In examining the research on arson it is important to appreciate that there are significant issues associated with the selection of arson study populations and the type of data used by researchers in the area that may limit some of the conclusions that can be drawn from the literature. The main problems centre on sample bias and the meaningfulness of the categories used in the classification system. A lack of clarity in defining the distinctions between categories of arsonists has contributed to a general confusion in the area. Further, given the relatively small number of deliberate firesetters who is actually caught, caution must be exercised in assuming that research findings are characteristic of the total population of arsonists.
Having noted these fundamental concerns
in the field, I have provided a brief summary of arson profiling information
here along with some general references you may find useful.
The “typical” arsonist
Arson is predominantly committed by males, a trend which is consistent with patterns of participation in criminal activity generally (Farrington, 1996). Stewart (1993) quotes a ratio of 6:1 male to female arsonists based on crime and criminal statistics. Most studies involving a random sampling of arsonists have found approximately 80% or more are males (Bedford, 1997; Leong, 1992; Puri, Baxter, & Cordess, 1995; Rasanen, Hirvenoja, Hakko, & Vaisanen, 1994; Soothill & Pope, 1973). Younger (16 to 25 years old) arsonists appear most commonly in the literature, however this may be an artefact of a lack of criminal experience and resources, which leads to these individuals being over-represented in the criminal justice system.
Many arsonists report dysfunctional family backgrounds,
including poor parenting practices, childhood behaviour problems, as
well as being academically, economically and socially disadvantaged
(Geller, 1987; Inciardi, 1970; Koson & Dvoskin, 1982; Levin, 1976;
O’Sullivan & Kelleher, 1987; Rasanen et al., 1994; Rice & Harris,
1991; Stewart, 1993; Vreeland & Levin, 1980). These factors translate
to a picture of an individual with marital and sometimes sexual difficulties,
an unstable employment history in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations,
and a likely drug and / or alcohol abuse problem.
Arsonists compared to each other
The differences between arsonists are interesting. For instance, from the relatively few studies that have been published comparing male and female firesetting behaviour, it appears that while female firesetters do not differ significantly from male firesetters across a broad range of psychosocial characteristics, gender differences are evident in criminal offence history and the reason for firesetting. Female firesetters are more likely to set fires for emotional reasons and to target residential property. Male firesetting behaviour tends to target commercial property and has a more instrumental focus.
Aside from gender
differences there are also differences between serial and non-serial
arsonists. As may be expected, serial firesetting is associated with
more enduring psychiatric disorders rather than transitional emotive
states and tends to be associated with intrinsic motives rather than
instrumental reasons for arson. However, in terms of personal characteristics
there appears to be little difference between serial and single arsonists
beyond expected differences in age and experience given the time involved
in acquiring a history of official arson convictions.
Arsonists compared to other offenders
In terms of their demographic profile arsonists are typical of offenders generally. Where arsonists differentiate themselves from other offenders is mainly in the type of anti-social behaviour they undertake. For example, in their review of the relevant literature Vreeland and Levin (1980) found that firesetters tend to have a history of mainly property related crime rather than violent offences. Similarly, Tennent, McQuaid, Loughnane, and Hands (1971) reported that arsonists were more likely to have prior convictions for property damage and prostitution than other offenders in their sample were. Also, differences between arsonists and other offender groups have been noted in terms of certain personality characteristics and level of psychiatric disturbance. When compared with other offenders, arsonists frequently report lower levels of self-esteem, assertiveness, and communication skills, while evidencing higher sensitivity to insult and intolerance of frustration and tension. Further, many arsonists have a diagnosis of one or more serious psychiatric conditions, predominantly covering schizophrenia, personality disorder or mental retardation.
Criminal behaviour analysis and arson
In the early 1990’s a radically different alternative to utilising motive or sample characteristics to differentiate arson was introduced. Coming from an operational background within the Federal Bureau of Investigation Douglas, Burgess, Burgess, and Ressler (1992) proposed a typology based primarily on behavioural features of arson. In order to differentiate arson in this way links between crime scene features and various personal characteristics of the offender needed to be established through the use of criminal behaviour analysis. A profile of a likely offender, typically comprising demographic information in addition to personality and behavioural tendencies, is constructed on the basis of information gathered from the scene as well as from witness and victim statements (Bartol & Bartol, 1994; Douglas, Ressler, Burgess, & Hartman, 1986; Turco, 1990). This technique has received support among investigators of serious serial crime, including rape, homicide, and arson (Canter, 1989, 1994; Canter & Heritage, 1990; Holmes, 1996a, 1996b; Pinizzotto, 1984; Pinizzotto & Finkel, 1990; Wood, 2000). Others, however, have been more cautious in their assessment of the validity and utility of this approach (Oleson, 1996; Wardlaw, 1981; Wilson & Soothill, 1996).