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Studying Society: Sociological explanations for Serial Killing


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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.

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Studying Society: Sociological explanations for Serial Killing

  1. 1. Natural Born Criminals?
  2. 2. Outline What causes crime? Case study – serial killers
  3. 3. Theoretical recap Theories Marxism Feminisms Functionalism Some theorists Karl Marx David Harvey Germaine Greer Anne Oakley Emile Durkheim Talcott Parsons Key vocabulary Capitalism Commodity Class Alienation Gender Patriarchy Exploitation Structure Values Norms Anomie Focus Capitalist exploitation of workers Male exploitation of women How society is so stable Weakness Overlooks gender Ignore individual Splintered Reductionist Doesn’t explain change Downplays conflict
  4. 4. Card game 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?
  5. 5. Serial Killing “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
  6. 6. What is a serial killer?
  7. 7. Defining serial killing Egger (1984) • 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
  8. 8. Medical psychological explanation Assumption that individual actors are driven to extreme behaviours because of psychological ‘abnormalities’
  9. 9. Hare Psychopathy Checklist: are you a psychopath? Superficial charm Grandiose sense of self Need for stimulation Pathologic al lying Cunning and manipulative Lack of remorse Shallow affect Lack of empathy Parasitic lifestyle Poor behavioural controls Sexual promiscuity Early behaviour problems Lack of realistic long term goals Impulsivity Irresponsibility Failure to accept responsibilit y for actions Many short term relationships Juvenile delinquency Revocation of conditional release Criminal versatility
  10. 10. Problems with medical explanations 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
  11. 11. Break
  12. 12. 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 1960s) Killer Aristocratic Middle classes (e.g. doctors, teachers) Upper working/ lower middle class (e.g. security guards) Victim Peasantry ‘Lower orders’ (e.g. prostitutes, servants) Middle classes (e.g. university students
  13. 13. Pre-industrial Little evidence of serial killing (esp. with peasant victims) Aristocrats were threatened by peasantry and merchant classes • Serial killing about class control • E.g. Gilles de Rais
  14. 14. Industrial/ Modern 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”
  15. 15. 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”
  16. 16. 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)
  17. 17. 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
  18. 18. Conclusions 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.
  19. 19. Group work Read the information in your case study and answer the following questions 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 of victim? Do you think that these cases supports the homicidal protest thesis?