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.


The ethics of research, part I: Introduction

Research on suicide is a delicate matter and involves many ethical issues. The history of suicide may be a delicate matter too, but since in my own study I am concentrating on sources that were produced in the 12th to 14th-century Iceland and are all publicly available as they consist of archived material and academic editions, the first reaction concerning my “test subjects” and “informants” – medieval people who died hundreds of years ago – is usually not ethical concern as it is usually understood in science. For instance, I don’t need to provide support to the “participants” of my project – individuals that appear in medieval sources, who may be either fictive or real depending on the source – or respond sensitively to their needs, or ensure that help is available should the questions I ask from my sources have caused them distress. Nevertheless, ethical issues are of great concern in historical research.

To summarize very roughly, the ethical guidelines of the American Historical Association to historians, for instance, encourage sharing the standard values of the discipline with other historians (e.g. by avoiding ethnocentric analyses), striving for critical dialogue, acknowledging assistance and support – both financial and intellectual – avoiding plagiarism, participating in the transmission of historical knowledge and so on. I will continue addressing the issue ethics & historical research in my later posts, but at the moment I want to start with concerns that especially have to do with this blog of mine, which is, after all, part of electronic and social media, and the policy of open access publication, which has become fairly popular within the academic world in the past few years. And I’m definitely in favour of open access publication since it enables democratic access to academic knowledge, which in many cases is publicly-funded (although for my own part, I am funded by private funds and foundations, i.e. the Ella and Georg Ehrnrooth Foundation and Otto A. Malm donationsfond).

What made me particularly concerned about the ethics of my research with respect to what I write in my research blog or publish in open access journals was the realization that although my role is not similar to media and my blog cannot make a similar impact as the media does, there are “googles” and other search engines that may spread my words to places and destinations I could not realize they could reach. For this reason, I became interested in the guides and recommendations for reporting suicide in media, which have been widely discussed in the media e.g. in connection with celebrity suicides. (See, for example, the examples in the Guardian and BBC News) The main point in the discussion has been that reporting and portraying suicide in media requires great sensitivity since suicides (especially celebrity suicides) may engender copycat behavior – although, on the other hand, responsible and sensitive reporting may reduce the stigma of suicide and prompt people to seek help. Various guides and recommendations produced by institutions and organizations that aim at preventing suicides are available for the media, such as those at Samaritans.org, reporting on suicide.org and euregenas.eu, the latter published by Euregenas (European Regions Enforcing Actions Against Suicide), a three years project that was funded from the European Union under the Public Health Programme in 2008–2013.

In a nutshell (I’m here referring to the Euregenas Toolkit for Media Professionals now), it is recommended that the reporter only sticks to facts, does not place the news item in a prominent place, e.g by mentioning the word “suicide” in the title, points out that suicides are preventable and multi-factorial, respects people who have been bereaved by suicide and gives information about support centers, does not give excessive details concerning e.g. the method, avoids normalizing suicide, or glorifying or dramatizing it, e.g. by suggesting that there is a suicide epidemic, and does not publish any images that can be considered sensational.

For a historian, the requirement “sticking to facts” sounds reasonable. To put it simply: we aim at truth, but simultaneously struggle to define what is truth, but even if ten historians worked on the same problem they could arrive at different conclusions. To cite the “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct”, section 2 by the American Historical Association:

“We honor the historical record, but understand that its interpretation constantly evolves as historians analyze primary documents in light of the ever-expanding body of secondary literature that places those documents in a larger context.”

Scholars who study the history of suicide usually also follow the contemporary discussion on suicide and research done in other disciplines, and accept their views of suicide as a multi-factorial, preventable phenomenon that should not be glorified, normalized or dramatized. If needed, most of us would probably do our job as a fellow human being and help people in finding support centers, should we arrive in a situation that requires such action. Most of us would probably not publish any sensational pictures either.

But: sometimes the sensational is precisely what the historians are studying, and as we scrutinize the historical record we aim at finding as many details as possible. Historians often study what actually happened and when and where, but their research and results may also help us to interpret similar phenomena in our modern world. The past helps us to understand the present. But sometimes the past too can be scary, sensational, horrific, even repulsive.

Although as historians we shouldn’t need to compromise our scholar’s independence, we have to concern ethical issues as we write about and disseminate the results of our work. Toolkits for media professionals are helpful in finding appropriate ways of dealing with the issue in social media, for instance, but the scholar’s independence poses some questions that require pondering. These are questions that I intend to return in my forthcoming posts, along with other questions that come up during my research process.

Sources referred to

Alberti, Fay Bound. “Democratic Access to Academic Knowledge.” Open Democracy, 23 June 2010, https://www.opendemocracy.net/fay-bound-alberti/briefing-on-open-access-and-policy-reform

Allen, Liam. “Robin Williams death: How should the media report a suicide?” BBC News, 13 August 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-28772923

Boseley, Sarah. “Robin Williams death: media has duty to report suicide responsibly.” The Guardian, 13 August 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/13/robin-williams-media-report-suicide

Euregenas (European Regions Enforcing Actions Against Suicide), http://www.euregenas.eu/

Lipscomb, Suzannah. “A Question of Interpretation.” History Today, 28 January 2016, http://www.historytoday.com/suzannah-lipscomb/question-interpretation

reporting on suicide.org, http://reportingonsuicide.org/

Pardi, Paul. “What is Truth?” Philosophy News, 29 January 2015, http://www.philosophynews.com/post/2015/01/29/What-is-Truth.aspx

Samaritans, http://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide

“Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.” American Historical Association, https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/statements-and-standards-of-the-profession/statement-on-standards-of-professional-conduct


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The ethics of research, part I: Introduction.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 January 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/the-ethics-of-research-part-i-introduction/  >