The responsibility of being nice: An idea, a method and a personal utopia on suicide. A conversation with Dr. Ben Fincham

I. News that stale 

Having interrupted the flow of the Sociologists of Crisis series for a timely intervention on the issue of the Golden Dawn trials in my native Greece, it seems timely to return to a matter that was very much on my mind when I started this article series; suicide in times of crisis. The very mention of the phrase may evoke negative sentiments, but it may also reveal the way in which we are herded by the rhetoric of news headlines into accepting such statements almost as axiomatic, especially when they are accompanied by a sprinkle of statistics and a few blurbs from ‘the experts’. To accept numerical representations or the musings of pundits, since ‘numbers don’t lie’ or because ‘an authority knows better’, is bad enough, given that it eschews our civic responsibility to weigh any such statement critically; not just for our own good, but to avoid doing injustice to our fellow human beings whose thoughts, sentiments, decisions, passions and actions are explained away with the use of sensationalist headlines and a fatalistic, yet sympathetic, shrug of the shoulders. But to surrender so easily to such a comfortable position on a matter that we would otherwise find ever so sombre, flirts with irresponsibility and hypocrisy even, both of which are admittedly unwise options both for our individual conscience or our collective welfare.

A few caveats, reservations and doubts must be generously offered when too many people gather around a cliché, hug it close and wish to adopt it as ‘the truth’, starting with the appreciation that any research, for all its merits, also carries the weight of its prejudices and preconceptions; reporting back to us the bias of what questions are being asked and how they being framed in the first place. The results of any such survey are influenced by the collection of data as much as they are by the way the research question is articulated (and interpreted), not to mention the logic behind the way a question is framed the way it is; its ontology to use a more technical term. If we are, for instance, met with a study that is already convinced that with any fluctuation in the economy, suicide rates simply go up and that is the way in which the issue is approached on the whole, then the findings will simply fit that hypothesis in the same way that our hold luggage fits the prescribed dimensions when we check it in upon arrival at the airport. What I mean to say here is that a study that may record any rise in suicide rates during economic crises leads us to assume, almost automatically, that the cause of such a rise must be attributed to the crisis. But what happens if and when reality is more complicated and the crisis-ridden climate simply amplifies tensions, problems, thoughts, decisions, anxieties that may be already at play and might have been expressed anyway but might have gone unnoticed during more affluent times? Is this the same as considering an act of suicide the direct outcome of a period of recession? If so, you can disregard my objection, but if not should we not be more careful in the way we plan, articulate, and express our research questions, our news and, perhaps most importantly, our reaction to them?

This very question is intended not as a disagreement voiced on the grounds of epistemological soundness (alone), but primarily as a moral dilemma suggesting that any matter that is so perilously close to our fundamental existential anxieties ought to be treated with more sensitivity, sensibility and care on a number of levels; scientifically, philosophically, culturally and socio-politically too. The moment we stop consuming information as all-too-rational automatons by striving to turn knowledge into understanding (Blacking, 1977: 5), we start realising our humanity by recognising the people behind the statistics and the pronouncement of the experts as our very cultural colleagues (Garfinkel, 1967: 11), whose welfare very much depends on the way we treat them, not simply in our daily encounter but in our thoughts and the public or private verbalisations of these thoughts too. May I then suggest that instead of nodding our mute assent to dramatic news snippets, we (re)turn to the consolations of philosophical (humanist) thinking in order to relate to the very dramas that make us human after all? Would such a shift from passively consuming data, news and ready-mixed opinion, to actively concerned contemplation not signal a more empathetic stance towards our inner fears and those of our fellow-commuters in life? This could easily be dismissed as a luxury but I think the reverse is true. Rationalising something so close to the bone means abstracting it, but jumping into it headlong with sharpened minds and alert hearts can only do good, and it is that very last thought which forms the ethical centre of this article.

