“Suicide Cultures”: A Contradiction in Terms? Haim Hazan and Raquel Romberg

The emerging controversy between Amy Chandler et al. (2022) and us (Hazan and Romberg 2022) regarding the meaning and use of “suicide cultures” outreaches the bounds of merely conceptual discourse to the domain of the epistemological capacity of comprehending a phenomenon with inadequate apparatuses. Our standpoint is that even though suicide is patently unfathomable, the heuristic application of the term “culture” could ease the predicament of coping with its inexorable inexplicability.  As “culture” implies some sense of coherence and the act of suicide denies it, there is an inbuilt contradiction between the two, and the discrepancy that straddles meaning and interpretation is thus rendered unbridgeable … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Article Citation:

Hazan, Haim and Raquel Romberg. 2023. “‘Suicide Cultures’: A Contradiction in Terms?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (2): 1-4. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7zu.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

This article replies to:

❧ Chandler, Amy, Joe Anderson, Rebecca Helman, Sarah Huque, Emily Yue. 2022. “Reimagining Suicide Research: The Limits and Possibilities of Suicide Cultures.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (10): 20-28.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Hazan, Haim and Raquel Romberg. 2022. “The Location of Suicide: Cultural Parameters of a Public Health Territory.” Social Epistemology 36 (6): 731–747.

Regarding “Suicide Cultures”

As the title “Reimagining Suicide Research: The Limits and Possibilities of Suicide Cultures” suggests, Chandler et al. aim to show what they have done in the context of contemplating “suicide cultures” in their research project, which is intended to evoke a “transformative call to action” (20). A major difference in goals between that mission and our undertaking is evident here, which perhaps sheds a light on the spirit of their commentary and the few points of convergence that might promote a dialogue between the divergent approaches.

In “The Location of Suicide: Cultural Parameters of a Public Health Territory,” we raised important epistemological and methodological issues to encourage a more critical (i.e., updated) and careful use of the culture card within suicide research and policy.

First, the citation of our brief explanation of “suicide cultures” in Chandler et al. is incomplete. Here, we add the crucial omission in italics:

‘Suicide cultures,’ a term we coined for highlighting temporal, agentive, performative, and social justice questions of suicide and culture, place the preoccupation with mortality and terminality at its core. This turn in the analysis of public health sheds a non-perfunctory light on the cultural parameters of counting of and accounting for the incidence of suicide in different social settings (731).

Their version of “suicide cultures,” instead, aims at “understanding suicide as a diverse, meaningful, dynamic, and embodied cultural practice (20).

This is quite similar to our version, except for the crucial missing part of our quote in italics. At this point, it is crucial to make our basic distinction not only in terms of goals, but also more importantly in terms of conceptualization of suicide cultures.

Our article begins with the epistemological and methodological questioning of the unfounded certainty that the role of culture has acquired in suicide research. This is precisely what Chandler et al. bracket in their project. In our introduction to Suicide Social Dramas: Life-Giving Moral Breakdowns in the Israeli Pubic Sphere (2021), we begin with a reflection that highlights “the preoccupation with mortality and terminality” that also guided and underscored our coinage of “suicide cultures.” Updating Camus’s oft-quoted statement that “there is only one really serious philosophical problem and that is suicide […] All other questions follow from that” (Camus 2013 [1942], 3), we wrote from a practice perspective:

If death is a riddle, suicide is an aporia. A human impasse, suicide is, therefore, outside of logic and language. Being undecipherable, any attempts to parse its grammar would amount to belie the unfathomable mystique of the irreversible act of self-annihilation. Yet, it is because of the fascination with that ultimate mystery of the human condition that so many academic disciplines as well as professional apparatuses avail themselves to conceptualizing, theorizing, foreboding, and preventing ‘voluntary death,’ or otherwise coined ‘self-murder’ (Hazan and Romberg 2021,1).

In their research project Chandler et al. fall into the latter category, equipped with their own construction and operationalization of suicide cultures that bracket not just the aporia of suicide but also the epistemological and methodological critique of culture. The latter seems to be essential to any attempt at reflecting upon the concept of suicide culture, particularly when it comes to the betrayal of culture in the form of committing a voluntary and non-consensual ending of life.

A small but no less significant remark: the italicization of the name of this research group (see page 20) in the commentary is misleading because it creates the expectation of a published argument and evidence. Rather, the name represents a wonderfully organized and funded research project with its own prolific blogging site, newsletter, and seminar. This is perhaps one of the sources of the incongruence between their commentary and our expectation of critical engagement with our article and its underlying concerns. It is therefore frustrating to note that the authors have chosen not to grapple with our ideas and instead have limited themselves to publicizing their own unpublished projects, which, incidentally, are widely accessible in the various online channels mentioned above.

They write:

Core to our project is a concern with ‘culture’ […] we offer an engagement with and extension of some of the concerns and possibilities sketched out by Hazan and Romberg […] for the purposes of further deepening our understanding of culture in suicidology (Chandler et al. 2022, 21).

