Serial Killers: Product of Society or Their Own Demons?

For centuries (or who knows how long, actually) scholars have been asking the question of whether crime is shaped by society or personal characteristics. It's not a secret that there is no answer to this question yet, and there probably won't be a correct answer for a long time, or perhaps ever.

Many criminological and sociological theories point to the effects of societal structures on one's behaviour:
  • Some argue for the relationship between power and knowledge. The ones with the knowledge have the power, and those in power can shape our world by creating laws and policies, and even modifying our perception.
  • Many argue for the unequal opportunities created for certain groups of people due to status groups and socioeconomic classes. Those on the lower end get the shit end of the stick and it's hard to overcome the vicious cycle of poverty and crime.
  • What about the common goals of a society? Some suggest that due to capitalist societies' focus on materialistic goods and status symbols, those without the means to achieve the same goals may turn to alternative means (i.e., crime).
The list goes on.

To be honest, the theories all make sense. And they are all inadequate. One theory alone cannot sufficiently "explain" crime, and it just isn't enough to look at structural factors alone, for obvious reasons.

Serial Killers
Serial Killers. (Click for source)

While extensive research and discussion have surrounded the issues of crime, one area of crime has perhaps mostly avoided the suggestion of societal influences on the criminal: Serial killers are mostly thought of as being the result of their own psychological processes. We've all heard the stories of the serial killers whose parents have been nothing but sweet, and their family life was better than average. They were just the odd ones who were shy, timid, moody, and just a little weird since they were a kid.

I think perhaps we, as the "normal" non-killers of society, choose not to take the blame for creating such monsters. And it's just a bit too much to view the serial killers in the same sympathetic light as we do the poor, misunderstood, but actually-really-sweet-once-you-get-to-know urban kid who committed petty theft crimes. So we collectively tend to subscribe to the idea that serial killers are just the crazy ones. The rare minority in a society; just random deformity we have to sometimes deal with.

However, some academics, like Kevin Haggerty, have argued for the contribution of societal factors on "creating" serial killers. He published a study in August 2009 in the journal Crime, Media, Culture, claiming that psychological explanations cannot solely explain the phenomenon of serial killing. Some of the societal factors included in his argument were:
  • That certain individuals and groups are marginalised in our societies. This makes them easy targets.
  • That people are attracted to the topic of serial killing, providing a celebrity status for its offenders.
Or, for better and more informed insight into Haggerty's study, here is the actual abstract:
The study of serial killing has been dominated by an individualized focus on the aetiology and biography of particular offenders. As such, it has tended to downplay the broader social, historical and cultural context of such acts. This article addresses this lacuna by arguing that serial killers are distinctively modern. It highlights six modern phenomena related to serial killing: (a) the mass media and the attendant rise of a celebrity culture; (b) a society of strangers; (c) a type of mean/ends rationality that is largely divorced from value considerations; (d) cultural frameworks of denigration which tend to implicitly single out some groups for greater predation; (e) particular opportunity structures for victimization; and finally (f) the notion that society can be engineered. Combined, these factors help to pattern serial killing in modernity’s own self-image, with modernity setting the parameters of what it means to be a serial killer, and establishing the preconditions for serial murder to emerge in its distinctive contemporary guise.
The six modern phenomena highlighted by Haggerty are hard to argue with, and his points definitely offer an alternative perspective for trying to understand serial killing. However, just like any 'society vs individual' argument, he cannot escape the undeniable fact that these points don't make up the whole explanation. After all, most of us are not serial killers.

Patterning serial killing and understanding the societal conditions that might "encourage" serial killing are all important. However, how can these factors help us in reality? The societal factors, when taken into account that they do not explain all there is about serial killing, perhaps do little to help us make changes for the better or to prevent serial killing.

Nevertheless, this study offers a different perspective to what we're used to in discussing serial killing, and provides points worth thinking about. There definitely needs to be more research into structural influences that shape serial killing that shifts the focus from psychological processes and the free will argument. In the meantime, you can read the full report by Haggerty and perhaps share your thoughts.