Mindhunter as Social Research

Jonathan Wynn
March 5, 2018
Everyday Sociology Blog

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.

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