Differentiating arsonists: A model of firesetting actions and characteristics

David Canter*, Katarina Fritzon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

222 Citations (Scopus)


It is hypothesized that there will be behavioural consistencies in the actions of arsonists when committing a crime that characterize them. The themes underlying these observable differences can be used to help us understand the nature of the offence. With arson, one such observable difference is hypothesized to relate to the target or focus of the attack. The study tested whether consistencies could be found that distinguish person-oriented from object-oriented arsons. A second proposed facet of arson actions relates to the motivational category underlying the act, being either instrumental or expressive. It was also hypothesized, therefore, that there would be a distinction in the arson actions between fires set for a clear instrumental purpose, and those which may be regarded as emotional acting-out. The hypothesis that these four themes would differentiate arsonists was tested by analysing 175 solved arson cases from across England. The case files were content analysed to produce 42 behavioural variables taken from both the crime reports and witness statements. In order to test the hypotheses of differentiation a smallest space analysis was carried out. The results support this framework giving rise to four distinct themes to arson from which scales with reasonable alpha scores could be derived. Two relate to expressive acts, (a) those that are realized within the arsonist's own feelings, being analogous to suicide, and (b) those that are acted on objects, like the burning of symbolic buildings. The other two relate to instrumental acts, (c) those that are for personal indulgence, similar to personal revenge, and (d) those that have an object focus such as hiding evidence from a crime. A further test of the validity of these four themes was to examine the typical characteristics of the people who committed the different types of arson. Four scales of arsonists' characteristics were developed. These were found to have appropriate, statistically significant correlations with the four themes. The implications of these findings for understanding the varieties of arson as revealed through the actions that occur are discussed, as well as the implications for arson investigations. It is speculated that this framework may provide a general model for considering a wide range of crimes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-96
Number of pages24
JournalLegal and Criminological Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes


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