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Burning To Be Heard: Three Theories for Why Some Turn to Arson

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3526 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Burning To Be Heard: Three Theories Why Some Turn to Arson


Historically, arson has always been considered an act of deviance. Arson is deliberate and malicious, causes injuries and deaths of innocent civilians, and damages and destroys millions of dollars worth of property. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) in 2017, there were 1,391,500 fires resulting in 3,400 deaths, 14,670 injuries, and a loss of $23 billion. However, it is hard to determine what percentage of those fires were deliberate and malicious. An understanding of deliberate firesetting behavior is necessary in order to develop an effective strategy to manage and control this type of crime. In this field of research, one of the major concerns is the impact of inaccurate ideas about arsonists, especially during fire investigations. Misguided perceptions about arsonists mean that many of these criminals walk free, and also that many have been wrongfully convicted of arson-related offenses. For these reasons, along with mass damage of property and the loss of innocent lives, understanding the phenomenon is critical.

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Today, the law defines “arson” as a crime in which an individual deliberately and maliciously sets fire to property, and “arsonists” are individuals who commit these crimes. In general, deliberate firesetting behavior is considered “an expression of aggression and part of antisociality” (Wilpert et. al, 2017). However, there are still conflicting views about why individuals commit arson. For some, arsonists are considered a type of violent offender, and for others, arsonists are a distinct group of offenders (Wilpert et. al, 2017). In addition, the idea of “pyromania” further complicates this field of study, with some arguing that arsonists are “pyromaniacs” who receive sexual gratification from setting fires (Doley, 2003). 

For centuries, arson was thought to be perpetrated by groups of men who had political aims. During the early modern period (from 1500 to 1800), organized arson was seen as the most dangerous political crime (Dillinger, 2006). It was widely believed that arsonist gangs employed terrorist tactics with the goal of spreading insecurity and chaos while also causing mass material damage. Allegedly, would-be arsonists were recruited by foreign agents and were paid a certain sum of money to raise a fire in a specific place (Dillinger, 2006). Because of this view, it was believed that the immediate target/victim of the crime often had no connection to the strategic aim of the attack (Dillinger, 2006). Even though arsonists were believed to be acting in groups/conspiracies, there is much evidence that disproves this. Research concludes that these so-called arsonist groups lacked organizational structures that would make them an organized group in the first place. For example, sources from 16th century Europe reveal “an amazing flexibility” of these gangs: they formed and dispersed at will, there were no fixed meeting places, and plans to reunite a team of arsonists usually failed (Dillinger, 2006).

There are similarities between present-day terrorism and the fictional organized arson of the pre-modern time period. These similarities include the structure of conspiracy, violent attacks “against noncombatant targets carried out by non-soldiers in the furtherance of political goals,” and the spread of insecurity and chaos as its aim (Dillinger, 2006). In general, the prevailing belief was that only men engaged in arsonist plots and conspiracies. Even though there were female arsonists, organized arson was regarded as the “exclusive domain of vagrant men” (Dillinger, 2006). When females did commit arson, it was seen as “an individual act of revenge against certain persons,” and they were only considered guilty of arson “when additional charges of murder or theft were brought” (Dillinger, 2006).

Today, some researchers argue that arsonists can be classified into three major groups: arson-for-profit, the solitary firesetter, and group firesetting (Hershbarger & Killer, 1978). “Arson-for-profit” results from pending bankruptcies, the perceived need to eliminate competition, the operation of slum real estate, the vacancy of the building, labor conflicts between both union and non-union workers, and the desire of criminals to conceal their crimes (Hershbarger & Killer, 1978). It is argued that insurance is a major motivator because it provides a possible gain that overrides the risk of the crime. The “solitary firesetter” is an individual who operates alone to set deliberate fires. Common explanations for this include revenge, pyromania, the hero complex, the psychotic firesetter, and the sexual deviant (Hershbarger & Killer, 1978). This kind of arson is not conducted for profit, but for self-pleasure and gratification. The third type of arson is “group firesetting.” This is normally classified as vandalism fires, riot fires, and political fires (Hershbarger & Killer, 1978). The major characteristic of group firesetting is that the group reinforces acts that the individual might have not committed when acting alone. In this sense, the individual becomes deviant only when acting in the group. However, today there is little information available about group firesetters.

