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Abstract

In my dissertation, I seek to understand contemporary ‘suicide’ as a scientific and a political object. In this endeavor, I focus on the features of suicide that make it morally and socially problematic, and the way the discourse on and knowledge production about suicide work to ‘contain’ moral concerns and emotions that arise around it. I conduct my investigation in three parts, paying attention to different structures that participate in the social construction of ‘suicide’— specifically the conceptual, organizational/political, and scientific. In my first chapter, I argue that the realizations of the human capacity to play a part in one’s own death (a type of death I dub ‘ipsal death’) have emerged as matters of concern throughout human history. I identify significant commonalities and differences across different instances of discourse about these ipsal deaths, focusing on the boundaries that distinguish ‘bad’ ipsal deaths from acceptable ones and on discussions of who or what is responsible for such deaths. In this, I identify contemporary discourse on ‘suicide,’ and scientific discourse more specifically, as an instance of these broader efforts to come to terms with ipsal deaths. I also note two factors that distinguish the contemporary discourse on ‘suicide’, as compared to similar kinds of discourse across other contexts. Specifically, contemporary ‘suicide’ exists in an environment shaped by 1) institutional and organizational structures, as well as 2) scientific knowledge production and scientific disciplines, to which I turn in the following chapters. My second chapter, drawing on archival data, newspaper publications and interviews, traces the history of the development of suicide as a ‘national problem’ in the 20th century US and examines the way different organizations, stakeholders, data artefacts and emotions played a role in constituting suicide as a public problem. Through this I identify four features that significantly shape the position ‘suicide’ occupies as a public problem: 1) the understanding of suicide rates as excessive, 2) difficulties in emphasizing the social causes of suicide, especially with respect to 3) the State’s power to shape the definition of, and the response to, the problem, and, finally, 4) emotions of those affected by suicide. In the third chapter, through a publication analysis of scientific work published on suicide, I follow the scientific production of knowledge about suicide across the period between 1960s and 2020. I show that although the field has overall been dominated by the medical sciences, and especially psychiatry, over time it has been diversifying in three ways: 1) following broader patterns of proliferation of interdisciplinary journals, 2) steadily increasing presence of some other disciplines, such as clinical psychology, and 3) with respect to thematic clusters that have been arising in the literature. My overarching goal in is integrating these three distinct views of ‘suicide’ is to provide a multi-dimensional perspective on how different kinds of social structures grapple with and work to contain what is ultimately a complex moral problem.

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