named Emile Durkheim who came up with an idea called "anomie" (ANN-O-ME), which is the same as the English word alienation'. It occurs to me that I should mention that the concept of alienation has nothing whatsoever to do with aliens, but I'll get to that in a little while.

You and your friends have seen the famous book on our basement shelf which was written by Durkheim, entitled "Suicide." I know that it's kind of a scary title, and I realize your friends are curious about the book and why your father has such a thing in his house. I hope they don't tell their parents, because they probably won't understand this book any better than their kids do.

Anyway, Emile Durkheim, lived in France in the mid-1800s. He was born in 1858 and died in 1917, which really isn't that long ago, and is considered by many to be the first real sociologist. He spent a lot of his life working out what makes social order possible. In other words, what makes it conceivable for groups of people to live together in society without killing or otherwise hurting each other. In other words, exactly what makes a society a society.

Emile felt that society was moving towards greater and greater specialization. In other words, that people who lived in primitive
societies got along well because their jobs were so unspecialized that most of them were familiar with the same kinds of tasks and jobs. People basically collected berries, farmed, hunted a bit and fished. They lived together pretty much the same ways,  raising families and living in houses (or huts) of pretty much the same appearance. They all owned about the same stuff (like fishing and hunting equipment or tools for building things like huts).

Durkheim believed that primitive people were able to get along together, because they lived their (very similar) lives so closely together. As a result, they felt a bond to each other. Durkheim called this kind of closeness mechanical solidarity (solidarity means friendly, mutual support among members of a group, workplace, sports team, family, etc).

Emile thought that the eventual movement toward specialization was going to happen, whether people liked it or not. And he also thought that the industrial revolution the events which took place around the late 1700s to the early 1900s and saw people move to cities from farms and from jobs on farms to factory jobs was responsible for the increasing specialisation taking place in Europe.

Durkheim thought that as societies became more industrial, people developed new job skills. As jobs split into complex (specialised) and non-complex (less-specialised) categories, experts who had certain skills soon emerged. All of a sudden, people started to have hugely different experiences and points of view. (Notice too, that this idea also means that people's work experiences are important, formative parts of their lives).

Durkheim figured that modern societies are held together by the fact that people can do business with each other, make contracts, and agree on some basic principles (like not shooting and killing each other).

Durkheim called this organic solidarity. (Are you starting to see where this is going? I realize it seems like I'm taking forever to explain why kids shoot each other, but I'm getting closer, just bear with me.)

Now, organic solidarity doesn't mean that I feel close to my plumber because I made a contract with him to fix my toilet, but it does mean that we (my plumber and I) are depending on each other in a way that makes us cooperative (and also happens to keep us from killing each other). That cooperation is also part of what makes us a 'society', right? One of the reasons people are considered social is that we can live together without hurting each other. Anyway, Durkheim believed that these social relationships put us pretty far up the evolutionary ladder, compared to more primitive societies. He didn't say we were better, mind you, just different. But Durkheim did say that we had a different set of problems to deal with as a matter of fact that's what the book "Suicide" is all about.


So, Durkheim decided that many social problems that people in modern societies (and by modern I mean industrial societies like ours) face result from the increase in the division of labour. Labour's pretty important, isn't it? You can thank our buddy Karl Marx for that one.

Marx believed that we were all persuaded to see things in our everyday lives in a certain way, depending on our living conditions, and not the other way around. In other words, "being determines consciousness." In this way, our experiences at work (and we spend so much of our lives working, so this stuff [job, work, career] is important) makes us who we are.

By the way, there's also disagreement on this point. Max Weber, another major sociologist, believed that systems of ideas (including religions) influence economic behaviour (the way we work, buy and sell), more than the other way around. In other words, peoples' "consciousness determines [their] being."  I think this is what most people believe, at least those who believe in
spirituality, mind over matter or a higher power, like God. But back to our friend Durkheim.

Emile Durkheim believed that the loss of shared rules and shared understanding in a society made people look at things in their lives very differently than before there was so much job specialisation.

People suddenly found themselves with a whole bunch of different purposes in their lives. This goes for schoolkids too, even though they don't work yet. Look at it this way: most kids are influenced strongly by their friends, parents and surroundings (t.v., magazines, movies, etc.). Their parents (and their friends' parents) are influenced by their surroundings too, including t.v., newspapers and the world of work. In fact, we're all living such tightly knitted lives that it's tough to separate these influences from one another.

Social Breakdown

Here's the important part: Durkheim said that organic solidarity decreased in industrial societies. He said that when organic solidarity decreased, the whole society would be troubled by confusion, inefficiency and even social breakdown (the  disappearance of social order). He thought that modern society was falling into disorganization and chaos because the common rules were no longer shared. For example, today we find that millionaires can walk past people living on the sidewalk (begging for a few coins) without even thinking twice about how incredibly wrong it is to have so much wealth in a society next to so much terrible pain and poverty.

We live in a world where bank executives, large company presidents, and Bill Gates-types can collect millions or even billions of dollars without giving much thought to those living below' them. This was an unthinkable idea only thirty or forty years ago. Kids see this behaviour and pick up the message that you don't have to be kind to folks in order to be rich. Heck, you don't even have to be smart, invent a new product or any of the things that were required for wealth in the past. Also, the gap between the wages of the very rich and the rest of  us has grown as never before in history.