II. Death and Suicide: a matter of social life

Ethical and moral commitments aside, public discussions on suicide can profit substantially from sociological investigations of and philosophical reflections on the possible meaning, causes, and casualties of suicide with a view of restoring the matter to its complexity instead of granting unconditional support to media generalisations which are so readily available. In doing so, we are confronted with the responsibility to respond to a sensitive social issue attentively rather than half-heartedly or even dismissively by accepting the common-sense ‘truths’ that surround it.

Nothing could be more complex, complicated and varied however than the decision to take one’s own life and we can only learn from the mythological, literary and everyday testimonies of suicide in human history; be it Jocasta in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid or the first-hand experiences of people who have lived with or have survived suicide, recent accounts of which were broadcast recently on the BBC Radio 1’s Stories programme, guested by UK rapper Professor Green. A moment’s thought on this observation makes Albert Camus (2005 [1942]: 1-2) sound eerily relevant in his assertion that ‘[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest-whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories- comes afterwards’. David Hume (2005 [1783]: 8) seems equally troubled by suicide offering an interpretation of it as a concern that braids together ‘grand fabric’ and ‘individual creature’, ‘personal troubles’ and ‘public issues’, as Mills (1959: 8) would put it, and amounts to an existential burden of, on and for humanity; ‘tired of life, and hunted by pain and misery’, ‘loaded with pain and sickness, with shame and poverty’ (Hume, 2005 [1783]: 3, 5). Philosophical contemplation aside, suicide and its macabre sibling; death have some sociological life to live if one considers their personal, political and social attributes and ramifications. De Beauvoir (1948: 7), quoting Montaigne, in The Ethics of Ambiguity opined that ‘[t]he continuous work of our life is to build death’ ,in her attempt to show how necessary it may be to develop an ethics of struggling with ‘life’ and ‘death’ on an intellectual, personal, cultural and social level, while Mbembe (2003: 14-5) imagines ‘politics [as] death that lives a human life’ thus re-defining it as a domain of life where power and sovereignty influence decisions of who may live and who may die through ‘the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations’. The take-home message, of sociological importance, from Beauvoir’s existentialism and Mbembe’s bio-political dialectics is, to paraphrase surrealist poet and lay psychoanalyst Andreas Embirikos (1980), no other than the invitation to re-‘make the fear of death’ into a skill and ‘inspiration for life’

; a central existential concern alchemised into a socio-cultural and political resource by ‘learning how to die [as] learning how to let go, and learning to live [as] learning to hang on’ (Bakewell, 2011: 33).

The significance of such preponderant commentary on death is that it unlocks different ways of approaching suicide less as a merely dramatic, desperate and/or irresponsible gesture but as an anguished response to manifold pressures that weigh on our psyche thus making it hard to accept facile interpretations of it.

Sociological evidence sides with the theoretical peregrinations of Montaigne, Hume, De Beauvoir, Camus, Embirikos and Mbembe; immortalised in the writings of Durkheimian sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1978) who, in The Causes of Suicide, attempted to show ‘in instructive detail how difficult it is in concrete research to decide which of the various background factors are genuine rather than spurious in their impact on suicide rates’ (Coser in: Halbwachs, 1992: 15). Besides, as Durkheim (1951 [1897]: 297-298) himself wrote in a quite unforgettable passage, ‘the circumstances are almost infinite in number which are supposed to cause suicide because they rather frequently accompany it. One man kills himself in the midst of affluence, another in the lap of poverty; one was unhappy in his home, and another had just ended by divorce a marriage that was making him unhappy. In one case a soldier ends his life after having been punished for an offense he did not commit; in another, a criminal whose crime remained unpunished kills himself. The most varied and even the most contradictory events of life may equally serve as pretexts for suicide. This suggests that none of them is the specific cause. Could we perhaps at least causality to those qualities known to be common to all? But are there any such? At best, one might say that they usually consist of disappointments, of sorrows without any possibility of deciding how intense the grief must be to have such great significance’.

