Debbie Does Durkheim

October 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember “profiling” in the 1990s – “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and then the TV series “Profiler” (1996 - 2000). It seemed like half the students in my crim courses were there because they wanted be profilers,* untangling the twisted psyches of serial killers, figuring out where they would strike next, and nabbing them just before they killed again. What a disappointment my course must have been.   

They’re baaack. Not my students. Profilers on TV. The show is “Mindhunter.” It’s on Netflix, it’s set in the late 1970s, and it has some big names attached – David Fincher and Charlize Theron are producers, and Fincher directed some of the episodes. And another big name: Emile Durkheim.

In the first episode, the central character Holden Ford, in a loud and crowded bar (there’s a rock band playing), finds himself standing next to Debbie Mitford, an attractive young woman. They step outside to continue their conversation. That’s when she utters the kind of pick-up line that’s become such a tired cliche these days.

(Click on an image for a larger view)

Debbie is a graduate student in sociology. He’s a hostage negotiator for the FBI, but his boss has just assigned him to the classroom – to teach agents hostage negotiation. He confesses his ignorance about Durkheim, but the flirtation continues.

This struck me as not quite right. Alas, I was not called in as a script doctor on this show. I know something about theories of deviance. On the other hand, I know little about bar conversations. Anyway, once Debbie has lured him this far, she adds, with a twinkle in her eye,

I haven’t seen the rest of the series, but it looks like the Debbie-Holden thing will have a life beyond this one meeting in a bar. The relationship will probably hinge on some underlying and never-resolved sexual tension  – a flat, humorless version of  Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis in the first seasons of “Moonlighting.” Just a guess.

The sociology lesson ends with this:

And my point is that the ideas she attributes to Durkheim might be ideas you could derive from Durkheim. But they are not what he actually said. The key passage is the one in The Rules of Sociological Method (here), where Durkheim says that even in a society of saints there will be crime. It won’t be the crime of the unsaintly world. But the norms for acceptable behavior will be raised so high, that actions that are unremarkable in our world will be treated as criminal.

Over a half-century later, this passage became the cornerstone of labeling theory – the recognition that deviance is a not a thing but a process. It is the interaction between those who make and enforce the rules or norms and those who break them. But Durkheim himself never used the word labeling, nor did he take the more conflict-based view that criminality is a response to “something wrong” in the society.

Sociological script consultants – never around when you need one.

* My inner dyslexic always wants to read “profilers” as “prolifers” – not exactly the same thing, though perhaps not entirely different. 

HT: Max for alerting me to this scene.


Flor said...

Cringed at this scene, thanks for covering it. They do actually end up having sex within this first episode and the series picks up from there, so there's that.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the info. Obviously, I didn't watch it till the end. Also, more evidence that they didn't hire me as a script doctor. I'd have gone with the "Moonlighting" unresolved sexual tension and hoped that they could get more Willis/Shepardesque.

Anonymous said...

I just watched this scene and backtracked to make sure I was hearing her correctly. Then, I paused it to do a google search of Durkheim and labeling theory because it struck me as off. I'm glad I'm not the only person this rubbed the wrong way. Frustrating because sociology never gets any limelight and when it finally does, they're inaccurate.

Jay Livingston said...

Sources tell me that Durkheim turns up again in a later episode, though they didn't say whether it was with the same degree of inaccuracy.