These are the slides from my Studying Society course at Durham University’s Foundation Centre. This weeks session focusses on sociological explanations for crime, using the case study of serial killing.
See http://www.theorycards.org.uk/main.htm for a large number of ‘trading cards’ for different social theorists and theories.Crime card game.Give out cards with different crimes on (e.g. domestic violence, fraud etc.) and ask groups to think about which theoreties can provide explanations/ interpretations for different crimes.
Most of the components of this stipulative definition could perhaps be challenged.So, for example, to assert that 'there is no relationship between perpetrator and victim' is astringent condition and would certainly exclude some perpetrators, such as Dennis Nilsen andFrederick and Rosemary West, whom most would regard as serial killers. In fact, whatconstitutes a 'relationship' is problematic and it seems Egger is too restrictive in hisconceptualisation of 'relationships'. Indeed, we later suggest that serial killing can usefully beconceptualised as a relationship in the broadest sense of being grounded in patriarchy andcapitalist relations.The assertion that murders have to take place in different locations to be classified as serialkilling again is unnecessarily restrictive. It seems curious to disqualify a killer who lures orforces his/her victims to a specific location to be killed from being labelled as a serial killer.Frederick and Rosemary West, who killed at least nine young women (non-familial victims),will retain the label of serial killers despite committing the known offences at the sameaddress in Gloucester (Sounes, 1995).Source of FBI definition
Emphasise focus on British serial killing, and explain structural explanation (and difference to individual explanations)
Studying Society: Sociological explanations for Serial Killing
Natural Born Criminals?
What causes crime?
Case study – serial killers
Theories Marxism Feminisms Functionalism
Focus Capitalist exploitation
Male exploitation of
How society is so
Weakness Overlooks gender
Doesn’t explain change
For each crime consider:
Which theoretical viewpoints are most useful in discussing them?
Which features of the crime would those theorists focus on?
What kinds of questions would they ask?
What causes these crimes? How does the theory help explain them?
“Serial killing industry”
• Film, computer games
• Detection software and hardware
Rare in UK
Individualised detection efforts are effective
• Historical and cultural specificity of SK is ignored
Defining serial killing
• there must be at least 2 victims;
• no relationship between perpetrator and victim;
• the murders are committed at different times and have no direct connection
to previous or following murders;
• the murders occur at different locations;
• the murders are not committed for material gain;
• subsequent victims have characteristics in common with earlier victims
• FBI definition
• one or more offenders
• two or more murdered victims
• incidents should be occurring in separate events, at different times
• the time period between murders separates serial murder from mass murder
Assumption that individual actors are driven to extreme behaviours
because of psychological ‘abnormalities’
Hare Psychopathy Checklist:
are you a psychopath?
y for actions
Problems with medical
Most serial killers are not mad.
Growing acceptance of social factors, but still minor
Can’t explain variations in time and space
• E.g. Interwar germany
Hunting Humans (Leyton 1986)
First study to suggest that psychological explanation are not enough to
explain multiple killings
Concept of “Homicidal protest”
• “the configuration of the social structure is such that some persons when
faced with challenges to their position in the social hierarchy react to those
challenges through the 'protest' of killing members of the threatening group”
Pre-industrial Industrial (modern) Post modern (since
Killer Aristocratic Middle classes (e.g.
Upper working/ lower
middle class (e.g.
Victim Peasantry ‘Lower orders’ (e.g.
Middle classes (e.g.
Little evidence of serial killing (esp. with
Aristocrats were threatened by peasantry and
• Serial killing about class control
• E.g. Gilles de Rais
Creation of middle class professionals to serve needs of bourgeoisie
Serial killing here symbolic extension of industrialised discipline
Enforced new moral order, one which demanded extraction of maximum
value from proletariat
“heinous conclusion the unprecedented control demanded by the cash-nexus
of industrial Capitalism”
Post-modern (post 1960s)
Significant rise in serial killing from this period
• Could be rise in recording and conviction
Perpetrator/ Victim class relationship reversed
– “those increasingly excluded from desired socio-economic goals were
wreaking their revenge upon those whom they saw as frustrating their
ambitions, and therefore, being responsible for their exclusion”
Killers and their victims in UK
Paper looks at 15 trials involving 17 serial killers
Mixed support for Leyton
Killers not from ‘truly oppressed’ , overwhelmingly male and all white
• Most were working class/ lower middle class occupations
• 40% were unemployed
Victims were not from middle classes though, generally were from
relatively powerless groups (young, old, women, gay, unemployed)
Evaluating ’Homicidal Protest’ in UK
Leyton’s focus on class relations and ‘modernity’ seems unhelpful in
explaining UK serial killing
If we broaden scope of social relations to include patriarchy
Some evidence of material and social frustration in killlers
Patriarchy useful in explaining British serial killing
• Dominance over women, often violent
• Crisis of masculinity
Engine of patriarchal capitalism is social and economic competition.
Those who can’t compete are pathologised as the incompetent or lazy.
State legitimises this treatment by affording them minimal social and
economic protection to not exacerbate their 'idleness'
Inability of individuals to compete not only has a role in 'creating' serial
killers but the increasing vulnerability of certain groups plays an important
role in providing the victims for serial killers.
Read the information in your case study and answer the following
What is the class position of the killer? Of the victims?
• How can you tell?
How might gender and patriarchy explain the killer’s actions or the choice
Do you think that these cases supports the homicidal protest thesis?