It would appear that the agenda of Chandler et al. unfortunately blurs their understanding and the factual basis of our review and critique of the way culture has been addressed and operationalized in general, particularly in  regard to research. Their summary of our critique of culture is reductive and rather inaccurate: Hazan and Romberg problematize “attempts to study culture as observable, extractable, identifiable and measurable (22). We refer readers to our full critique, predominantly the disciplinary genealogy of the concept of culture and its recent revisions as public culture, especially its relevance to current suicide research, which does an excellent job of integrating macro and micro studies of suicide (Hazan and Romberg 2022).

Moreover, their statement, “In contrast, Hazan and Romberg appear to propose a study of culture that centres on discourse alone” (Chandler et al. 2022, 22) is misleading in at least two ways: first, we are not proposing a study of culture, and if we were, we would not be focusing it solely on discourse. (See our review in the section “Thick Culture and Suicide”, 739-741, for the comprehensive work being done combining macro and micro lenses in suicide research.)

Conversely, our approach to culture interweaves the discursive and the non-discursive as it synergizes action, interaction and tenets of morality to generate a sense and sensor of rebellion and resistance to all these components finally embodied in the act of the suicide. In this respect our anthropological take on the understanding of suicide is in line with the holistic teachings that spans the vista of our discipline, which is diametrically opposed to Chandler et al.’s merely value oriented perception of culture.

On Measuring Culture

Finally, in our article, measuring culture is a thoroughly ill-conceived mirage, not just “difficult” and “necessarily incomplete,” as Chandler et al. write (2022, 23). Our critique makes this clear. Moreover, the connection Chandler et al. draw between not measuring culture and the lack of quantitative research when they infer about our critique that “this may mean […] that quantitative approaches have no place in suicide research” (23) is incommensurable with our methodological critique. Our concern was limited to the critique of the coherence of measurements of and with culture, not to the general place of quantitative research in suicide studies. Instead, we exhort against the use or abuse of statistical methods and numeric data to assess the “meaning” of suicide. When we stated that “Statistical reporting of suicides, mediatized appraisals of suicide trends, and overall changes in aspirational scopes among different sectors of the population may influence the ways in which suicide is deployed, interpreted, and sensed” (741), we emphasized the importance of weighing the role of statistics in suicide cultures, not their total omission, as Chandler et al. seem to have inferred (23-24 ).

Their concern about our support for the addition of “nonreactive data,” “consisting of readily available representations of suicide in the public domain,” to “unravel local social meanings and dramas of suicide” (742) is unfounded. Our comment about “non-reactive” was not intended as a substitute for statistical data, but as an additional lens: non-reactive includes statistical and other data that the researcher has not produced/elicited. This by no means suggests that they are in any way “objective”; on the contrary, like comments in newspapers, they exist and are available and open to interpretation regardless of the researcher’s intentions.

To clear up the methodological mess here: If suicide researchers want to conduct field research, they should be aware that the voices of the suicides themselves can, of course, only be recovered (in letters, reports from family members, reminiscing by kith and kin as well as media accounts etc.), that is, through embodied and affective “representations,” and opinions such as they may be. The experience of suicide is not available in a non-mediated form. It is therefore crucial that they be treated and evaluated according to the comprehensive critique of crossed ethnographic methods in order to avoid naïve assumptions about how data on suicide are created “in collaboration with our participants” (Chandler et al. 2022, 25).

In sum, our epistemological and methodological critique of culture does not preclude the use of the culture card (see our examples) provided it is done in an informed, updated, prudent and critical way that does justice to a moot subject beyond the realms of imagined safe zones of commonplace codes of “culture” rather than culture.

Author Information:

Haim Hazan, hazan@tauex.tau.ac.il, is Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology and co-director of the Minerva Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of the End of Life at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Old Age: Constructions and Deconstructions and Against Hybridity: Social Impasses in a Globalizing World.

Raquel Romberg, rombergraquel@gmail.com, is Senior Researcher at the Minerva Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of the End of Life, Tel Aviv University, Israel. She is the author of Healing Dramas: Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico and Witchcraft and Welfare: Spiritual Capital and the Business of Magic in Modern Puerto Rico. https://raifi.academia.edu/RaquelRomberg.


Camus, Albert. 2013 [1942]. The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin.

Chandler, Amy, Joe Anderson, Rebecca Helman, Sarah Huque, Emily Yue. 2022. “Reimagining Suicide Research: The Limits and Possibilities of Suicide Cultures.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (10): 20-28.

Hazan, Haim and Raquel Romberg. 2022. “The Location of Suicide: Cultural Parameters of a Public Health Territory.” Social Epistemology 36 (6): 731–747.

Hazan, Haim and Raquel Romberg. 2021. Suicide Social Dramas: Life-Giving Moral Breakdowns in the Israeli Public Sphere. London: Routledge.

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