The lack of rules (or 'norms', which means a normal or average standard to live your life by) is what Emile called anomie'.

Some folks (correctly) recognize that the rules of society have gone out the window and they think that this is because of a decline in religion, or belief in God. They're pushing for a return to organized religion (people going to church) or demanding that students recite prayers in schools. I think that teaching people to critically analyze society (creating amateur sociologists) is a more practical solution.


As I said above, anomie is a word that describes the lack of common societal (or social) rules. To put it simply, anomie means normlessness or society without rules. Durkheim said that any period of upheaval (which means chaos or disturbance) or even econ omic uncertainty (like layoffs at factories, the stock market losing money, etc.) is a period of high anomie.

By the way, the stock market has been zooming up in an unprecedented way for around the past four or five years, and that's a contributor to the breakdowns we've been seeing over the past decade or more.

In his book Suicide' (see, I told you I'd get to it), Durkheim argued that periods of rapid change make it hard for people to know what to expect as a reward for living up to society's standards. When society and the economy are unstable, one cannot coun t on being rewarded for conforming (paying attention to the rules) or punished for deviating (not paying attention to the rules) from social norms (the unwritten rules that define good proper' behaviour). People may work hard, in other words, and save money for their old age, only to have their savings wiped out in a stock market crash, or have their life's savings made worthless by inflation. Or people can work really, really hard at their job and be the best in their field, but lose out to others who cheat the system' -- bypass the rules and beat others to better paying jobs with more privileges.

We're living in a period like this right now. For example, this past week Bell Canada announced that they're moving a lot of their jobs (about two or three thousand), out of Canada. Over the past ten years, companies like G.M. have moved about 50,000 jobs from the U.S. and Canada to poorer countries, like Mexico and Brazil, that pay their workers a lot less. Then there are all those companies, like Nike and others, who hire children to work in their shoe and clothing factories for a few pennies a day. Th ese companies go on to sell their shoes to us for ridiculously high sums of money. Who knows, we might even feel a bit guilty, because in a way we're helping to contribute to the misery of other people (and small children at that). In the meantime, people like Bill Gates (or the owner of Nike) are making billions of dollars without doing very much work at all. It doesn't make sense, does it?

Other people, like the producers and owners of violent t.v. programs or movies can make huge amounts of money by showing audiences fantasies about people doing awful things, like killing each another in the most horrible ways. Some say that these people s houldn't be allowed to profit from such terrible displays of violence, but they make a ton of money anyway. Years back, when I was a kid, people didn't make money from such displays of human indifference. Movie-makers regulated themselves (followed a common set of unwritten rules) and avoided immoral displays of behaviour. That's when society had a different set of social norms to live by.

Today, a winning lottery ticket, an innovative idea or even a good stock market investment might turn a lazy, horrid, nasty person into a millionaire without having to make any contribution to society. If incidents like this happen on a regular basis (and they do), they weaken a society's ability to back up its rules and norms with a predictable set of punishments and rewards. Rules like "hard work = a comfortable life" just don't mean much any longer. And after all, why should people follow the rules if it doesn't guarantee them a happy ending?

Durkheim called suicide under these conditions anomic suicide'. He said that suicides don't just happen when times are bad (layoffs, wars, etc.) but when there are boom' times as well. Sounds nuts, right? Why should prosperous times produce suicide as much as hard times do? Here's why:

Durkheim figured that human wants are ever-expanding and there were no natural' limits to people's cravings (Freud, a famous psychologist, said that people could never be satisfied with life, which is sort of saying the same thing).

So can you guess what keeps people from constantly being dissatisfied and exploding in violence?


If you said something like "social norms or rules" you'd have hit the nail on the head. It's norms that tell us how high (or low) to aim. It's social rules and norms (not biology or genes) that define what people are entitled to. People regulate their wan ts and desires themselves, depending on the social norms around them. In this way, they manage to convince themselves that they are satisfied (and they are satisfied, make no mistake about that). But in an economic boom (like now) the standard definition of what's normal is overturned. Suddenly, there is no limit to people's desires, there are no brakes' on the car (and it's rolling downhill and gaining speed).

Durkheim believed that people's desire to live is reduced under these conditions. So, suicide is caused by this state of anomie, that is, the condition of unsettled expectations.

So, the short answer is that the kids in Columbine, Georgia or Alberta are living under conditions of anomie (we all are), and perhaps even anomic suicide. They've correctly identified that the normal rules of our society have gone out the window. There's nothing holding them back any longer. Suddenly anything goes, nothing's forbidden, so they'll do what makes them happy --for the moment.

Read the report of yesterday's awful shooting of six kids in Georgia and you'll find that the boy who shot his classmates looked horrified immediately after his did this. He was disgusted by his own action. He suddenly realized that he did break one of so ciety's most sacred rules: you don't go around shooting people. He also wanted to simply be noticed, which is something we all want in some way.

That's all for now. I hope this goes some way towards answering your question.  Love, Dad.

- April, 1999