Serial Killers Shaped by Society, Study Claims

Oct. 26, 2009 — Serial murderers are distorted reflections of society’s own values, according to new research.

Traditionally the behavior of serial killers has been viewed through a psychological framework, blaming customary factors like bad parenting, maladjusted brain chemistry or past abuse. But Kevin Haggerty, a University of Alberta sociologist and criminologist, argues that society — not psychology — is responsible.

“I would say there’s minimal evidence that psychological approaches have made more than a small difference in our understanding of this phenomenon,” he told Discovery News. “Almost every psychological approach applied to serial murder has been ruled out as a uniform claim to understanding this behavior.”

He published his study in the August issue of the journal Crime, Media, Culture.

Take the example of Robert Pickton, the Canadian pig farmer who boasted of murdering at least 49 women over several decades. Haggerty cites Pickton’s choice of victims and the ease with which he was able to find them.

Like many other serial murderers, Pickton’s victims were drug-addicted prostitutes he picked up from the same skid row in Vancouver, British Columbia, time and time again.

Haggerty argues that Pickton was aided by the fact that society had marginalized these women and considered them undesirable.

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“In the early modern period, prostitutes were much more integrated into a community. They were known, they knew their clients,” said Haggerty. “I would say it’s probably inconceivable for Pickton to have repeatedly preyed on these people in a very small geographic region and have gotten away with it back then.”

He also points out what he calls the media’s “unnatural” fascination with serial killers, which began with the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888 and hasn’t waned.

The symbiotic relationship between serial killers and the media, where serial killers provide stories and the media provide killers the notoriety many crave, is a distinctly modern phenomenon, says Haggerty.

Rethinking the ways in which the media discusses these murderers may be one avenue that society can explore to combat such brutal behavior.

Taking society’s role into account is needed, Haggerty argues, because despite decades of research — the field of psychology has failed to provide any real insight into what drives serial killers.

But, he may have a hard sell to the criminology community.

Author, sociologist and criminal psychologist Eric Hickey points out that Haggerty’s sociological model fails to provide a uniform explanation.

While some serial killers certainly seek out media attention, others, like Jeffrey Dahmer and Gary Ridgway “were or are not interested in the limelight,” Hickey told Discovery News.

Josh Clark

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One thought on “Serial Killers Shaped by Society, Study Claims”

  1. I don’t believe this.
    I believe that while society may be responsible for a number of things, an adult individual makes his own decisions, whether he admits it or not.

    I believe it is due to one’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for one’s own actions that has made it popular to blame one’s parents and/or background for what they do.

    Criminal defense lawyers use this because they are usually drawing at straws to defend someone who is obviously guilty, because their jobs require to them to use whatever means they can come up with.

    I believe that serial killers have a mental illness that has not yet been defined.

    A team of doctors wanted to study the brain of Jeffrey Dahmer in hopes of discovering this illness. But Dahmer’s mother objected to this, and the judge ruled in her favor. I see this as a great loss to humanity, to miss such an opportunity to gain valuable knowledge. Besides, Dahmer’s victims did not have a choice as to how their remains may be used.

    Charles Manson said when he was sentenced that is was society, and not him. who is guilty. “I am what you made me.”
    Yeah, right.

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