III. To know the causes of things

With a little help from Durkheim and a verse from Virgil; ‘Fortunate is he, who is able to know the causes of things’ (verse 490 of Book 2 of the Georgics), it shouldn’t take too long for us to realise how difficult the task of ‘knowing the causes of things’ is, and how fortunate indeed we would be if we could afford to say that we can ‘know’ the causes of suicide. Such scepticism and the doubt(s) that accompany it should not scare us however. Rather, they should humanise us and allow us the rare opportunity to open ourselves to the lives of others by listening to their stories. Instead of matching numerical data to human lives, it might be preferable to attune ourselves to human stories and if there is one ‘take-home’ message from the discussion that follows, that would be it.

IV. A conversation with Dr. Ben Fincham about understanding suicide sociologically in times of crisis

One of the main issues that are being discussed at the moment in Greece, in relation to suicide at least, is the extent to which the financial crisis has contributed to and impacted on increasing suicide rates. Is it reasonable, responsible and/or fair to consider that statistical spike a prime cause for suicide? 

It makes sense to me to assume that when people fall into positions of crisis, as a result of economic circumstances, the ways in which they might then understand a sensible way of reacting to that will change from periods in which they’re not in crisis. Losing your job and the things that might follow from that might of course make people consider things they normally wouldn’t, and suicide is just one of those things. However, the point about the relationship of suicide to economic crisis is that it’s just one part of a much more complicated story; all sorts of people are suffering as a result of economic downturn but not everybody thinks about killing themselves, so it’s not as if there’s an immediate, instrumental reaction to economic crisis that then provokes people generally to think that killing yourself is a reasonable thing to do. In fact, I suspect that lots of people who are in families where people have killed themselves as apparently a direct result of joblessness or the economic downturn, would have thought that it was something pretty unreasonable for that family member to have done. Therefore, it’s not as if suicide is a uniform response to crises.

What do you think would be a more helpful way of discussing the issue of suicide in relation to ‘a’ Crisis, with a capital ‘c’? If, for instance, we think that this is not a particularly helpful way of framing the public discussion; that it’s doing nothing to assist us either to understand suicide or the current climate of Crisis, how would you rather see the public discussion be framed? Imagine being faced with the statement: ‘people kill themselves because of the Crisis’, what would you suggest as a more helpful way of approaching the issue?

I think that the problem you have identified has largely to do with the way in which we understand suicide at a societal or ‘macro’ level and that’s actually a methodological issue as much as anything! So what we tend to do is gather statistics, in the way Durkheim did I suppose, and then we infer from those statistics particular causal factors. In the study that I was involved with Scourfield, Langer and Shiner, Understanding Suicide: A Sociological Autopsy, we were fairly sure that there had to be a more subtle way of understanding the individual circumstances of suicide which then required a much more ‘micro’ account. So rather than inferring from aggregated data, we said that we would look at individual cases of suicide and then try to understand what the circumstances that supported a suicidal act were.

One of those features might involve someone losing their job but because we thought that’s not enough to determine whether one would kill themselves or not, we looked at what other things were also involved, what other circumstances were present at the time when somebody wanted to kill themselves. So to answer your question, the most useful thing to do in a debate which appears to be about macro-politics or macro-economics (like macro-economic depression for example), is to really go down to an individual level rather than seek a direct causal relationship. The conundrum here is that because we’re used to a macro-level approach to such issues, we then tend to talk about consequences at a macro level using aggregated data; ‘X amount of people have killed themselves in this crisis and that’s different from previous years’. Clearly that’s a decisive factor but the way in which we’re oriented to particular acts is influenced by a huge amount of other things that need accounting for, and the evidence for that in our study was that so many people don’t kill themselves in apparently similar circumstances.

So do you suspect that in periods of crisis, we see rising suicide rates and rush to make an immediate connection rather than carefully consider other possibilities that might be at play? If that is so, does the facile link between economic crisis and suicides become an accepted ‘fact’ to which we become attuned or used to?  Isn’t that way of thinking risky both in terms of our sensitivity towards others, but also in terms of making it normal to consider becoming such a statistic ourselves following from the legitimising assumption that ‘that’s what happens in periods of crisis’? 

