On the ethics of suicide research

Recently I read an article about the ethics in historical research written by Riikka Miettinen (2017). In her earlier studies, she has concentrated on the history of suicide in seventeenth-century Sweden (Miettinen 2015), and in the article, she discusses ethical aspects of suicide research. Similar to my own study, the sources Miettinen uses in her research predate the modern era. Many of the ethical problems she discusses are quire relevant for my own study as well. As Miettinen points out, there are many ethical issues that need to be considered in a historical study, even though the sources and people who are studied were produced and lived over 100 years ago. I will summarize some of her main points below.

In historical sciences, heavy, and adequate, source criticism is the key to ethical research. The sources are studied in the cultural and historical context where they were produced. Attention is paid to the producers of the sources, his or her values and attitudes, which may have distorted the recorded information. Instead of relying on a single source and the one-sided views it may offer, sources that offer a comprehensive and wide-ranging view of the phenomenon are studied. Multi-method approaches are utilized to draw a picture that illuminates not only single but various aspects of the phenomenon. (Miettinen 2017, 146–147, 149, 151.) As historians, we must be aware that what we find out in our study may not be absolute ‘truths’, but possibilities, in the polyphonic reality of the past, which contains multiple voices, some of them silenced, some of them loud.

Historical research should be honest, open-minded and transparent. Historical research questions prevailing truths, but treats the subjects of the past in a morally just and respectful way. Choosing to study suicide is an ethical statement as such. The ethics of historical study of suicide also require that the subject – suicide – is not morally appraised (e.g. neither condemned nor eulogized) by the researcher, but objectively examined. (Miettinen 2017, 140, 142, 149.) (Needless to say, this requirement applies to academic peer-reviewers as well!) However, treating the object of research in a just manner and explaining the phenomenon in question (i.e. making it understandable in that e.g. the motives of the act are comprehended) does not mean that deed would thus become justified. A researcher does not give a moral verdict, but must remain objective. (Miettinen 2017, 151.) To make the process of research more transparent it is advisable to discuss the ethical issues (such as the ethical choices made) as the sources are interpreted and the results are reported. (Miettinen 2017, 157.)

The results and interpretations should be presented in an ethical way. The mode of presentation should be considerate and matter-of-fact. Secrecy is not part of proper historical research. Hiding things or leaving things unsaid would be an ideological choice as such: silence may reinforce normative attitudes, such as views of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ death (whatever those terms mean in each context). Sensitive issues, which relate to people still alive, may not be revealed, but although there is no need to anonymize or leave the personal data of people who died over 100 years ago unmentioned, it should also be born in mind that the privacy and the memory of the deceased should be respected. Open science should nevertheless be our aim. (Miettinen 2017, 143, 152–155.) Studying pre-modern sources usually meet the aim of open science in that most of the sources are publicly available in various institutions and in academic editions.

As historians, we should recognize that the object of our study is characterized with ‘otherness’, that is, it is ‘alien’ to us. Modern theories cannot necessarily be applied to the past that this ‘alien’ inhabits. (Miettinen 2017, 150–151.) For instance, we cannot apply modern – medicalized – theories of suicide (i.e. theories as explanations of why some people become suicidal and engage in suicidal behavior) to medieval or early modern subjects. Medical conditions such as depression and mental disorder are not necessarily the sole causes of suicide in all cultural and historical contexts, although the tendency to locate, in Ian Marsh’s words, “the source of suicidality within the pathologized ‘interiority’ of the individual subject” has been part of “‘the great origin myth’ in suicidology” for quite some time (Marsh 2013, 752–753). Earlier research suggests that motives for self-killing have varied – consider, for instance, the Japanese seppuku as a “socially and culturally prescribed” form of role-behavior (Fusé 1980), or some male suicide cases in late twentieth-century Finland whose motive for self-killing appears to have been revenge (a revenge sometimes enacted even from beyond the grave, as the men would e.g. promise in their suicide notes to haunt their former spouses). (See Honkasalo 2014, 187–188.)

Choosing the concepts that we will use in our study and defining these concepts, is an ethical choice as well. As Miettinen points out, the term ”suicide” should be used with care when studying sources from pre-reformation era, since the word for the act is fairly late in e.g. Scandinavian languages as well as in German and English. For instance, according to Online Erymology Dictionary, the word suicide with the meaning ”deliberate killing of oneself” started to be used first in the 1650s. (See ”Suicide” in https://www.etymonline.com/word/suicide; Miettinen 2017, 156.) The Icelandic term for self-killing, sjálfsmorð, dates from the 18th century and similar to other Scandinavian languages, it includes the word ”murder” (i.e. morð) – therefore according to the literal translation of the word, by then at least, suicide was considered a “self-murder”. Murder, then, was considered to be one of the most severe crimes, and therefore, the term sjálfsmorð in itself had (and has) moral and condemning connotations. (It may be telling that before suicide became “self-murder”, sjálfsmorð, medieval saga writers, for instance, would speak of self-killing by describing act (e.g. “he killed himself”) or the method.)