Anomie-Strain Theory

Strain theory can be applied to examine why some people become arsonists.  Strain theory, as recalled, is a positivist theory addressing a “negative emotional state or feeling that can result from relative deprivation or other circumstances.”  As Agnew explains through his four causes, this can be a result of failure to achieve positively valued goals, gaps between expectations and achievements, loss of something positively valued, or experiencing something a person perceives as negative.

 Where arson is concerned, we can apply Agnew’s observation of the disjunction between expectations and actual achievements to help understand why one might turn to arson.  One driver of this motivation can be economic.  Research suggests the incidence of arson is inversely related to the strength of the economy (Hershbarger and Miller, 1979).  Economic strain can motivate an individual experiencing stress in maintaining payments on a property to contemplate turning to arson as a way to, euphemistically speaking, “sell” the property to the insurance company.  Studies demonstrate a time lag of roughly three years between the strain of economic stress and turning to arson (Hershbarger and Miller, 1978; Spillman and Zak, 1979).   We might interpret this lag time as a demonstration of reluctance to turn to arson to ease the burden caused by the property, or the economic timeline between a downturn in the economy and inability to keep up with the bank’s demands.  In either case, this decision to essentially unload the responsibilities of their financial commitment through arson would appear to be an effort to overcome the mismatch between expectation and reality, as no one, presumably, enters into a financial transaction of responsibility with an expectation of default.

 James Brady (1983) expresses a theory of arson causation through economic factors on a much larger scale, noting that “routine profit-making practices of banks, realtors, and insurance companies lead to the process of abandonment, gentrification, and neighborhood decline which destabilize urban communities and provide the context and motivation for several varieties of arson.”  These conditions can motivate arsonists in an arson-for-profit scheme, not dissimilar from the individual-based example noted above, but Brady suggests the underlying factors causing the financial strain are intentional, and to a certain degree, desirable.

 We might also apply Merton’s anomie-strain theory to help us understand why someone would turn to arson.  Merton observes that despite broad socialization within the populace regarding the achievement of goals, socially accepted access to goals is distributed unequally throughout society.  As a result, those who struggle to achieve goals which society encourages will turn to a form of adaptation in order to bridge the gap between their ultimate goal and their means of achieving the goal.  Where arsonists and the economy are concerned, this adaptation falls into the category of innovation.  Here, the arsonist is still striving to achieve culturally defined goals, though the economic strain they are experiencing may leave them with few socially-accepted means and opportunity.  Arson might be a preferred mechanism to avoid the stigmatism of bankruptcy, for example.

Merton’s theories are not limited to economic motivations for explaining why people might choose arson as their vehicle of adaptation.  Other motivations can include revenge, “fires set in retaliation for some injustice, real or imagined, perceived by the offender.” (US Fire Administration, 2019).  Here, it is possible to explain this behavior through the adaptation of rebelling against society’s norms.  We can interpret this version of arson as a departure from, and replacement of, society’s goals with some other goal chosen by the offender.   


 To understand why an individual may resort to arson, the theory of stigma can also be applied. Stigma is when an individual with characteristics that are commonly and harshly discredited by their society, is rejected due to these characteristics. In other terms, an individual is stigmatized when there is “ a form of informal social control that can fracture interaction” involved (Goffman, 1963). This theory heavily revolves around how others view an individual who participates in deviant acts, and in this case, someone who commits arson often enough to identify as an arsonist.

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 Individuals who commit arson are typically discreditable where, from a first glance, they do not physically appear to be criminal firesetters. However, once an individual makes it known by any extent that they are an arsonist, they become discredited, and this is where the stigma comes into play. For example, once an arsonist comes clean with their family about their criminal behavior, mental illness is a large factor in how they may become stigmatized.  This stigma then causes arsonists to typically engage in limited disclosure, which is where these individuals are open about their lives minus the details of arson in their personal identity. It is commonly thought that those who commit arson have anger management issues, and thus take out their frustrations with fire. In addition, alcoholism is commonly linked to arson, and in return, deepens the stigma of those with mental illness and those who set fires. This stigma then stretches to the common misconception that those who set fires are mentally ill drunks when in reality, arson is beyond just setting fires for fun (Mojtahedi et al., 2017).

