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Suicide as Social Control


  •  A previous version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Las Vegas, Nevada, August 20–23. The article also received the 2010–2011 Bierstedt Prize given by the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. I thank Donald Black, Rae Lesser Blumberg, Mark Cooney, Elizabeth Nalepa, James Tucker, and the anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts.


Suicide may be moralistic in nature—a response to conduct the perpetrator defines as deviant. Moralistic suicide can be explained with a general theory of social control. Donald Black’s theories of social control explain the handling of grievances with their social structure—or geometry—as defined by the social characteristics and relationships of those involved in a conflict. Here I draw on Black’s paradigm of pure sociology and theories of social control to identify the social structure of moralistic suicide. For example, moralistic suicide varies directly with social closeness and is greater in an upward direction than in a downward direction. This theory is simple, general, testable, and explains variation not addressed by previous theories of suicide.