Regarding the definition of the term, some may be eager to distinguish between suicide, self-sacrifice and martyrdom, for instance. All of the three terms are quite handy in some contexts, but the researcher should be aware of the various normative connotations of these terms. Distinguishing between the terms in question may be based on an implicit presupposition that, for instance, martyrdom is heroic, noble and admirable, whereas suicide may indicate something else. ‘Suicide’ is perhaps held as the opposite of martyrdom – unheroic, ignoble, and despicable – so that somebody’s martyr is another man’s suicide. Such definitions of ‘suicide’ and ‘martyrdom’ – and not being aware of the connotations of these terms – pose a risk in that by using the concepts in question a researcher implicitly categorizes some deaths as ‘good’ and some deaths as ‘bad’. Although Émile Durkheim’s classic study of suicide (1897) has been criticized – e.g. because his theory appears to presuppose moral condemnation of suicide and regards self-killing as social pathology – following his definition of suicide makes it possible to place both martyrdom and self-sacrifice under the category of suicide (which is the main category in his study).  According to him, the essential element in suicide is that an individual does actively or passively something that directly or indirectly causes his or her death and is aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he or she will die. (Durkheim 1897.) Despite the criticism presented, Durkheim’s definition of suicide is a good point of departure in our search for less normative research concepts.


As a researcher, it is also important to bear in mind that research on suicide has an impact on people. The influence is perhaps the greatest in interview surveys where questions posed may also influence people’s attitudes towards suicide. (Miettinen 2017, 139–140.) Although studying pre-modern sources does not involve interviews, the point made by Miettinen has relevance in the study of the history of suicide in general. Historical research is not only about the past, but also about the present. History affects the present, and to answer questions concerning the present and to understand the present better, it helps us if we also know the past. History is knowledge, but knowledge is power as well. (On the power-knowledge concept, i.e. pouvoirsavoir, see Foucault 1995 [1975], 27–28.) It is not irrelevant how the power is exercised and therefore, firstly, what kind of knowledge is acquired (what kind of questions are asked) and secondly, how this knowledge – that is, the results of the research – is disseminated. (See also Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 36.)

Concerning the first aspect of power, the questions the researcher chooses to pose on the sources often reflect the concerns of the time and culture that the researcher inhabits. The researcher should be aware of these concerns that may influence – either implicitly or explicitly – his or her choice of the subject. S/he should also recognize the aims of his or her study – what contemporary discussions his/her research and results will contribute to. Personal interests and values may have an impact on one’s work and again, objectivity is required. (Miettinen 2017, 141–142.) Taking up the subject of suicide can as such be a form of critique towards power structures as well as towards our limitations of thought (e.g. if we try to universalize the phenomenon and do not recognize its cultural and historical aspects). Studying the subject objectively and critically helps us to better understand the phenomenon in question. (Marsh 2013.)

Concerning the second aspect of power, the results of the research may have an impact on people, but it is sometimes hard to predict the nature and depth of this influence. In the case of interview surveys, the risk of influence is linked to the use of vulnerable subjects as interviewees. The vulnerability of these subjects (e.g. suicidal individuals) “is connected to substantial incapacity to protect one’s own interests”, such as “the inability to protect oneself from exposure to an unreasonable risk of harm.” (Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 28.) Similar vulnerability may not characterize only the subjects that are studied, but also the recipients of the information that the study produces. As the research results are reported, a question worth considering is, whether you should regard all the recipients of your knowledge as vulnerable, that is, vulnerable to the contents of the knowledge you intend to disseminate, and vulnerable to the potential of this knowledge to influence their ideas and behavior. ( See also Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 36.)

Although – philosophically speaking – from the libertarian perspective individuals have a freedom of choice and from the relativist perspective the (un)acceptability of suicide depends “upon the nature of the situation” and therefore also “the obligation to protect life varies depending upon an analysis of the situation”, researchers agree that they have the moral obligation to protect life. (Miettinen 2017, 139; Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 25–26.) For this reason, dissemination of research results is an act (of power) that requires careful ethical consideration.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “On the ethics of suicide research.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 29 December, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/12/29/on-the-ethics-of-suicide-research/  >


Works cited

Durkheim, Émile 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. Available electronically at: http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/Durkheim_emile/suicide/suicide.html

Foucault, Michel. 1995 [1977]. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books. Originally published in French, Surveiller et punir, 1975.