 Stigma management is a large portion of this theory, and it revolves around how a stigmatized person copes with their stigma. This coping mechanism does not necessarily mean that this assists the individual from stopping their arson altogether because, in fact, it can encourage the deviant to continue their actions and possibly increase the frequency of setting fires as a way to cope with them being stigmatized. However, this management should not only be the focus of those who commit arson, but also those who hope to stop arson in their neighborhoods altogether. Given 84% of arsonists suffer from some sort of substance abuse, 11% suffer from intellectual disability and 28% suffer from psychosis, implementing crime-stopping laws in neighborhoods may not be the best way to help individuals manage their stigma (Mojtahedi et al., 2017). Recommending treatment for their addictions and discontinuing ostracising and mocking arsonists may allow them to turn to other ways to cope with these issues, rather than making them feel like their only escape is committing more arson.

Labeling Theory

 Eco-terrorists who turn to arson as a means to achieve their goals, such as found with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), can be examined through the lens of labeling theory.  Among labeling theory’s tenets is the idea the deviance cannot be studied as an object separate from the complex lives of those labeled as deviants.  The arsonists within ELF are actively choosing to participate in the deviant act, which has been labeled such by a consensus perspective held almost universally within society.  ELF is a highly decentralized organization constructed along anarchist lines, most commonly described as “leaderless resistance” (Joosse, 2012).  Under this construct, ELF encourages adherents to act in response to the specific local injustices they perceive occurring around them.  According to ELF’s “Frequently Asked Questions” pamphlet, to members of ELF, it is the actions of the capitalist state against the environment which is unacceptable and must be targeted (Joosse, 2012).  In this way, ELFers, as they are called, commit arson in order to gain media attention for their cause as much as to destroy the offending structures encroaching upon the environment.  While society deems arson deviant, ELFers see it differently and further, capitalize upon the deviant actions by choice in order to spread their message and bring attention to their cause.  In other words, what society sees as deviant, ELFers see as necessary and honorable.

 Secondary deviance also might explain the actions of arsonists within groups such as ELF.  Once labeled as arsonists by society, it increases the chances the ELFers will self-identify as arsonists, completing a circle predictive of future behavior.  Secondary deviance also helps to explain other arsonist behavior as well.  McDermott and Hassell (2018) discuss the example of Australian Brendan Sokuluk, who was sentenced to over 17 years in prison for the deaths of 10 people after being convicted of setting a brush fire in Australia. Sokuluk grew up suffering the stigmatism and labeling of being mentally slow, and as a result, was bullied mercilessly.  As he grew older, unable to fit into society he was viewed as socially deviant, and his behavior began to take on early signs of being an arsonist.  On several occasions prior to the bushfire for which he was sentenced, he was observed in the vicinity of other fires.  This example demonstrates how secondary deviance can result from being labeled and stigmatized, and further, the secondary deviance does not have to be consistent with the primary labeling or stigma.  Merely suffering a label of being deviant is sufficient to induce further deviant behavior.


As expressed, arson is the willful and malicious burning of property involving many types of crimes including including setting fire to one’s property with intent or a motive. An example would be if a person decided to burn even their own house to collect insurance money. This a premeditated act and should be still taken into account. A majority of arson crimes may be associated with damaging buildings or other house-like structures, but arson can be classified as burning anything such as forests or ships. The classification of arson still is a felony due to the potential to cause injuries or death, but defining arson is very tricky  Arson comes in many forms including juveniles vandalizing property, businesses trying to collect insurance money, and murderers covering up their crimes are just a few of the examples arson investigators deal with. The reasons why arson is committed and the psychology behind arson are as diverse as the crime itself. It is important to realize that there is no perfect psychological profile of an arsonist. It does not matter if a person is young, old, educated, illiterate, sane, insane, rich and poor as these characteristics can be of an arsonist. Finding the right profile of an arsonist is hard. In the 1989 arson murder case with Hant Tak Lee serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison for murdering his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter (Hansen, 2015). He was later exonerated. Fire scientists may have studied various arson investigations, but Lee’s case is among the worst of them. This case is one of the arson convictions that was scrutinized due to outmoded beliefs of how fires are started and behave in ways (Hansen, 2015). It is important to realize that Arson cases are not like typical murder or rape cases, where DNA evidence may still exist that not only can establish one’s innocence but also implicate another. In arson cases, the evidence is usually consumed in the fire.

    With such a wide range of suspect characteristics, such as there is research that suggests the incidence of arson related to the strength of the economy (Hershbarger and Miller, 1979). The relationship between poverty and arson events may turn out to be positive as increasing poverty is associated with more fires in the area, but arson can happen anywhere no matter how economically advantaged or disadvantaged. In conclusion, it is difficult to find the root causes of arson as there are a lot of factors that make it complex to prove.



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