Criminological Theories and Their Relevance to Serial Killers

In order to be able to give examples of how criminological theories can pertain to serial killers, the first thing that must be done is to define what, exactly, a serial killer is. So, what is a serial killer? Now, the official definition of a serial killer is an individual who commits more that 3 murders over a period of time, each with a ‘cooling-off’ period. Now, the serial killer is different from a spree killer or a mass murderer, which has differing definitions. The definition for a spree killer is that of an individual who kills a number of individuals in a matter of days, whereas a mass murderer is an individual who kills a number of individuals in the same incident .

Having defined what a serial murderer is, it is now time to turn to defining different criminological theories and how they can pertain to the serial murderer. The theories that will be analyzed are as follows: Social structure, social class, social process, neutralization, social control, and labeling theories. The differences between each theory will be discussed, as well as examples of how a serial murderer can fit into each theory.

Social Structure Theory

Let us start with social structure theory, what it is, what it contains, and how a serial murderer can fit into this theory. According to Siegel (2019), in social structure theory the direct cause of crime can be traced back to the root of social disadvantages. This is when individuals grow up in an economically and structurally disadvantaged area, which is to say that poverty and poor living conditions can contribute to the rate of crimes. Now, there are sub-categories of the social structure theory, which are as follows: social disorganization theory, strain theory, and cultural deviance theory .

Social Disorganization Theory- This is when social controls, familial bonds, social bonds and neighborhood associations breakdown. Basically, this theory postulates that crimes happen when there are little to no emotional and social ties between the individual and their families, friends, neighborhood, or social structure, i.e. church, which can help to prevent criminal behavior. The serial murderer could flourish in this type of environment, as there would appear to be little to no social ties that could help to prevent the killer from committing the crimes . One such case example that would fit this theory would be that of Ted Bundy, who appeared to have very few genuine social ties, and while he was minimally involved with family, friends and a social circle, his bond’s appeared to be superficial and not strong enough to help prevent his criminal acts .

Strain Theory- This is the ‘American Dream’ theory, which basically states that crimes are committed by individuals who are disillusioned with society and their economic status. That is to say, that the ‘American Dream’ is upheld as the goal for those in America, which is to make money, own a home, have some luxuries and other goals that would further the lifestyle, and when the goals are not reached, that the individual will turn to other means in order to fulfill their needs. How could a serial murderer fit into this theory? A serial murderer could fit into this theory due to their disillusionment with everyday life, perhaps they have a resentment to others who have attained their goals, or even the serial murderer could be preying on those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged . A case that comes to mind that could fit into this theory would be that of Aileen Wuornos, the female serial killer who used her profession to murder seven men with a pistol. Wuornos fit into this category due to the fact that she was of a lower social class, had to perpetrate behaviors that are outside of the socially accepted norms, and that she resulted in robbing her victims for financial gain, as well as due to her abhorrence and hatred for men .

Cultural Deviance Theory- This theory is basically a meshing of the social disorganization and strain theories. Its premise is that, in disorganized, lower class neighborhoods, strain will cause that individual to turn to criminal acts in order to fulfill a need or desire. This is when the individual does not conform to social norms, and instead adopts behaviors that would be considered, at best, unsavory. As discussed in the above theories, the serial killer could flourish in such an environment due to few to no social ties, i.e. family or associations, the existence of strain, disillusionment with everyday life, or perhaps that the serial killer finds their victims within such an environment due to availability . As stated above, both Bundy and Wuornos could fit into this theory, due to lack of significant amounts of social and familial bonds, Wuornos due to strain in her life, and that they both had easy access to their favored victim types due to availability .

Social Class Theory

This theory basically states that crimes such as robbery and homicides tend to be committed by the lower class, whereas the upper class appears to have more blue-collar crimes such as embezzlement and fraud. It is postulated that homicides are committed due to inequality and/or poverty rates . According to Hickey (2016), a serial killer is generally on the fringes of lower-middle class or upper-working classes, and that the individual starts to feel omitted from the class that they desire to become a part of. Many victims become so due to their social status, which the serial murderer may feel a sense of resentment towards their perceived social class . One such case that I can find that fits into this particular theory would be that of Joel Rifkin. Rifkin was adopted into an upper-middle class family, but due to various learning disabilities, felt excluded from his peers. Due to his estrangement from his peers, he sought out prostitutes in order to have an easy availability of victims, as well as to sate his sexual desires .

