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Sociology Makes it to the Big Screen; A Discussion of Serial Killers

In the new highly acclaimed 2017 crime drama Mind Hunter (an examination of the early days of the study of serial homicide), featured on Netflix, the spirit of Durkheim is evoked in a discussion between the main character and his soon to be girlfriend (NYT 2017), while they were flirting in a bar. Soon to be girl friend, a sociology graduate student studying social deviance, asks the protagonist, an FBI agent and Quantico instructor, what his thoughts were on Durkheim’s early writings on the function of labeling deviant behavior (Durkheim 1897).

Durkheim, one of the founders of the science of sociology, in his book Suicide (1897), explained that crime serves a necessary social function. Crime defines the borders of right and wrong, more sociologically speaking, the boundary of where normative behavior meets deviant behavior. A healthy society needs crime according to Durkheim. Crime directs institutions of social control towards the deviant acts that should be controlled/minimized in order that society remain stable. Applying the label of deviance to certain individuals within society accomplishes the task of identification of who should be controlled.

Yet, the big question is whether Durkheim’s theoretical writings on labeling deviance being applied correctly within context of a discussion of crime and deviance focusing on the phenomenon of serial homicide? While labeling theory had its origins in the writings of Durkheim, it is usually attributed to the more recent scholarship of Howard Becker (1963) from the 1960s.


Becker, Howard S. (1963) [1997]. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile (1897) [1951]. Suicide : a study in sociology. The Free Press. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.


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