Social Construction: A Study of Theory in Relation to Serial Murder

By Elizabeth Hall 

In our modern society, advances in technology and science have propelled the study of crime into new frontiers. While the actual study of crime dates back to earlier decades, these advances have put crime data and the study of it into the forefront of our society.
Criminologists devote their life to assessing, comprehending, restraining, and helping lawmakers to prevent criminal and deviant acts. Not all criminal acts are deviant, and likewise all deviant acts are not criminal. Serial killers with the nature of their crimes cross both categories due to the violence associated with the crimes, the recidivism of the crimes, and the deviant nature of most serial killers even though the particular deviance varies per killer. These can include but are not limited to cannibalism, dismemberment, necrophilia, and sadism.  Criminological Theories that began in the mid 1800’s have been developed and tested over time. With each new advance in technology, the methods of testing these theories become more exact. In this essay we will discuss the various Social Construction Theories that today’s criminal justice system uses to control and prevent criminals such as serial killers from committing their crimes. These consist of the social structure, social class, social process, neutralization, social control, and labeling theories (Siegel, 2007).
Social Structure Theory
Social Structure Theory reasons that the socioeconomic forces drive those in underprivileged financial situations to commit crime, and that this is the reason for crime. This group of theories consists of three theories:
*      Social Disorganization Theory- primary focus of this theory is environmental conditions. High unemployment and school dropout rates are symptoms of this problem in a neighborhood.
Ramirez after Capture
Image from Tru TV
*      Strain Theory suggests that discord in the goals a person has and what actual resources one has to attain that goal is the main reason for crime (Siegel, 2007). Richard Ramirez fits into this theory because he started his killing over disappointment that a woman did not have anything of value to steal which was how he supported himself. His first murder was just a burglary gone awry. He then went on to the following year to become a serial killer claiming 12 more lives in the span of one year.
*      Cultural Deviance Theory due to burden and societal separation people in lower class areas develop their own subcultures, which do not conform to societal rules. For example, dad is a drunk, and hangs out with other lower class drunks who think that it is perfectly normal to beat their wives. By association, they can reassure themselves that their criminal behavior is normal. 
Although Strain Theory might work in relation to some serial killers, overall, it does not seem that social structure theories work well in relation to serial killers (Siegel, 2007).
Social Class (Anomie) Theory
Anomie Theory group contends that societal inequity causes awareness, which in turn causes crime. The lower class worker feels strain because they cannot afford the things they need. They then turn to dealing drugs to attain the means to achieve societal equity. These theories are:
*      Institutional Anomie Theory states that because of our incessant need to keep up the status quo the United States is full of anomie.
*      Relative Deprivation Theory says harsh divisions between the upper and lower classes cause feelings of jealousy and suspicion, which gives the criminal notions of disgrace by the upper class, thereby causing the criminal to have desires to disgrace them in return.
*      General Strain Theory maintains that it is not one type of strain but individuals reacting to several individualized strains at once are more likely to commit crime.
(Siegel, 2007)
Gacy  he Killer Clown
Image from Tru TV
 This theory best fits the serial killer in the fact that most of them seem to have several different problems all at once.  John Wayne Gacy seems to be a perfect example of this.  John grew up in a strict Irish catholic family. He had a bad relationship with his abusive father, whom he wanted to gain approval from desperately. When he was only eleven, John injured on the head by a swing, received a blood clot in his brain. This clot caused him severe blackouts and headaches, which went undiagnosed until he reached the age of 16. Even though doctors remove the blood clot, health problems continued for him, in less than a year John receives the diagnosis of an unspecified heart condition. John was also a homosexual, which could not be revealed because of what his father, might think. (Clark Prosecutor, n.d.)
Social Process Theory
Social Process Theory claims that all people have the ability to be criminals regardless of class, ethnicity, or gender. The theory claims that if the societal bonds that a person holds are constructive, then the person will be law abiding if these bonds are counter constructive, the person will not be. The theories in this group are as follows:
*      Social Learning Theory claims that criminals learn from other criminals, and that crime in itself is learned behavior instead of ingrained. This theory applies well to team serial killers because of the propensity for them to learn techniques from each other.
*      Neutralization falls under social process group as well. This theory states that, criminals do not act like criminals all of the time.  When they are not committing crime they attend picnics social gatherings, and regular community functions.  When they are at these gatherings, however, it is common to find that the attendees are also comprised of criminal and deviant members. (Siegel, 2007)