Well, that’s partly our conclusion following the model that we used. If one thing that would influence your decision to kill yourself would be hearing about other people in similar situations who kill themselves, then it becomes a reasonable option. It becomes a narrative which you can mobilise at any point by saying ‘Well, look people in my position kill themselves, therefore it’s not unreasonable for me to do the same’.

Which may then suggest that there might be a fifth type of suicide, added to Durkheim’s original four (egoistic, anomic, altruistic, and fatalistic)? We might call it ‘mimetic’ suicide or ‘copycat suicide’ as it’s known in popular debates…

Well, it’s not as simple as being an act of copying! There have to be many other things in place because there are so many people who are in similar positions and don’t commit suicide. The financial crisis is interesting however because on the one hand there is a statistical or generalised account of suicide which seems to be one that government responds to; government is not so good at responding to individual stories because they’re not generalised! But that isn’t to say that aggregated accounts aren’t useful or to deny that huge spikes in suicides coincide with periods of economic downturn, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that.

I suppose what you were suggesting is that the whole issue operates on a societal level as well so one might introduce a raft of policies which address the general issue, but actually that’s operating at a different level than that of a person who’s just been told that they’ve lost their job. They go home, their partner’s really angry at them, the kids have left home, they worry about all sorts of other things, about the mortgage, this, that and the other, they then have feelings that perhaps they’ve let people down, feel like they failed or they might just get angry because this is not what life was supposed to be. The scenarios that you can play out seem fairly uniform and regimented but you can’t really assume that everybody’s life is the same. These things are going to play out differently in different ways in people’s lives, so I suppose what we were asking for in our study is a more sensitive account; sensitive to the sorts of clusters of circumstances which involve things like experience, beliefs and values, the ways you reflect on those things as well as what your life is like now. Our relationship to suicide can change over time and might then lead one to a range of actions or responses to a situation which will appear as reasonable or unreasonable but these actions/responses can also change! And they can change even during an economic crisis; you can be suicidal at one point during an economic crisis and non-suicidal at another; it’s not a linear relationship and though I suspect people will say ‘Well, the statistical data is there; why don’t you just admit that it’s a strong causal factor?’ I’d say, ‘No, it’s one of many!’ But what happens in economic crises is that many other areas of our life which are related to well-being are also put under strain. So it’s not the economic crisis itself, it could be relationships that are put under strain by a particular circumstance which is to do with money, relationships with children, expectations of life, disappointment, existential questions and all of those things may be put under strain by economic crises, but they also can be compensated for elsewhere; in strong relationships, strong friendships, or being surrounded by people who are nice to you.

I like that remark! Especially as it seems applicable to other spheres of public and political life in Greece as well. A lot of things seem to have come under pressure lately and reveal themselves as rather sudden. The reality however is that they’ve always been with us, operating on the background with the current climate of crisis simply shining a light on them… 

Yes and the other thing which routinely comes under strain in such sorts of periods is your relationship with others! You can therefore swap suicide with fascism and the rise of Golden Dawn as it’s not that you just become fascist as a result of an economic crisis. We may always say that economic crises breeds fascism but I suspect it simply coincides, it doesn’t just like that. You don’t have a 20% of the population that are waiting for an economic crisis to become fascists….

Does that then not provide us almost with a macro-level invitation to look at the micro-level of things?    

Yes, although invitation makes it sound like there’s less agency involved! But when your material circumstances are changed through no agency of your own then obviously the things which you do have more control over like individual relationships or feelings of happiness and well-being are then trammelled by the other stuff, the material stuff which you have no control over. And I think powerlessness and a feeling of hopelessness is something that comes out very strongly. In the study that we did, which was undertaken just at the beginning of the financial crisis we found narratives of unemployment and suicide rather than narratives that would point to something else. To a certain extent then, the financial crisis has shone a light, a bit like you’re saying, on the fragility of your sense of well-being at times when your expectations aren’t met, particularly when it comes to relationships. We found this to be very strong.

