Classical Criminology and Criminological Positivism


In order to understand the key characteristics of the two criminological perspectives, and their differences with regard of understanding criminal behaviour, criminology should be defined. ‘’Criminology is the body of knowledge regarding crime as a social phenomenon. It includes within its scope the process of making laws, of breaking laws, and of reacting toward the breaking of laws. The objective of Criminology is the development of a body of general and verified principles and other types of knowledge regarding this process of law, crime, and treatment’’ (Sutherland, 1939:3).

There are four main criminological perspectives within criminology: classical criminology, positivist criminology, interactionist criminology and critical criminology.

Classical Criminology emerged during the pre-enlightenment era and was the first to theorise crime.  Classical scholars sought to identify the rational means to deliver justice (Garland, 1994:25). It emerged as a response to the cruel and arbitrary forms of punishment that was still dominating. Previous to campaigns for the rights of the individual and the American and French revolution, new institutions were created in which political decisions were made.

When talking about the birth of criminology, we begin with what is generally known as classical criminology or classical school. The base of classical criminology was the assumption that criminal behaviour was a consequence of rational choice and the hedonistic impulses of every individual. The classical tradition lies on the belief that individuals are rational actors that make decisions based on a form of cost-benefit analysis.

Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham were two of the most known enlightenment figures and both sought end barbaric methods of the eighteenth-century justice systems.

Beccaria claimed that punishments, such as execution and torture should be terminated and that individuals accused of any crime have the right to be treated humanely and present evidence before and during their trial (Hayward and Morrison 2013:67). He stated that the society should be bind to the criminal law by having rational and clear rules, stating that ‘’we see the same court punish the same crime differently at different times’ (Beccaria [1767] 2012: 89).

On the other hand, the Utilitarian views of people such as Bentham, the infliction of pain and punishment should always be justified in terms of a greater good. Bentham considered individuals as ‘rational beings who apply a pleasure-pain principle when assessing whether or not to commit a crime’ (Tierney 2009:47). He claimed that the mankind was placed under two sovereign masters’ governance, which are pain and pleasure. It is for every person alone to decide what we ought to do and what should be done (Bentham [1789] 1970: 11).

The base of this tradition is, therefore, the belief that crime is a normative category that encloses social norms and values that are certain and it’s indicating that some forms of behaviour should be censored. Hence, the crucial questions of criminology concern which types of behaviour should be considered criminal and the extent and form of punishment for that particular form of behaviour.

Tierney (2010:54) described classical criminology as concerned with the creation of a new, equitable, reformed and efficient justice system. He stated that ‘classical writers concerned themselves with the creation of, they believed, a fairer, better regulated social order’.

Classical thinkers based their belief on the rational choice and free will claiming that each individual’s course of action is in concordance with their personal choices and self-interests, hence the element of freedom (Carrabine et al. 2009: 459).

Moreover, when studying rational choice, Coleman and Norris (2011), claimed that if complete freedom should occur, people will follow their own selfish interests which will often result in conflict, and will have as consequence ‘a war of all against all’. Therefore, in order to avoid general chaos, classic scholars referred to the Social Contract. This theory involves a relationship that is contractual between the state and the individual where people agree to renounce some of their freedom for the interest of the common good (Walklate 2007: 18).  Based on these facts, law is created in order to ensure that the common interests are met as well as providing a society that is well-ordered and is benefiting everyone (Tierney 2009: 43).

For us to understand the classical definition of crime, a clear understanding of the criminal law system and how it operates in the society should be given. Based on Beccaria and Bentham’s beliefs, the social contract will be efficient only if a criminal justice system based on the principles of the natural justice ( equity) would be developed: the administration of these laws through a system of criminal justice which is governed  and operated by the rule of law and applies the substantive of the law. Lastly, the use of punishment, but only to the extent that it is prompt, proportionate and predictable.

They define crime as a set of actions in violation of a criminal law. Regardless of how indecent, reprehensible or immoral an act is, it is only considered a criminal act if it is outlawed by the state. It should also be proven that the individual accused of an unlawful act knew that his actions were wrong and acted maliciously, knowingly and wilfully.

The process of implementing punishments that are equal for all individuals had as principal limitation the fact that not all individuals are equal before the law (children and mentally insane individuals), therefore, they shouldn’t be treated as such.

The classical school or classical criminology impacted the field of criminological theory significantly and had even a greater influence on the criminal justice system. From the criminological point of view, the core beliefs of classicism can be seen in the approaches that view individuals accused of criminal activity or behaviour as rational actors and free willed individuals.

Classicism had been the dominant approach when thinking about crime for a century. Only in the nineteenth century, classicism faced an attack from a scientific approach of criminology, known as positivism.

In simple terms, a scientific thought arose based on the idea that human behaviour is determined by biological and physiological factors.

Positivist Criminology was therefore divided in two, the individual (internal) positivism and the sociological (external) positivism.

The Psychological and Biological positivism was based on each individual’s pathology and the source of crime was considered to be within the individual. In contrast, the sociological positivism if focused on the basis that the crime is a result of social rather than individual pathology, its insights being gained by the study of the social context which is external to the individual. (Hopkins Burke 2009).

Whereas the historical mission of the classical school was to reduce punishment, the mission of positivism was the reduction, if not elimination, of crime (Taylor et al., 1973: 10).

