31 Jan 2010

Sample Essay: Serial Killers In Great Britain: A Structural Condition Rather Than a Medical-Psychological One


The dreaded menace called serial killing has been sowing terror in many societies for many decades, yet there has been definitive conclusion to what really causes this scourge.  Basically, a serial killer can be defined as a person who usually kills more than three people on different occasions within a span of 14 days (Leung, 2004, p.1).  Consequently, two dominant schools of thought have emerged to explain the reality of serial killers namely the medical-psychological standpoint and from a structural, environmental perspective.  In particular, the medical-psychological perspective attempts to explain the existence of serial killers within the context of the person’s psyche, while the structural view focuses on particular societal structures or conditions as the causes of serial killing (Grover and Soothill, 1999, p.1).  While the examination of serial killers can be assessed from both perspectives, there is a prevailing view that serial killings perpetrated by British citizens on British soil from 1960 to 2006 may have been  a result of structural factors rather than medical-psychological ones.  This paper examines this view from the studies developed in recent years.

Definitions, Characteristics, and Perspectives of Serial Killing

Before jumping into the assessment of the reasons for the emergence of British serial killers, it is appropriate to first define what serial killing is.  Basically, serial killing involves a specific number of killings or murders and a time period.  For example, Grover and Soothill (1999, p.2) cited the six point identification of a serial killer by Egger (1984) specifically: there must be at least two victims; there is no relationship between the perpetrator and the victim; the murders are committed at different times and have no direct connection to previous or following murders; the murders occur at different locations; the murders are not committed for material gain; subsequent victims have characteristics in common with earlier victims (quoted in Grover and Soothill, 2007, p.2).  However, in line with the British serial killings from 1960 to 2006, David Wilson shares a simpler definition of a serial killer as a murderer who has “killed three or more victims in a period greater than 30 days” (Wilson, 2007, p.34).

Aside from the volume of murders and timeframe, serial killers also display certain mannerisms on personality characteristics.  As derived from the research study by Cindy Pokel entitled A Critical Analysis of Research Related to the Criminal Mind of Serial Killers, she cited Sear’s (1991) description of serial killers as those “suffering from anti-social personality disorder which tend to have the following characteristics: superficial charm, intelligence, absence of delusions or irrational thought, lack of nervousness, unreliable, untruthful and insincere, exhibit poor judgment and fail to learn from experiences, and incapable of love” (Pokel, 2000, p.45).  Consequently, as quoted in Wilson (2007, p.38), Holmes and Deburger (1988) derived four different types of serial killers from a study of 400 serial cases, with each type explained as follows:

Visionary – killer is impelled to murder because he has heard voices or seen visions demanding that he kill a particular person, or category of people.  The voice or vision may be for some a demon, but others may be perceived as coming from God;

Mission – killer has a conscious goal in his life to eliminate a certain identifiable group people.  He does not hear the voices or have visions.  He  mission is self-imposed;

Hedonistic – killer kills simply for the thrill of it – because he enjoys it.  The thrill becomes an end in itself;

Power/Control – killer receives gratification from the complete control of the victim.  This type of murderer experiences pleasure and excitement not from sexual acts carried out on the victim, but from the belief that he has the power to do whatever he wishes to another human being who is completely helpless to stop him.

All the documented British serial killers have manifested at least one of aforementioned manifestations from a period from 1960 to 2006.  As cited from Wilson (2007, p.27), there have been 19 British serial killers with a combined murder count of 326 victims.  Those killed were classified as elderly; women involved in prostitution; homosexual men; runaways and throwaways; and children.

The Medical-Psychological Perspective

As indicated earlier, one of the two main perspectives to explain the development of serial killers stem from medical-psychological factors.  The medical-psychological view can further be divided according to biological, psychological, and sociological causes.  In terms of biological causes, related literature point to physiological factors and human chemistry as factors triggering serial killings.  In particular, Sears (1991) presents several human biological conditions such as brain development, head trauma, heredity, and genetics, and male sex drive as factors that breed serial killers (quoted in Pokel, 2000, p.40).  Meanwhile, Scott (2000) identified extra chromosomes, high testosterone, and heavy metals found in the human body to describe the biological state of serial killers, while Mitchell (1996) identified five biological aspects involving evolutionary/ethological processes; neurological contributions; biochemical approaches; genetics; and race as the main determinants in serial killers (Pokel, 2000, p.40).

