March 05, 2018

Mindhunter as Social Research

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

I recently watched a Netflix show called Mindhunter. The show—based on a non-fiction book—is about the beginnings of a crime division in the FBI that attempts to tackle serial killers.

If you’ve ever taken a sociology class, the first and most obvious thing about the show are the explicit references to our discipline! One of the main characters, Debbie, played by Hannah Gross, is a graduate student in sociology, studying deviance. In the first episode Debbie explains the sociological approach to deviance to her date, a somewhat listless young FBI agent named Holden (played by Jonathan Groff of Hamilton and Glee fame). In a bar she admonishes Holden: “You teach about criminality but you’ve never heard of Labeling Theory?” (Although, granted, Debbie doesn’t get Durkheim right.)

The characters of the show are, in a way, responding to what they see as newer kinds of deviance, wherein killers inflict extreme violence upon strangers, often with some repetition in manner and types of targets. The FBI agents have a puzzle they want to solve, and they find that older theories, concepts, and facts (largely informed by movies and Sigmund Freud) inhibit their understanding of what they see on the ground. One of Holden’s teachers asks the sociological question: “Are criminals born, or are they formed?”

Halfway through I realized that this was a show about a research team conducting social science. Holden and his partners—a grizzled former military-man, Bill, and Wendy, a professor of psychology—spend the season slowly piecing together new terminology, building their new understanding of deviance through multiple interviews with murderers and some rather engaging dialogue between each other.

They seem truly puzzled over why people commit murder, while the FBI had typically focused on catching assailants after the fact. The FBI allows the research to continue, but clearly communicates discomfort over any explanation for such behaviors beyond that they are merely crazy. FBI agents characterize the Son of Sam killer, for example, as a “black hole” rather than a person. Establishment thinking on deviance at the time seems to have dictated only two kinds of murder: “crimes of passion” and “crimes of desperation.” Unhinged acts were simply beyond comprehension. Echoing Durkheim’s contribution to our understanding of suicide: Theories of why people committed suicide were based upon moral and spiritual motives, rather than sociological ones. The FBI, prior to this team’s investigation, had no interest in a scientific understanding of these new murders. Bill makes the case to their boss (as well as the viewer): “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”

And so, our team of social scientists set out on a research adventure. Viewers watch as Holden, Bill, and Wendy, struggle with concepts, map out potential interviewees (all prisoners), transcribe notes, and debate the evidence. Later, Wendy angles for how the work can be published. (The professor this character is based upon—Ann Wolbert Burgess—did just that. Read a great interview with her to learn more about her background, and how women played a part in this research, here.)

Some of the most engaging parts of the show are when the research team discusses how to place actions into taxonomies. Some of the murders appear to be organized, some disorganized. There’s one variable. Other killers, our scientists realize, conduct their acts in a sequence. ‘Sequence killer’ didn’t sound right, and the group rests on the idea of a serial vs. non-serial killer. There’s another variable. Holden also explores the language the FBI uses, questioning the list of “deviant terminology”—terms not to be used within the more puritanical profession—adapting the FBI’s script to new times. (He particularly changes terms that have to do with female sexuality.) The methodology talk between the three leads reaches its best moments when the viewers realize that the characters’ are at their most reflexive—realizing that their own identities inhibit their abilities to see things sociologically: Dr. Wendy Carr is a lesbian trapped in the closet but has to correct Bill’s ill-informed perspective on cross-dressing while he is struggling with his adopted son, who suffers from a communication disorder; and Holden and Bill both struggle with their relationships with their girlfriend and wife, respectively.

The show slowly lays out the beginnings of a research project: See a problem, think about the existing literature, play with the concepts and ideas, go conduct some research and observations, revisit the preconceptions of the research, start to operationalize what you want to measure, research some more, then start to think about publication! One of the best parts of the show is that it shows just how difficult the research process can be.

The dark villain in the shadows does not seem to be any single form—although famous serial killers do play their roles in the season—but as the combined form of masculinity. Men seem to have issues with women in the show, unsurprisingly, even though there are just as many serial killers who are women as men. (Debbie isn’t a fully fleshed out character, but isn’t quite the manic pixie dream girl trope, either. Throughout the show she clearly gets the better of Holden, especially when he tries profiling on her in the end, only to have her sociology allow Debbie to outwit him.)

Through the show, Holden reveals himself to be something of a psychopath in a grey suit. Not as a killer, but as single minded to the point of losing all social and emotional moorings in his mission. He sidles up to these killers, particularly the infamous “Co-ed Killer,” in order to tease out his mindset. For all intents and purposes, Holden is a “normal” person, but in his efforts to get information from these killers he adopts their mannerisms, including dehumanizing language about women. He puts on a heck of a show to do so, scandalizing and alienating his peers.

Debbie, in a later episode, explains Goffman’s perspective: “He posits that life is like theater. We tailor ourselves to fit the parts that we’re playing. Goffman says we wear these masks to make everyone else comfortable.” (Ok, that’s not quite right, as Jay Livingston at the Montclair SocioBlog notes, Goffman sees masks to control others, not make them feel comfortable.) There is, for Goffman not a core sense of self, but one that “comes off the scene.” Killers are then, indeed, not just formed, but formed from their social environments.

But it’s Holden that the viewers really see putting on a mask. Although not referencing Goffman, an article in The Baffler notes that in the beginning of the series Holden is a rather empathetic and generous listener (e.g., turning toward Debbie, listening, asking for further reading on sociological theories of deviance), but that his interactional style changes, as he learns to adopt machismo (e.g., using deviant language, bragging about sexual escapades, etc.) in order to bond with law enforcement and, especially, with the serial killers. It’s no surprise that this occurs after Debbie refers to Goffman.

The Co-ed Killer, Kemper, steals scenes in his interactions with Holden and Bill. But it’s his use of the term “vocation” that made me sit up. It’s a career. Both Kemper and Holden become obsessed, but calling them a vocation normalizes the depths of their dives into criminality, albeit on either end of the law.


Thank you for your article! For me, it's the best TV show of 2017!

Thanks for the post Jonathan I think I'm gonna be busy this weekend watching Mindhunter then.

I'm watching this tonight, and my students need a little extra credit right now, so they soon will be too. Thanks Jon Wynn!

Excellent article, thank you. May I suggest you include the names of the actors playing Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv)? And by the way, Dr. Carr is not quite a closeted lesbian, as we see her and her girlfriend socializing openly as a couple in one scene. Rather, she doesn’t want to bring her personal life at work with the FBI.

Finally, a series that showcases what sociologists do! Thanks for the review. I will be starting this series soon.

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