V. A method for studying suicide (sociologically)

I would like us now to introduce the approach that you used for ‘understanding suicide’; sociological autopsy. 

Sociological autopsy seemed like a neat moniker! The idea came from discovering that there’s a technique called psychological autopsy which had been developed by researchers in Oxford who, quite rightly in our view, had decided that a good way of understanding the psychology of suicide, was to go and look at individual stories. Their technique therefore was based in the same thinking as ours, or to be more precise our technique was the same as theirs because we copied it. What the researchers did, was to spend time at the coroners’ office and look at the coroners reports, but they had tick boxes so they could get through loads of those reports noting for example: ‘Is there depression?’, ‘tick’ and so on and so forth.

Now, we thought this was clearly an interesting way of going about studying suicide, particularly since part of our remit was to develop a method where you could interrogate a sociology about people that were dead, without this starting to look like history or something similar.

So what we did was spend a couple of years in the coroner’s office, and we interviewed people who had been recently bereaved through suicide. We went with a fine toothcomb through all of these stories/accounts, but also looked at media reports of the cases we were looking at in order to try and build a picture of what seemed to be going on for the person who killed themselves at the time when they died. This would include the coroners’ reports that were very detailed, but also interviews where we would ask a mother about what her child was like for instance. You would therefore build those partial views, because every view of the circumstances would be partial to the position of the person was in. A mother’s account would be very different from a police officer’s account which in turn is different from a son’s, a daughter’s or a colleague’s. All those accounts were very partial so we had to acknowledge not only that one would never get a full picture about somebody, but that we build a picture of the person based on these accounts. Because of the multiplicity of such accounts, an immensely complicated picture of a person emerges, because that’s what a person is; a very complex human being. In addition to those accounts, there were lots of artefacts that were left by people; suicide notes, text messages, so we looked at the scenes of death, saw photographs of the scene of the suicide and then analysed those to build up a fuller picture. What we did then was to try to write a story, not saying that we would come to any definitive truths, but to look closely at the sorts of things which seem to be present in someone’s life which can possibly steer them towards suicide as one of a range of other reasonable options.

And that’s very human data you were handling! They suggest vulnerability, fragility and weakness thus giving your study an extra interpretive weight; because it’s fine to examine the figures, but when you’re looking at things that expose people so much, even at a post-mortem level, you begin to wake yourself up to the complexity of the issue especially when witnessing artefacts, listening to stories and coming across things that don’t quite fit a neat picture.  By the way, let me just say that I use the term ‘post-mortem’ figuratively, thinking that through your method you tried to bring the person back to life in order to understand what was happening in his/her life…

Well, the post-mortem reports, the medical reports were unsurprisingly very dry, but also very useful in making sense of the situation. Occasionally, there were circumstances where you drew your breath, where someone would write in their note: ‘I can’t bear the fact that I lost some children, please don’t tell my family’; then in the account from friends and parents it came out that they clearly had no idea that someone was pregnant! The friends said: ‘she was pregnant’ and the post-mortem would state there was no sign of ever having been a pregnancy. Now, at surface level, or crass tabloid level if you prefer, one might be tempted to say: ‘She’s lying’. A much more subtle account/reaction however would be: ‘My goodness, how complicated’ thus making one think about why somebody would be in that position and what is it that is driving this narrative for that person. So, that really dry data was really useful for seeing how easy it is to aggregate suicides, because if you turn anyone into a body, bodies are generally similar, and they’re all dead.