From a psychological perspective, Sears (1991) and Mitchell (1996) addressed the issues related to sexual sadism, paraphilias, and gender identity disorders, and both adhered to a Freudian approach to attaching serial killing to sexual impulse (Pokel, 2000, p. 46).  Meanwhile, Mitchell also focused on the aspect of multi-personality disorder of serial killers (Pokel, 2000, p.46).   Furthermore, Scott (2000) viewed serial killers as psychopaths who “often see the victim as a symbolic object and that psychopaths are generally out of touch with reality, but seem to know what is right and wrong with society” (Pokel, 2000, pp.45-46).

The third category under the medical-psychological perspective of serial killing is the sociological aspect.  Specifically, Pokel cites four main areas namely the aspect of power or control; societal norms and culture; and violence, family issues, and issues of self (Pokel, 2000, p46).  Of these factors, the need for power and control was considered by Pokel (2000, p.44) as the most prominent feature.

The Structural Perspective

One of the main proponents of the structural perspective of serial killers is Elliot Leyton who developed an excellent study entitled Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Multiple Murderer (Leyton, 1986).   Fundamentally, Leyton argues that to “truly understand why serial killers kill, we need to investigate the very nature of the social structure – the society – that has created these people whom we label as serial killers” (Wilson, 2007, p.17).  He further declares that “multiple murder is not the province of the mentally disturbed and that one has to look beyond the individual to the society, and in particular, the social structures in which he or she lives of one is to explain more fully multiple killing” (Grover and Soothill, 1999, p. 5).  Consequently, Mitchell (1996) also supports the structural view by theorizing that serial killers are people who are unable to meet the goals and values of society as a whole and consequently turn into outcasts (Pokel, 2000, p.36).  Mitchell also broached the “Strain Theory” that explains the behavior of strained people who are unable to derive achieve and success in society and thus resorts to killing as a means to self-accomplishment (Pokel, 2000, p.36).

The social structures that helped breed serial killers, as developed by Leyton (1986), encompass economic and political systems.  To illustrate the development of serial killers in society, he identified three major historical periods or epochs, each showing significant changes in the socio-economic conditions in society, and explained that in “these three periods, the social genesis of multiple killers and their victims are socially specific” (Grover and Soothill, 1999, p.5).  Furthermore, he theorized that there have been significant changes in the socio-economic background of killers and their victims between the historical epochs” (Grover and Soothill, 1999, p.5)   As seen in Table 1, the historical periods are the pre-industrial age (i.e. pre-late 19th century); the industrial period (i.e. late 19th century); and the modern period (i.e. post World War II).  In gist, the socio-economic conditions prevailing during the three historical epochs spawned serial killers who reacted violently in a term called “Homicidal Protests.”  Leyton explains this term as follows:

In each of the historical periodisations, the configuration of the social structure is such that some persons when faced with their challenges to their position in the social hierarchy react to those challenges the protest of killing members of the threatening group.  Homicidal protest can take different forms (qtd. in Grover and Soothill, 1999, p.5)

Table 1:  Three Historical Epochs, Serial Killers, and their Victims


(Pre-late 19th century)


(late 19th century)


(Post World war II)

Killer Aristocratic Middle Classes

(e.g. doctors, teachers, etc.)

