What Hindu Sati can teach us about the sociocultural and social psychological dynamics of suicide

Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 47 (4):522-539 (2017)
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Abstract

By leveraging the case of Hindu sati, this paper elucidates the ways in which structure and culture condition suicidal behavior by way of social psychological and emotional dynamics. Conventionally, sati falls under Durkheim's discussion of altruistic suicides, or the self-sacrifice of underindividuated or excessively integrated peoples like widows in traditional societies. In light of the fact that Durkheim's interpretation was based on uneven data, nineteenth century Eurocentric beliefs, and a theoretical framework that can no longer resist modification and elaboration, by reconsidering sati it is possible to sketch a new model that strengthens Durkheim's theory by making it more robust and generalizable. The following model is built on five principles. First, integration and regulation are not distinct causal forces, but overlapping contextual conditions. Second, to better explain the variation in suicidality across time and space, we must also pay attention to culture as it provides the underlying meanings of suicide that can increase the odds a person or class of persons become suicidal or are protected against suicidality. Third, structure still matters, but in many cases, the role power and power-differentials play must be considered. Fourth, understanding why and how people choose suicide depends on incorporating identity and status processes. Fifth, because the expression of social emotions like shame are patterned by structural and cultural conditions, to understand how suicidality is socioculturally patterned we must further explore the link between identity/status, social emotions, and structure and culture.

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