Psychological processes behind serial murder have been receiving a lot of academic attention within recent decades. However, it should not be neglected that, like any crime, serial murder can also be regarded from the social perspective. Social construction of serial killers has become the subject of various studies, and it is recognized today that the social position, social interactions, and perceived social image may play a significant role in the process the result of which is becoming a serial murderer. Six groups of theories have been chosen for addressing the social construction of serial killers: social structure, social class, social process, neutralization, social control, and labeling.
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Multiple attempts have been made to explain crime from the perspective of social structure. Essentially, this approach implies that some people may be more inclined to commit crimes of particular types due to these people’s social positions. For example, being part of an underprivileged community is a possible explanation for the driving force for a person to rob, mug, and steal. However, according to Hickey (2013), “[s]tructural theories offer cogent explanations for many types of crimes, except for serial murder” (p. 107).
Serial killers rarely come from minorities or vulnerable groups. One of the perspectives that can be nonetheless applied to serial killers in the context of social structure is urbanism. Serial murder occurs more frequently in urban areas, and the reasons for this are higher rates of social disorder, drug use, poverty, and psychological challenges among people in these areas.
Another way to regard serial murder is from the perspective of social class. In the 1980s, some theorists established that most serial killers came from the same social class (the verge of upper-working and lower middle), were excluded from desired social class, strived ardently for joining it, and largely based their choice of victims on the social class of the latter (Hickey, 2013). The connection between social class and serial murder is modernly considered confirmed; however, the nature of the relationship between the two is not sufficiently explored. On the one hand, the social class position can be seen as a reason for a person to commit serial murder; on the other, the desire for social class change or shift can be seen as a more important reason.
One more perspective is a group of social process theories that suggest that behavior is shaped by the processes of socialization, i.e. criminal behavior is caused by certain failures or abnormalities in the process of social interactions of an individual (Hickey, 2013).
These failures or abnormalities may be associated with performance among peers (e.g. at school) or problems with law. However, major problems from the social process perspective are connected to one of the most—if not the most—important type of social interactions: family relations. For example, according to (Hamama & Ronen-Shenhav, 2012), in families in which parents are divorced, children are more likely to adopt violent and criminal behaviors.
From the point of view of neutralization, it should be noted that “people are not criminals all the time” (Hickey, 2013, p. 112). People who commit crimes drift between conventional behaviors and illegitimate behaviors, and in order for them to rationalize the shift to the latter, they need to neutralize; it is stressed that the processes of neutralization are learned techniques. For example, a well-known serial killer John Wayne Gacy asserted that someone else had placed 27 dead bodies in his home while he had been at work. Therefore, neutralization is one of the approaches that help understand the psychological background of serial murder.
A major way of analyzing crime is the hypothesis that people do not involve in illegitimate behaviors because they are afraid of crime; this analysis is summarized by the social control theory. Further development of the theory showed that not involving in criminal behaviors is associated with a wide range of social connections and is not only caused by the fear of punishment. In the context of serial murder, it was found that serial killers often lack these connections (Hickey, 2013). Further studies are needed to explore the social connections of serial killers and their perceived mechanisms of social control.
Finally, what may be particularly applicable to serial murder is the array of labeling theories. Generally, according to these theories, people tend to behave according to their perception of how they are expected to behave, i.e. according to who they are labeled to be by people around them. A particular insight into this understanding in the context of serial murder was suggested by a popular TV show The X-Files; in one of the episodes, a serial killer asks a character why he (the killer) kills people, and the character responds that it is simply because he is a serial killer (Hauser, 2013). This suggests that being once labeled or self-labeled as a murderer may drive people further toward new homicides.
It has been shown that the social perspective on serial murder provides a vast array of insights into how one becomes a social killer. It can be stated that further exploration of serial killer’s social position, interactions, connections, and role can generate a better understanding of serial murder as a type of criminal behavior.
Hamama, L., & Ronen-Shenhav, A. (2012). Self-control, social support, and aggression among adolescents in divorced and two-parent families. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(5), 1042-1049.
Hauser, B. R. (2013). The X-files: I want to believe in forensic adaptation. Adaptation, 6(1), 78-92.
Hickey, E. W. (2013). Serial murderers and their victims (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.