And, before we move to your idea of repertoires of action, isn’t it interesting that even by simply following that method many other things are unmasked as well? How mainstream ways of accounting for suicide are organised for instance by the police or the coroner’s office? In a way you are also shining a light to institutional ways with which we understand such phenomena and that seems to me, at least as a non-specialist in such areas of study, as a bit cruel. When you hear something like the story that you just recounted and you’re faced with a cold coroner’s report, it makes you think that it doesn’t capture anything, in fact it almost does injustice to the person and the situation they found themselves in and perhaps to those researching it too…  

I think you’re right! It’s funny actually because justice and injustice are tricky terms to use. There were occasions where some of the characters that have died were doing it exactly to avoid justice in a crudely institutional sense but I agree, I wasn’t comfortable with this kind of anti-human perspective. But then again, we never wanted the research to be seen as set up to oppose other ways of understanding or interpreting suicide; all of those things for us were data but we were never disavowing them or suggesting that they’re not worth something. Those observations needed to be made, so the post-mortem accounts were really important for seeing whether you think somebody else might have been involved which, in turn, is clearly essential if you want to make sure that someone killed themselves or was murdered instead. Also, it would be quite churlish to think that you’re not going to have a very strong biological account in something which is about a body no longer being animate.

It also seems like a very good sensitising tool to start conversations with because it’s almost as if we want a dispassionate view and a couple of statistics about suicide rather than face the complexities and contradictions of being human are immensely helpful on a social level because it exposes things to us; things we can relate to and matter to us.

Well, you’ll also find that in the lectures that I have given on suicide! If I give a lecture on Durkheim and suicide a lot less people will be upset than in a lecture I might give on sociological autopsy …

But it’s good to be upset about such things, it’s a way of revealing our humanity, is it not?

Yes, I think so because it is as you say, it strikes a chord and you think: ‘Crikey, these are real people!’, and there are people that you know and people that you’ve met who have been in so much difficulty that this seemed to be the best way of dealing with it than thinking that suicide is something remote, odd, entirely to do with mental health or that there’s nothing you can do about it. What such thinking achieves, is the proliferation of narratives that pass responsibility to other individuals to make particular choices. If you say this is to do with mental health, with the economic crisis, then if those things aren’t fixed then there’s nothing you can do about suicide. If on the other hand you say this is to do with social relations and think that you might know one of these people, suddenly you have to take responsibility for other people’s well-being and that’s a big responsibility; I can understand why we shy away from it. And again the other thing that happened in the study is that it appears as if we’re damning individuals, and we’re not, we were never saying ‘why wasn’t that bloke giving that woman a cuddle, that’s what she wanted, she didn’t need being shouted at?’

VI. The responsibility of being nice and a personal utopia concerning suicide

You must have discussed such incidents between you, perhaps not on paper but behind the research scenes so to speak…

Oh yes, we did, we had lots of discussions like that and for something like reactions to economic crisis, like I said it shifts responsibility from people to society. Well, society is an abstract term and people are walking around and getting on with their lives and not attending to each other and I think we don’t really want to hear that. But on the other hand we were never saying; ‘Listen I’m not blaming somebody for not doing that’ because it’s routinely what we don’t do. I gave a paper in a place a while ago and there were lots of questions and then somebody said: ‘All-right, what’s your recommendation?’ We’ve got a set of recommendations at the end of the book specifically about Britain. so not applicable necessarily to Greece to do with suicide prevention strategies, but in the end this guy pushed me and pushed me and I said that the thing that I would do if I had a wish is that I would get specialised workers to go to every newsagent, every take away, every shop, every bus driver, every taxi driver, everybody who’s slightly removed but might have a personal day to day interaction with someone who is feeling really distressed and they’ll never know it. I’d set up cafés where people would just drop in and you wouldn’t know if people were workless, this, that or the other and inculcate everyday interactions with people with the idea that you should be nice to each other. So the guy looks at me and says: ‘So your recommendation is that we should be nice to each other?’ and in the end I said ‘Well, yes’. If, for example, you’re a newsagent and you’re selling a newspaper and you’re in a bad mood and someone comes in and you’re a bit grouchy to them you’ve no idea what ramifications that will have. And it is easy to forget that people might respond to things in ways that you could not possibly predict.