Fusé, Toyomasa. 1980. “Suicide and Culture in Japan: A Study of Seppuku as an Institutionalized Form of Suicide.” Social Psychiatry 15 (1980), 57–63.

Honkasalo, Marja-Liiisa. 2014. “ ‘When We Stop Living, We also Stop Dying’. Men, Suicide, and Moral Agency.” In Culture, Suicide and the Human Condition, ed. Marja-Liisa Honkasalo & Miira Tuominen. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 171–198.

Marsh, Ian. 2013. “The Uses of History in the Unmaking of Modern Suicide.” Journal of Social History 46 (2013) 3: 744–756.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. Tampere: University of Tampere, the School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2017. “Hullut, pahat, olosuhteiden uhrit? Eettiset kysymykset itsemurhien historian tutkimuksessa.” [The mad, the bad, the victims of circumstances? Ethical questions in the study of the history of suicides] In Historiantutkimuksen etiikka [The ethics in historical research], ed. Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola. [Helsinki]: Gaudeamus, 139–158.

Mishara, Brian L. & David N. Weisstub. 2005. ”Ethical and Legal Issues in Suicide Research.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 28 (2005), 23–41.


When suicide became insane

An interesting study of the nineteenth-century New York State Lunatic Asylum by Kathleen M. Brian (2016) discusses suicide and its link with insanity and mental disorder. Brian points out that suicide became linked with suicide more frequently as a result of its criminalization, which had taken place in many parts of the Europe in the Middle Ages. Confiscation of property was not part of the legal punishment of suicide everywhere in Europe, but for instance in England where the chattels of the suicide were forfeited the practice of confiscation appears to have caused verdicts non compos mentis, that is, it was indicated that the suicide had not been in sound mind, instead of felonia de se. Obtaining such a verdict could mean that the property of the suicide was not confiscated. (Brian 2016, 589)

It was well understood that confiscation of property did not really punish the suicide but his or her family, and in England the punishment appears to have become less “popular” in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, although suicide did remain a legal felony.[1] In the American colonies, then, the practice of confiscation that was part of the traditional law in England ended, e.g. in Massachusetts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although suicide still remained a secular and religious crime. Earlier research on the situation in early modern Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, the Carolinas, Georgia and New Hampshire also suggests that forfeiture may have been avoided or the property of the suicide could be undervalued, to avoid impoverishing the relatives of the suicide.(Brian 2016, 589–590; Snyder 2007,  663)

Insanity as the cause of suicide nevertheless suggested that the suicide had e.g. temporarily lacked reason and will and was therefore innocent. As a result, the family and the relatives of the suicide could not be reprehended for not having been able to prevent the act. The statistics of nineteenth-century medical professionals (including the staff working in the above mentioned asylum studied by Brian 2016), supported the popular view of suicide as an act linked to insanity – and emphasized the role of asylums in preventing suicides. All in all, the tendency to consider self-killers insane has been interpreted by historians as a sign of growing tolerance and compassion towards suicides in the early modern societies. (Brian 2016, 587–588, 589–596; Snyder 2007, 663, 667)

The empathy and tolerance towards self-killers and their families was also expressed in language. The coining of the term “suicide” in seventeenth-century England and its use, which increased gradually, as well the spreading of the term in Europe, which took place in the eighteenth century, have been seen as expressions of the growing sensibility and less derogatory attitude towards suicide. (Snyder 2007, 659, 667)

Kathleen M. Brian’s study concentrates on nineteenth-century North American context, but apparently reflects a cultural change that gradually took place in the western world in general. The popular press may have had an important role in this change. The press criticized the practice of what was considered the traditional law, which still found suicide a crime. They also criticized local cases – for instance, if a suicide had been refused a burial in the churchyard, or if s/he was buried in a manner that was considered pagan, e.g. in crossroads. The press would also report the causes of death, including causes of suicide. Ascribing suicide to insanity was apparently seen to protect the self-killers family. (Brian 2016, 589–591) Simultaneously the views of suicide and its cause presented in media also shaped the views of suicide held by people in general.