Positivist Criminology is associated with, the later known as the ‘father of modern criminology’, Cessare Lombroso’s work is now highly discredited. From a psychiatrist point of view, Lombroso considered criminals as throwbacks to a primitive stage of the human development. He viewed criminals as atavistic due to various inferior physiological featured that were associated with lower primates and biological regression that involves a form of mentality and behaviour considered less civilised. On the same idea, Darwin argued that ‘with mankind some of the worst dispositions which occasionally without any assignable cause make their appearance in families, may perhaps be reversions to a savage state from which we are not removed by many generations’ (quoted in Taylor et al., 1973: 41). Lombroso considered the criminal as a separate species that is exhibiting various mental and physical characteristics that are setting them apart from non-criminals. These characteristics included: deviation in the head size and shape, asymmetry of the face, large jaw and cheek bones and eye defects, ears of a very small size and twisted nose. He claimed that criminals were born, not made. Where his early work focused primarily on biological factors, as it developed, he also incorporated greater consideration of broader environmental factors.

Lombroso’s work was further developed by scholars as Enrico Ferri and Charles Gorring whom have had considerable influence within the field of positivist criminology. Arguably, it could be assumed that the most extreme approach of positivism is the Eugenics movement.  Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton came with the term of eugenics which means ‘well-born’’ as he tried to explain human behaviour through genetics. Eugenics claimed that people are born with specific traits that will lead to either success or failure in life, and that such traits were transmitted from one generation to another. They later stated that the main feature of the ‘failed individual’ a was feeble mind. This was associated with crime and criminality which was considered as a result of these failed genetic characteristics. Although, these theories were highly discredited, recent research in the genetics and crime/anti-social behaviour shown that they increased markedly, Moffit (2005) claimed that 100 studies of genetic influence on anti-social behaviour conclude that genes have influence over 40, 50 % of the population variation in anti-social behaviour.

Furthermore, in the attempt of explaining criminal behaviour, a growing number of criminologists sought to build bridges between psychological and sociological aspects of the subject (Gadd and Jefferson, 2007).

Classic psychological theories of crime associated with Freud and Bowlby have attempted to explain criminal behaviour through psychoanalysis. Freud, known as the ‘father of psychoanalysis’ claimed that humans are inherently anti-social experimenting pleasure-seeking impulses that that are often in conflict with the broader interest of the greater good or social groups. He developed the psychoanalytic theory in which the irrational and unconscious motivations are emphasised. The three concepts of this theory are the Id (unconscious, primitive instinct) Ego (both, unconscious and conscious, enables the id to function in socially acceptable norms based on the reality principle) and Super Ego (both unconscious and conscious, contains the social standards and internalised morals that guide behaviour. The source of guilt). At the heart of his theory, Freud suggested that humans, whom are inherently anti-social, become social by regulating their pleasure- seeking impulses. Freud claimed that criminal behaviour occurs in the existence of a weak, harsh or deviant superego. Dysregulation of the super ego (weak superego) leads to psychopathy, impulsivity and individuals whom are lacking in guilt. Bowlby, which focused on issues as ‘maternal deprivation’ linked to juvenile delinquency due to an ‘affectionless character’. The harsh superego leads to extreme guilt and acting-out behaviour and is considered to be a result of akin neuroses and a consequence of unconscious guilt over infantile desires. Lastly, in deviant superego, the standards develop normally but they are considered as being deviant (possible due to extreme attachment between a criminal parent and a child).These beliefs had little impact on criminological theories but had a significant impact in directing criminologists toward issues of the impact of early life experiences on criminality (Howitt, 2005).

A neo-positivist biological theory emerged in the 1970, referred as Social Learning theory. Although Social Learning theory is associated with Badura, the admins of this theory are to be found in the work of the French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde (Tarde 1903). Badura and colleagues showed how observational learning and direct conditioning are both important in understanding behaviour. The heart of this theory is that individuals learn cognitively by observing other people’s behaviour, hence criminal activity is a result of learned behaviour and motivation. Badura suggests that there are 3 types of motivation: external reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement and self- reinforcement. This theory stated that behaviour is learned by observing others and it is moulded by the nature of external factors and the reinforcements that occur (McGuire, 2004).

Positivism has been significantly influential within the field of criminology, suffering substantive criticism. Critics, such as David Matza (1964) and Tierney (1996) suggest that positivism draws on problematic assumptions such as Determinism (The belief that there are things beyond individuals and that leads individuals to commit crimes). Although these factors are psychological, sociological or biological, they are limited by their failure to look into human’s ability to take decisions and choices and rationality. Generally, it avoids consideration of the individual’s responsibility.

Secondly, Differentiation (the belief that the offender can be separated from the non-offender, that there a specific characteristic that help identifying criminals from non-criminals). And third, Pathology (the belief that what differentiates offenders from non-offenders is the consequence of something that went wrong in the lives of the former).

In conclusion, both classical criminology and positivist criminology have had substantial impact over the criminological field. Both perspectives attempt to define and explain crime and are in conflict with each other when it comes to understanding the reasons behind criminal behaviour.


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Walklate, S. (2007) Understanding Criminology: Current Theoretical Debates. Maidenhead: Open University Press

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