Social Process Theory

This theory basically states that a criminal is not born, but instead that a criminal is created by their involvement with social groups, i.e. familial association, peer groups, social institutions such as school, and immersion in a criminal environment. This theory also believes that crime is not a strictly lower-class phenomena, but instead crime can be committed in all social classes. Two individual parts of the social process theory is that of the labelling theory and social control theory .

Labelling (Social Reaction) Theory- This theory basically states that individuals become criminals due to society labelling them so, and that this becomes an integral part of the individual’s identity. The thought of this theory is that crime continues due to the fact that there are limited opportunities for acceptable behavior because of social reactions to the individual(s). It is believed that criminals, once they have committed a criminal act that becomes known, will then continue to be labelled a criminal, which can lead to further criminal behaviors, either in reaction to the label itself, or due to a lack of opportunities available due to prior criminal behavior . A serial killer could possibly fit into this theory due to the fact that they have been labelled as a deviant, the fear of a victim labelling them as something that they do not want to be known as, such as John Wayne Gacy who killed because he did not wish to be known as ‘gay’, or perhaps they kill individuals who fit into a certain label, such as prostitutes, as was the case with Gary Ridgeway, who purposefully killed prostitutes as he viewed them as lesser beings .

Social Control Theory- This theory basically states that everyone has the possibility of becoming a criminal, and it is only due to social and familial bonds that can help to control these impulses from occurring. The four components of this particular theory are; 1) Emotional attachment to others, 2) conforming to socially accepted lifestyles, 3) involvement or immersion in social norms and values and 4) a belief in social obligations and rules of society. It is believed that when these components suffer, it is then when anti-social behavior and deviation from the norms occurs . A serial killer is likely to experience a weakening, if not an outright detachment, from social and familial bonds, as well as a lack of belief in social norms, values and rules which could keep them connected to society. When this weakening or detachment happens, the serial killer has fewer areas in which they are worried about conforming to, and a likelihood of believing that the rules are irrelevant or do not apply to them. One such case that I can think of that fits within this theory would be that of Dennis Rader, who had a family and social obligations, but appears to have been detached from the emotional feelings of these ties, which could have helped to prevent his acts from happening. Indeed, Rader appears to have utilized his job in order to facilitate his accessibility to his chosen victims .

Neutralization Theory

This is a theory that is basically what the name suggests, that the criminal finds ways of minimizing or deny the responsibility of their acts: This can include the denial of responsibility, minimizing or denying injuries caused by their behaviors, The denial of the victims by justifying the acts committed against them, condemning law enforcement and the courts, and claiming the acts were committed due to loyalties to other, i.e. family, friends, or even God . It also purports that a criminal is not always involved in criminal behaviors, in essence that they can give up criminal acts for a span of time in order to conform to society . The serial killer can fit into this theory, such as was the case with Gacy, due to the fact that they commit the acts, and then deny them. In Gacy’s case, it wasn’t his fault that he committed the murders, it was due to a distant father and fear of condemnation of society and his parents due to his sexual proclivities. In the case of Ridgeway, he claimed that the victims deserved the acts committed against them due to their profession, thus justifying his behavior. A serial murderer could claim that police corruption, social corruption and even familial favoritism is to blame for their behaviors, in other words they committed the acts because of others. The Children of Thunder leader, Justin Helzer, claimed that he was a prophet, and it was because of his commitment to God and believing that he was God’s Prophet, that caused him and his two accomplices to commit five murders.

In this report, different criminological theories have been discussed and analyzed, as well as examples given of how a serial murderer can fit into each theory. It has been established that a serial killer can fit into each theory, although there are many other theories that exist with which a serial murderer could be associated with, and the behaviors therein. What I have found throughout my research is that many killers tend to hunt their ‘prey’ within the lower class, a lot of which are either prostitutes, homeless individuals, or individuals who have few to no social ties that would allow for them to go missing without someone noticing. In the end, it all depends upon the circumstances of the case, as well as the background of the perpetrator, which category the individual will fit into.

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