Social Control Theory
Social control theory maintains that every person is born capable of committing crime and that the society we live in today lends itself more to crime than ever.  Just about everywhere, you look; the opportunity to commit crime exists.  People who obey the law do so either out of personal belief in religion or morals, or due to a need to conform in order to keep their standing in society and their reputation in check. When these bonds are not present, a person feels free to break the law. (Siegel, 2007)
Ted Bundy as a good example of social control theory and serial killers, because of the fact that he resented finding out that who he thought was his older sister was actually his mother. He had negative attachment to family because of this scenario, and became one of the United States most notorious serial killers we have ever seen. (Bell, n.d.)
Labeling Theory
Labeling Theory This theory looks at the careers of criminals as being a product of disparaging societal relations and disgracing social encounters and the subjective nature of the law. The key tenets of the theory are as follows:
*      Those who currently are making the laws bias the criminal natures of certain behaviors. This means that what is considered to be a crime is only such because people label the behavior as a crime.
*      People are labeled as well as acts.
*      Whether the behavior is positive or negative, prejudiced explanation of behavior is required.
The theory also works off the assumption that once one is labeled, as for example, a pothead, meaning a person who smokes marijuana, the rest of their life will follow suit as a pothead with all of the social stigmatization that follows that association. It also suggests that lawmakers can change what deems an act to be illegal, to suit their own needs, as was the case with marijuana (Siegel, 2007).
Opening Credits Criminal Minds Television  Show
depicting a large group of serial killers
Labeling theory seems to work best with serial killers, because of the nature of the crimes. Almost all serial killers have some deviant desires with maybe the exception of German serial killers who kill more for money and items rather than sexual gratification, or perversion. According to the theory once, you are labeled, you are always considered to be labeled as such. (Siegel, 2007)

Works Cited

Bell, R. (n.d.). Ted Bundy: The Early Years. Retrieved March 08, 2010, from Tru TV Crime Library: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/bundy/2.html
Clark Prosecutor. (n.d.). John Wayne Gacy. Retrieved March 04, 2010, from John Wayne Gacy: Executed May 10, 1994 at 12:58 a.m. by Lethal Injection in Illinois: www.clarkprosecutor.org
Frontline. (1997-1998, Winter). Busted: America's War on Marijuana. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Dr. David F. Musto Interview: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/
NBC/MSNBC. (n.d.). Seung-Hui Cho. Retrieved February 08, 2010, from http://www.bing.com/reference/semhtml/Virginia_Tech_massacre?fwd=1&qpvt=va+tech+massacre&src=abop&q=va+tech+massacre
Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2006, July 19). ONDCP Drug Policy Information Clearinghouse Fact Sheet. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Drug Use Trends October 2002: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/factsht/druguse/
Panel, V. T. (2009, November 15). Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech Addendum to the report of the review panel,presented to Governor Timothy M. Kaine, Commonwealth of Virginia. Retrieved February 11, 2010
Pumroy, D. K. (2007). What Caused the Tragedy at Virginia Tech? (J. Wyatt, Ed.) Behavior Analysis Digest International , 19 (2), pp. 5-7.
Reagan, T. (2009, March). Marijuana Incorporated: Inside America's Pot Industry. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Marijuana Incorporated: Inside America's Pot Industry: http://www.cnbc.com/id/28281668
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. (n.d.). Library Resources. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from Schaffer Library of Drug Policy: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/index.HTM
Siegel, L. (2007). Criminology: The Core (Third ed.). Belmont, CA, United States: Cenegage Learning.

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