Take that nurse who killed herself because of a prank call and the whole narrative about this has been: ‘You could never predict such a thing’. Ok, that may be true! However you could predict that people will respond differently to that very prank call. That’s what you can predict. You couldn’t predict that there is a range of reactions; I might think it was this is terribly funny, or it may make me terribly upset but all you’re acknowledging is that there is a range of responses to you behaving quite poorly towards me. So the solution to that isn’t to say to the nurse: ‘You should be a bit more robust’ the response is to say to the radio DJs: ‘Will you stop calling people up and make them look/feel foolish?’ Be nicer, that’s it really. But along the lines of what I was thinking apparently there are cafés that were set up by services in deprived areas in some European country, somebody told me at a conference, and I was thinking a similar thing; to  have really lovely cafés where you’d let people know that there’d be spaces where people would just go and be nice to each other and so if you’re feeling down or have health issues or something you have trained workers in there but you wouldn’t know who is a worker and who isn’t , and the whole remit of the café would be to go and just have a chat with someone, and they wouldn’t be known to be run by services or whatever. So since there is no way of predicting what somebody’s reaction will be to our actions, why not be nice as a default mechanism of sorts.

In a paper I’m working on with a colleague who looks at how people survived suicides we looked at two stories; one where someone killed themselves and one where someone didn’t kill themselves and in the one where the person didn’t kill themselves that was because somebody went back with a sandwich; he said she looked hungry, so she prepared her flat to kill herself and then there was a knock on the door and rather than just do it she thought I’d better answer the door  and it was a guy, a social worker actually who had been there earlier, noticed that she didn’t have any food, got worried  and out of hours went out and bought a really nice sandwich and said, listen I noticed you didn’t have any food so I think you should have something to eat. She thanked him, closed the door, took the noose down and didn’t hang herself as a result of that interaction; and he has no idea, that that’s what happened.

And then I had a case where a woman was saying to her partner: ‘Look, you take this food I don’t want it’, because she was preparing to kill herself. He didn’t know this, and the partner said ‘I don’t want the food what are you doing?’ and they got into an argument about it, he left and she killed herself. And what we were saying is that the contingency in those situations is really interesting! What if the guy hadn’t got the sandwich in the first story and the what if the guy in the second story had said: ‘Oh, come here, let’s have a cup of tea, give me a hug’ instead of getting angry and just saying ‘Put your food away, don’t be stupid I don’t want it’ and get into an argument? We obviously don’t know how these things will play out and again it sounds so condemning to the poor bloke. But that’s how/why daily interactions are so important. Imagine a scenario where someone gets on the bus, the driver is in a bad mood, he’s just rude to you, you get off the bus and you think: ‘I don’t want to be here no more, people are horrible, I’ll kill myself’ rather than going on the bus and the guy being lovely and letting you off 10p or something. It makes you think: ‘Oh that was so nice’ and your repertoire of action is changed by your relationship to the circumstances you find yourself in.

VII. The concept of repertoires of action

Could/would you please introduce the idea/concept of the repertoires of action for us?

The broader idea is that there is a relationship between three key components of our understanding of a current situation and those will be (a) experiences or our understanding of the experiences that we’ve had throughout our life. The next will be the (b) values and beliefs that we hold as a result of those experiences and the last one is what we call (c) the cluster of circumstances which are made up of the position that we’re in; job, no job, flat, no flat etc. The way things are around us, or the cluster of circumstances, are the things that are present at the time when we are considering a particular action and the relationship between these three then lead us to a set, or repertoire, of actions which appear to us as reasonable.

Now obviously the perception of your experiences can change at any moment, your values and beliefs, if they’re largely led by those perceptions, can also change very quickly and your circumstances can change really quickly so the three of those things are completely dynamic.  If then you are to say that those dynamic features of your life lead you to sets of actions that you think are reasonable, then clearly the sets of actions that appear to you reasonable are also dynamic and change. In fact, they can change in an instant! Following this reasoning, in the one moment the option of suicide is completely unreasonable because your relationship to all of those things means that you wouldn’t kill yourself. In a moment, that can change and suddenly suicide becomes reasonable, and these sets of actions is what we call the repertoires of action. I borrow the concept from social movements theorists who talk about group behaviours and I remember thinking: ‘Actually I don’t think it explains groups nearly as good as it describes individuals’. What it does, is that it accommodates dynamism that was the whole point, it is not a static model and moves away from the temptation of causality or fixity. At no point therefore do we claim that we understand, you can never understand fully what’s going on for someone, you never can. Even individuals themselves often struggle to hold all that.

