Currently, Abrutyn has three on-going projects related to suicide and mental health among adolescents with his colleague Dr. Anna Mueller at the University of Chicago. These projects are all tied together by theoretical, methodological, and pragmatic threads. Theoretically, Abrutyn leverages his training in general sociological theory to construct a more robust and comprehensive sociological theory of suicide. Over a century has passed since Durkheim’s classic thesis on Suicide was written, and thus all of Abrutyn’s work is focused on integrating insights from other subfields such as social psychology, emotions, and cultural sociology. Methodologically, Abrutyn uses his training in qualitative methods to explore the links between the meso-level (e.g., groups/communities) and the micro-level (identity; emotions). While most sociological research is focused on population-level suicide rates, it is only possible through qualitative methods to capture the meanings people hold for suicide and, thereby, the motivation and justification for attempting or choosing not to attempt. Finally, these three projects are driven by a desire to bring sociology’s unique tools to the table in order to (1) help prevention efforts and (2) disseminate how teens think and feel about suicide so that other teens, parents, and even clinicians can access these thoughts and, hopefully, fight against feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and shame.
The first project uses nationally representative survey data and an array of quantitative analytic strategies to explore the underlying mechanisms facilitating the spread of suicide from one teenager to another. This work has focused on the role gender plays in shaping adolescent suicidality and contagion, how relationships matter for the spread of suicide, and how symbolic interaction is essential to the spread of suicide. This research can be found in journals such as American Sociological Review and Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
The second project is an ongoing study of a small, affluent, suburban community that has experienced four or more adolescent suicide clusters over the course of the last two decades. Drawing from in-depth interviews, focus groups, and participant observation, we examine (1) the underlying social psychological and emotional dynamics that facilitate the perpetuation of a cultural script that shapes adolescent suicidality and self-harm and (2) the role the community’s culture, as transmitted in school, and by parents and peers, sets the expectations that are nearly impossible to meet, levels the sanctions that create intense pain, and perpetuate the sense that failure is either imminent or tantamount to death. This research can be found in American Sociological Review and is currently the central focus of a book-length manuscript.
The third project is an ongoing theoretical project aimed at reconceptualizing Durkheim’s classic theory of suicide. While Durkheim’s theory has endured because its most basic insights have held empirically true, without considering how emotions, social psychology, cultural sociology, networks, or other elements of social reality contribute to understanding and explaining suicide, sociology is not leveraging all of its tools to tackle a serious social problem. In particular, the goal of this work is to not only guide the two previously mentioned projects, but to reinvigorate sociology’s interest in suicide. For instance, the role shame plays in suicidality has been largely ignored in psychology and sociology, yet anecdotal evidence suggests many cases of suicide are shaped by this most painful social emotion. Hence, Abrutyn’s theoretical work looks to extend and broaden Durkheim’s reach by thinking about the myriad emotions that can motivate suicide, the cultural and structural conditions shaping those emotions, and the role that identity or status play in constructing meanings for why suicide is justified or not. These papers can be found in Sociological Theory, Society and Mental Health, and Sociological Forum.