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Fear and loathing in Mumbai

Two weeks ago, in response to readers’ criticisms about newspapers’ simplistic coverage of suicides, I had said that while some reporters had investigated the psychological factors, they had failed to explore the social dimensions.

mumbai Updated: Feb 07, 2010 01:14 IST

Two weeks ago, in response to readers’ criticisms about newspapers’ simplistic coverage of suicides, I had said that while some reporters had investigated the psychological factors, they had failed to explore the social dimensions.

In this context, I had mentioned the work of 19th century French sociologist, Émile Durkheim. To sum up, in his highly influential book Suicide, Durkheim had categorised suicides into three groups: “egotistical”, the result of too little social integration; “altruistic”, the outcome of too much social integration; and anomic, when society has been unable to adequately perform its key function of regulating behaviour.

I was, therefore, heartened to read a report by Kiran Wadhwa on Hindustan Times’s front page exactly a week later, on January 31, about a study on the origins of fear among students in Mumbai.

Even though the study did not go on to explore the phenomenon of suicide, its findings are valuable because fear, in its extreme form, could surely trigger suicide.

In an endorsement of Durkheim’s thrust on social forces, the study found that students feared social censure and ostracism above everything else, in relation to their academic performance. To extend Durkheim’s framework for suicide, we could think of this fear as being of the “altruistic” variety.

But like I said last week, both Durkheim’s work on suicide and his larger theory of society, called structural-functionalism, has detractors of various stripes. His theory views society as a complicated organism containing inter-related parts, each with its specific function. One of the most forceful critiques is that it cannot explain social change.

With respect to his work on suicide, which is what is relevant here, persuasive and related critiques came from Jack Douglas, who wrote The Social Meaning of Suicide, and J. Maxwell Atkinson, who wrote Discovering Suicide: Studies in the Social Organisation of Sudden Death.

I elaborate on one common critique here because it might open up ideas for stories. According to Douglas and Atkinson, the so-called “facts” that Durkheim had used to analyse suicide were not pre-existing ones merely waiting to be “discovered” by social scientists.

On the contrary, these “facts” themselves were social constructions by powerful social actors, such as the police, doctors and coroners, who had the power to create “official” interpretations of reality.

“Officials, no less than other members of society, necessarily operate with their respective stocks of common-sense knowledge, which they cannot help but use to make sense of the reality which they encounter — in this case, suspicious death,” explain Bilton et al in Introductory Sociology.

This critique is as relevant today as it was for the 19th century. So it might be interesting for reporters in Mumbai to dig deeper into how these “social actors”, namely doctors, the police, coroners, go about classifying a death as suicide. I suspect it might make interesting, if not fascinating, reading.