Upper working/lower middle-class;

(e.g. security guards, computer operators)

Victim Peasantry ‘lower orders’

(e.g. prostitutes, housemaids)

Middle classes

(e.g. university students)

Source:  Leyton (1986:269-95)

Ultimately, the structural perspective of Leyton implies that that the “acts of serial killers are not simply the result of deranged or dangerous personality, but more importantly, may be the consequence of a socio-economic system which cannot by its rabidly competitive dynamic reward the efforts of all, and may dangerously marginalize certain people” (Grover and Soothill, 1999, p.2)

The British Experience

The British experience in serial killing is considered by David Wilson in his book entitled Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer as a product of a structural perspective and reflects a form of “Homicidal protest” to the socio-economic changes in Britain in the last three decades.  However, Grover and Soothill (1999, p.13) does not consider Leyton’s structural analysis as mirroring the British experience since the latter described serial killers based on circumstances in the American setting.  However, they do acknowledge the vital role of Leyton’s structural analysis to serial killers in “understanding the meaning of serial killing at a societal level” (1999, p.13)

In examining serial killing in Britain, this paper turns to the work of David Wilson.  As cited by Wilson (2007, p. 27), serial killing emerged in Britain beginning 1960 and grew in significance in the succeeding years.  In particular, from 1960 until 2006, there have been a total of 19 confirmed serial killers murdering a total of 326 people.  However, Wilson also noted that there were no serial killers in the 1920 until the 1930’s as compared to Germany which had 12 cases (Wilson, 2007, p. 16).  Even up to the 1950’s, Britain was considered to be relatively peaceful and serial killing had still not taken root.  Thus, the question arises – why then did serial killers emerged suddenly beginning 1960?

Wilson answers this question by explaining the social-economic transformation that occurred in the Great Britain beginning 1960.  In particular, prior to 1960’s, the country in the 1950’s was considered as “one of the most conservative, stable, and contended societies in the world” (Wilson, 2007, p.28).  The socio-economic environment of Great Britain prior to the 1960’s was described as follows:

…the vast majority of people continued to go happily about their businesses, large part because of the foundations of the Welfare State laid down by Clement Atlee’s Labour Government of 1945-1951 – known by some historians as the post-war settlement.  By this they mean that there was political commitment from both the left and the right to full employment; state-funded social security; a national health service; free education; health and employment benefits; a mixed, part private, part public economy; and recognition of trade unions…(Wilson, 2007, p. 28)

With a generally stable, peaceful environment in Britain during the mid 1940’s until the 1950’s, there was no marked serial killing activity in the country.  Essentially, the stability in the socio-economic order in the country created a sense of “inclusiveness” in British society characterized by a community bonded in family and work security for everyone (Wilson, 2007, p.29).  By 1960’s and 1970’s, however, the political and economic landscape in the country has changed rapidly.  By this time, new economic demands such as free enterprise, advances in industrialization, and changes in the global labor market have emerged.  A “market society” soon developed whereby employment became a privilege of those who deserve or are qualified for it.  The shift from an “inclusive” environment to that of an individualistic, “every person from himself” mentality became the trend in British society as the economic, market-driven environment fostered by the Thatcher government was installed in 1979.  Eventually, the highly competitive, individualistic socio-economic environment which shattered the reality of job security soon changed the way Britons viewed themselves.  Jock Young, a criminologist who analyzed the historical evolution of British criminality in his book The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion, Crime and Difference in Late Modernity described the breaking down of societal ties during this period:

The market brings together wide swathes of the population…it creates the practical basis for comparison.  It renders visible inequalities of race, class, age, and gender.  It elevates a universal citizenship of consumption, yet excludes a significant minority from membership (Young, 1999, p.47)

Consequently, Young concludes that the advent of individualism has “undermined “relationships and values needed for a stable social order and hence gives rise to crime and disorder (Young, 1999, p.50).  In this kind of environment, some groups inevitably became marginalized and some individuals who were unable to deal with the new demands of society resorted to violence to fill a need for some kind of achievement.  This scenario ushered in the birth of serial killers in Britain.