As the attitudes changed, suicide can be said to have became medicalized. What had previously been considered bad, deviant and demonic became a sickness or mental distress. Accordingly, suicide became an act that was associated with the depressed, the mad and the melancholic. (Snyder 2007, 659; on medicalization, see e.g. Conrad & Schneider 1992; on the origin of the tolerating attitudes, see e.g. MacDonald & Murphy; briefly also in Snyder 2007, 660)

However, the views of people, the punishments imposed in courts and actual burial practices were not consistent in England and its colonies, or in rest of the Europe, but could differ from place to place, as well as from social class to another. As Terri Snyder has pointed out in her study of the history of suicide in early modern west, wealthy and respected heads of the household or members of the aristocracy and clergy could go unpunished or given the verdict non compos mentis more often than people of the lower classes. In addition, such marginalized people as slaves, servants and criminals were more likely to be punished post-mortem than other people, e.g. by mutilation of the corpse or deviant burial, in case such punishments were still practiced. (Snyder 2007, 662–665)

Although the medicalization of suicide has also been criticized since the 1970s (e.g. Zola 1972) and continues to be criticized, it has been suggested that even today, both laymen and professionals often consider depression as the most likely reason for suicide (Kral 1994).  None of the professionals would presumably think that depression were the only cause of suicide, but the argument deserves some further consideration. Although the study made by Emile Durkheim in the 19th century (which is a classic) has been widely criticized since he relied on official statistics and did not consider the possibility that people who were responsible for those statistics may have defined “suicide” differently (on the criticism, see e.g. Douglas 1967; Van Poppel & Day 1996; Varty 2000), the results of his study merit some attention here and serve as an eye-opener.

Based on his sources, Durkheim argued that mental illnesses (as they were defined in Durkheim’s time) and suicides were not unequivocally linked. Mental illness could result in suicide, but also people defined as sane committed suicide – a notion that could already be read between the lines of the studies of Brian (2016) and Snyder (2007) discussed above. In addition, Durkheim was apparently critical towards the urbanization of his own time, and he also brought forth that suicide was more widespread in towns and cities than in the countryside. He also concluded that suicide was more common among the wealthy and the educated than among the poor, and among the military people than among the civilians. (Durkheim 1952 [1897].)

Durkheim’s research needs to be handled with criticism, but his observations are interesting since they emphasize the multiplicity of the causes. (Although the observations can also be regarded as a critical attitude as far as the medicalization of suicide is concerned, I will not discuss here in greater depth Durkheim’s role in the criticism in question.) Following from Durkheim’s observations, I have grown more aware of the bias that may lurk behind the sources as well as earlier research. For instance: that people’s views of suicide and their causes may not always tell of actual causes but of “imagined causes” in that people may interpret the act in light of the knowledge and understanding they have concerning the causes of suicide considered common in the culture they inhabit. Or, that the mental aspects of suicide may be emphasized and more vigorously looked for in research if there is a tendency in the researcher’s own culture to see suicide as the result of depression and melancholy. When studying the history of suicide we have to keep our eyes open to see even those causes of suicide that are not considered likely or obvious in our own culture, but which contemporary people may have held as common causes of suicide.

Accordingly, questions that rise when studying suicide in medieval Scandinavia include whether suicides could be committed for reasons that differed from the ones usually listed among the common causes of suicide e.g. in medieval and early modern European context, such as  depression, despair, melancholy, mental disorder, crises of faith, economic collapse, extreme physical pain, and so on? Could suicides be committed, for instance, as a consequence of anger or fury, or spite and scorn, out of disrespect towards others or to harm them, to exercise power and authority over others, or to benefit other members of the  society? Or, for other reasons, which have not yet been discovered?


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “When suicide became insane.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 4 April, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/when-suicide-became-insane/  >


Works cited

Brian, Kathleen M. 2016. “The Weight of Perhaps Ten or a Dozen Human Lives”: Suicide, Accountability, and the Life-Saving Technologies of the Asylum. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 90 (2016) 4, 583–610.

Conrad, Peter & Schneider, Joseph. 1992 [1980]. Deviance and Medicalization. From Badness to Sickness. (With a new afterword by the authors). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Douglas, Jack D. 2015 [1967]. The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UniversityPress.

Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.

Kral, Michael J. 1994. Suicide as Social Logic. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior 24 (1994) 3, 245–255.

MacDonald, Michael & Terence R. Murphy. 1990. Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. University of Tampere, the School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Snyder, Terri L. 2007. What Historians Talk About When They Talk About Suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America. History Compass 5/2 (2007): 658–674.

van Poppel, Frans & Lincoln H. Day. 1996. A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide: Without Committing the ‘Ecological Fallacy.’ American Sociological Review 61 (1996) 3, 500–507.

Varty, John. 2000. Suicide, Statistics and Sociology. Assessing Douglas’ Critique of Durkheim. In Durkheim’s Suicide: A Century of Research and Debate, ed. W.S.F. Pickering & Geoffrey Walford. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought 28. London, New York: Routledge, 53–65.

Zola, Irving. 1972. Medicine as an Institution of Social Control. The Sociological Review 20 (1972) 4, 487–504.


[1] As has been shown in earlier research, in medieval and early modern Sweden, for instance, the property of the suicide was not confiscated, although suicide was considered a felony and burial (outside the churchyard or in the woods) was part of the posthumous punishment of the suicide. Miettinen 2015.