American society has an interesting fascination with crime; especially violent crime.
It almost appears that the more bloody and violent it is, the more attention the case receives both from the media and the general public. The idea of a serial killer roaming the local streets both terrifies and interests us. What causes an individual to want to commit not one, but multiple, murders over any span of time? Is there an underlying mental illness? Was the perpetrator a victim of violence themselves? There are many sciences involved in the attempt to understand the reasons behind social deviance and what causes someone to become a killer. Biology, psychology, and sociology all have varying theories on what causes such behavior. One well-known case based in Rochester was that of Arthur Shawcross, who was given the nickname “The Genesee River Killer” (Montaldo, 2017) Within a time span of less than two years, from 1988 to 1990, Shawcross murdered 11 local women (Montaldo, 2017) This paper will investigate the family life, education, and personal life of Arthur Shawcross. It will also attempt to explain the sociological factors involved which lead to him becoming a serial killer using the theoretical perspective of Symbolic Interactionism, with a focus on labeling theory and differential association. The self is something that is formed and modified through social interactions (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p.
100) In the case of Arthur Shawcross, a number of factors combined which did not allow him to develop a healthy sense of self. The basis of the self is formed by the various agents of socialization one experiences throughout their life (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p.100) Whether a healthy social foundation is formed or not can have a permanently negative affect on someone’s sense of self.
Agents of socialization are powerful forces which affect the way we develop socially. Some of the most important socializing factors are the family, peers, education systems, and mass media. The family is the single most important agent of socialization. This is the very first group someone belongs to and also their very first learning environment.
It is within the family that we learn language, norms and values, and form crucial social bonds (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p.106) Family is a very strong 2influence because of the fact that as children, up until school age, there is not much contact with the outside world (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p.106) Due to the importance of family, we will start with a discussion of Arthur Shawcross’s early life. He was the first of four children, and one article states that his mother and father were only 18 years old and 21 years old, respectively (Aamodt) At any age, new parents are inexperienced with child rearing. So, often times, the first child is raised differently than their younger siblings because of the fact that parents gain experience over time (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p.106) Shawcross stated in an interview that he felt like his younger siblings received more attention and were more well-liked (Aamodt) As a result, he acted out frequently in an attempt to gain attention he was being denied. Some of his acting out included speaking “baby talk,” frequent nocturnal bed-wetting, and running away from home (Aamodt) Family is also where children are first exposed to gender roles.
It is possible that Shawcross observed his father’s habits of infidelity and his mother’s domineering nature and accepted those to be normal behaviors (Montaldo, 2017) Secondary to family as an agent of socialization is the education system. As the first significant experience away from the home, attending school is supposed to provide a bridge to other social groups (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p. 108) Aside from learning academically, school was supposed to also provide young Shawcross with a hidden curriculum that taught and instilled the importance of cultural values and norms.
However, the system did not function for him the way it was supposed to. Teachers stated that he had “lazy work habits” and because of his withdrawn behavior, he was given the nickname “oddie” by classmates. Shawcross may have had a strong desire to fit in with his peers, but his behavior pushed them away.
As a defense mechanism after being rejected, he turned to bullying other children. It is common knowledge that often times a bullied person becomes a bully themselves. In addition to these forms of socialization, Charles Cooley’s concept of the looking-glass self also provides some insight into how the self develops. He surmised that a person’s self is created in part 3out of interactions with others. One major point of this idea is that how we see ourselves comes from how we believe others see us. For example, Shawcross was called names and bullied by peers, and his teachers told him he was lazy, therefore he continued to project that self-image based on their opinions. This is in line with the three parts of the looking-glass self theory: we imagine how we look to others, then imagine what other people think of us, and finally experience certain feelings about ourselves based on what we think others may think of us.
There is a danger to labeling someone. Howard Becker proposed a theory which holds that “deviance is not inherent in any act…instead it is determined by the social context” (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p. 161) Deviant labeling is a way for society to control the behavior they deem inappropriate. This is accomplished because labels can be “sticky” and very difficult to get away from for the labeled individual (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p. 161) They can even lead to further deviance, as it did in Shawcross’ case.
The primary deviance which started in his childhood and caused the labels of “oddie” and “lazy” eventually led to secondary deviance, which is personally identifying as deviant rather than that just being a label applied by others (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p. 161) Lastly, tertiary deviance occurred with Shawcross because his social interactions lead him to redefine his deviant characteristics and consider them normal (Ferris & Stein, 2012, p. 161) There is one final theory which can be applied to Shawcross’ development of self. According to Edwin Sutherland, the concept is quite simple: we learn how to be deviant through our interactions with other people. In the documentary “Interview with a Serial Killer,” Shawcross tells the interviewer about his childhood of abuse ranging from psychological to sexual. While his family members have denied the abuse, let us assume that Shawcross was telling the truth for this example. He also admits to not feeling any remorse for his victims during the interview.
If his earliest social interactions truly involved such abuse, this taught Shawcross devious values, behavior, and attitudes that could have started him on the path to becoming a serial killer. 4 In conclusion, there were many factors involved in Arthur Shawcross life from the very beginning which played a role in his development. Starting with alleged abuse during childhood, which led him to act out and begin engaging in criminal behavior at a young age. He continued to develop his sense of self by internalizing the labels given to him by society. Perhaps he really did have a genetic predisposition to this behavior and some physical abnormalities as were mentioned in “Interview with a Serial Killer.” However, it is hard to believe that only one factor was involved in such a drastic chain of events.