Wilson further illustrates the tumultuous period of free enterprise and market-driven principles advocated by British government upon the ascendancy of the Thatcher administration and onwards by citing employment statistics culled from a study done by Will Hutton entitled the State We’re in (5th ed.).  For example, according to Hutton, “one in four of the adult male population were unemployed or idle as of 1995; unemployment had increased six-fold since the oil crisis of 1973; one in three children were living in poverty; and that the state is doing all it can to wash its hands of future generations of old people” (Hutton, 1995, p.199).  Furthermore, Hutton also indicated that the trade unions, which were instrumental in securing job security to union members, weakened considerably from 1979 to 1993; and that the period of the 1980’s was a time when “qualifications unemployment benefits and support became tougher; the state pension became progressively devalued in relation to average earnings; and the distribution of income more unequal” (quoted in Wilson, 2007, p.31).  Amidst this depressed socio-economic environment, Wilson notes that the country in 1986 “produced more serial killers that at any other point in British history” (Wilson, 2007, p.31).

The supremacy of the Structural Perspective versus Medical-Psychological in Britain

The structural, socio-economic perspective was deemed to have significantly accelerated the development of serial killers in Britain.  Although the medical-psychological view was never debunked to explain the serial killer development in the country, the current line of thinking supports the primacy of the structural perspective over medical-psychological explanation when it comes to analyzing the British serial killer cases.  As cited by Grover and Soothill (1999, p.4), “there has been a change within the psychological approach over the past 30 years as contemporary psychologists are willing to recognize the importance of the social context much more readily than formerly” (Grover and Soothill, 1999, p.4).  More significantly, Grover and Soothill (1999, p.4) also expressed the fact that psychiatrists had been unable to reconcile the paradox of correlating mental deviance with psychiatric abnormality when in actuality, “few offender are so psychiatrically disturbed as to be termed mentally ill.”  Furthermore, Mitchell (1996) declared that the link between genes and serial killer has not been proven and that it is “not possible to make a general statement that all serial killers as psychopaths” (Pokel, 2000, p.41).  Instead, Mitchell argues that our current society seems to be moving away from a common societal goal and that serial killers remain outcasts in society and are unable to meet the changing needs of society (Pokel, 2000, p.49)


The spate of serial killings in Britain from 1960 to 2006 can best be explained through the rapid, tumultuous socio-economic changes beginning in the 1960’s.  The breaking down of cherished values such as a sense of community, family, and job security to give way to  a market society driven by free enterprise, individualism and competition has inevitably marginalized some groups and filled others with intense hate and a disposition to kill.  The fact that the highest number of serial killers emerged during a period of intense socio-economic breakdown marked by massive unemployment, poverty, and declining incomes only reinforces the view that environmental, societal influences sparked the development of serial killers in Britain.  However, this paper does not attempt to discredit or nullify the possible link between medical-psychological factors to serial killers.  In fact, future study might derive some biological and psychological influences to explain the emergence of British serial killers.  Nevertheless, the pressing question still remains – if medical-psychological factors do influence serial killing, then the time element should have been rendered insignificant.  In effect, serial killers should have emerged every year in Britain since time immemorial – even in stable, peaceful times – since the causes are internal, biological, and innately psychological, which implies the absence of external causation.  The reality, however, is that serial killings in Britain emerged at a specific period in the country’s history.  In this light, the structural view remains the logical choice.


Grover, C and Soothill, K 1999, ‘British Serial Killing: Towards a Structural Explanation’,

British Society of Criminology, vol. 2, pp.1-17

Holmes, RM & De Burger, J 1988. Serial murder: Studies in crime, law and justice, Vol. 2.

Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Leyton, E 1986.  Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer, McClelland and

Stewart, Toronto, Canada

Leung, J 2004, The Personality Profile of a Serial Killer, A research paper in Forensics

Mitchell, EW, 1996, The Actiology of Serial Murder: Towards an Integrated Model,

Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Pokel, C 2000. A Critical Analysis of Research Related to the Criminal Mind of Serial Killers,

Research paper, The Graduate College University of Wisconsin-Stout, United States

Scott, SL 2000. What Makes a Serial Killer Tick? <www.crimelibrary.com>

Sears, DJ 1991.  To Kill Again: The Motivation and Development of Serial Murder, Scholarly

Resources: Wilmington, Delaware

Wilson, D 2007.  Serial Killers: Hunting Britons and Their Victims, 1960-2006, Waterside

Press, United Kingdom

Young, J 1999, The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion, Crime and Difference in Late

Modernity, Sage Publications, London

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