And this is precisely the virtue of this approach! It invites us to open up our thinking about suicide to a number of possibilities that we might not have considered otherwise, which is what sociology is about after all. To just say; ‘Well you know that’s fair enough but there’s X, Y, Z to consider’ rather than telling people and browbeating people with information we have. Why not invite them to say: ‘Well that’s what we found out, that’s how we make sense of things, what do you think? Let’s discuss’ … 

What I quite liked about it as an idea as well was that it did adhere to all those good sociological principles without ever saying anything definitive or simply saying: ‘You need to ask more questions’. I did like the idea that wherever you are in the exploration of that way of thinking about a particular way of social actions you can say: ‘Do you know what, I reckon that’s what may have happened’. And even though you can never say that with any certainty, I quite like the idea that we were to say: ‘That’s as close that we can get at the moment’ because it felt a bit more like providing some sort of context rather than answers. The whole point of the sociological autopsy method was that we were saying: ‘let’s just see what happens if you take the psychology out’. We weren’t ever saying that the psychology was wrong, but we were saying was that if you look at it psychologically there’s lots of context, lots of scaffolding that you’ll miss and the best way of understanding that social context is sociologically. Because psychology isn’t really designed for such a thing that and that’s great because you can use the two in combination! You don’t simply say: ‘One is wrong and the other one is right’. You just say: ‘You know all about what’s going on in people’s heads so you go ahead and do that we’re supposed to know about how those things are then supported socially so we’ll look at that’ and we found out lots of interesting things particularly in relation to friendships, partner relations and children which aren’t really there in more established accounts. It’d be interesting if someone applied it to Greece or Portugal at the moment because the narrative there is just to do with economics, it must be so strong and that will kind of stream-roll everything in its path. You can always counter that however by arguing that suicide in times of crisis probably has that aspect but this can’t be the whole story because not everybody is doing it. The reason why we’re so quick to judge is because such thinking simply isn’t in our repertoires of action…

Well, perhaps not yet but we can only hope! Thank you very much…

Thank you!    

Dr. Ben Fincham trained as an FE teacher at Cardiff University, where he subsequently completed a PhD and an ESRC postdoctoral fellowship. He then worked as a research associate with Qualiti, a part of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods. He lectured at Brighton University before joining University of Sussex in 2009. He has been involved with developing projects on ‘mobilities’, qualitative approaches to studying work in unstable employment environments and the relationship between work and mental health. He has worked and on gendered aspects of suicide and death as well as gender and research methods. He is currently writing a book for Palgrave Macmillan entitled ‘The Sociology of Fun’. He is also developing projects on sex and sexuality in the Centre for Gender Studies. 

Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music. Recent publications are featured on the British Sociological Association’s Postgraduate Theory Forum and on The Sociological Imagination blog on a variety of issues ranging from the English riots, the idea of sociological imagination and the Eurozone crisis. In the spring of 2013 he achieved Associate Fellow status of the Higher Education Academy. 

References 

Bakewell, S. (2011) How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. London: Vintage

Blacking, J. (1977) The Anthropology of the Body. New York: Academic Press

Camus, A. (2005) The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin Books

De Beauvoir, S. (1948) The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library

Durkheim, E. (1951) Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: The Free Press

Embirikos, A. (1980) Oktana. Athens: Ikaros

Fincham, B. et al. (2011) Understanding Suicide: A Sociological Autopsy. London: Palgrave

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Halbwachs, M. (1992) On Collective Memory. London: University of Chicago Press

Hume, D. (2005) On Suicide. London: Penguin Books

Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1): 11-40 Duke University Press

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press


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