Discussing Theory And Practice In Criminology Criminology Essay

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Outline the main elements of classicism and positivism that pertain to the study of crime.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the central concepts of both classicalism and positivism that are associated with the study of crime and criminology. According to Siegel (2008, p.5) the study of crime (criminology) is ultimately concerned with the "origin, extent and nature of crime in society." In order to complete the task set out above I will look at the key theorists who advocated each avenue of thought, how they define crime, the role society and the individual plays and how each school believed crime should be dealt with. It is my belief that these elements are key to each theory's practice and application.


The classical approach to crime originated in the 18th century coinciding with the Enlightenment. It thus consisted of idealist views, complied from observation and reflection. This theory was evident in the writings of John Locke and Thomas Hobbe, amongst others however two of the most prominent classical thinkers emerged during the late 1700's; philosophers Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham (Lilly et al, 2007).

Human nature, society and the act of crime

According to this perspective rational thought and human intelligence are fundamental aspects of behaviour thus laying a basis for the decision making process and further action. Beccaria and Bentham applied this idea to crime and it was their argument that people freely choose to participate in criminal activity, this choice being one in a range of behavioural options (Einstadter & Henry, 2006). In short what was imperative to the application of classicism was the view on human nature. According to classicism the basis for all human action is hedonism, the idea that each individual will act in their own self-interest. Each individual will decide and act in a way that is beneficial to himself whilst also attempting to minimize the pain and cost. But people are also rational; they are able to evaluate what is really in their self interest before they act and this ability gives them a degree of freedom from their wants and desires. Their rationality acts as a control mechanism preventing them from making drastic or rule breaking decisions. The rationality principle proposed by Beccaria and Bantham was an important element in the way classical theorists viewed society. Thomas Hobbes (1651) was one of the first classical theorists to put forward the idea of rationality and the creation of governance. Under classicism, society is seen as one which engages actively in what is called the "social contract". As a society we agree to abide by the rules of this contract and in doing so give up some of our freedom. If we commit a crime or break any rule set out by such a contract we agree to be punished as seen fit by the state and the rest of society. But why do we choose to do this? Hobbes argued the rationality principle. Being rational we will not live in a fearful society, afraid of our peers. Instead we will construct a government who can enforce acceptable rules and regulations (Tibbetts & Hemmens, 2009). Anything that goes against these rules or breaks them can be considered a crime under classicism.

The Criminal and the Justice System; policy implications

Taking classical views on society and human nature into account, we can then define their view on the criminal. Argued to be one of the fundamental flaws in classicism, classical theorists only differentiate between the criminal and rest of society in terms of choice (Siegel, 2008). In other words we all have the capability to commit crime but it is ultimately our choice combined with our fear of punishment that will deter us. Classical theorists do not take into account any external factors (poverty, upbringing, ecology) or internal (psychological disturbance) when it comes to assessing the criminal and the act. According to rational choice theory, criminals share the same goals, needs and wants as the rest of society but choose illegitimate means as a way of obtaining them. Criminals act solely by choice, rationally planning the crime (Siegel, 2008).

If criminals are rational and are able to assess the pleasure-pain principle, punishments should act as a deterrent and must therefore be proportional to the crime. In other words the punishment should set an example to anyone else who considers breaking the rules of the social contract. The higher the personal cost to any potential criminal, the less likely he/she is to commit crime. This means that the administration of criminal justice was generally swift, transparent and followed due process. What is interesting to note is that although classicism isn't used in its full form to explain criminal behaviour it is still used by the justice system to determine punishment.


The Positivist School of Criminology emerged after classicism in 19th century Italy. The school rejected classicisms idea that everyone had the potential to commit crime and instead focused on studying crime from a scientific perspective. Positivism aims to explain criminality and predict future occurrences of crime by using biological identifiers (Baldock et al, 2007). Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri and Hans Eyesneck are just some of the scientific thinkers who pushed positivism into the forefront of criminology. They did not disagree that most crime could be explained through human nature but also argued that the more serious of crimes were committed by those exhibiting primitive development structures (Morrison, 1995).

"[Criminals are characterised by] human deformities and monstrosities, physically ill-shapen, weak and sickly with irregular features, they bear a sinister, ignoble, and furtive expression."- Boies, 1893, quoted in Morrison 1995: 115.

Society and the act of crime

Cesare Lombroso is widely considered to be the founder of positivist theory and his theory was that of the "born criminal"; someone who is biologically pre-determined to commit crime. In this way all human behaviour is pre-determined, even what would be considered as "normal". It is those who conform to these norms, those whose behaviour is deemed acceptable, that make up a consensus in society (shared values, ideals and norms), (Einstadter & Henry, 2006). Society, in positivist theory, only acts as an external stimulus to the criminal and his/her behaviour. Unlike classicism, there is no social contract and no emphasis on social order. In fact social order itself is not an integral part of positivist theory; instead positivists focus is on the criminal and more specifically, the physical and mental attributes of the criminal. Where classicism and positivism do find common ground is in their definition of the act of crime. Positivists define crime as any act that violates the normal belief and legal systems instilled in society. In other words a crime can be something that contradicts social norms or the official criminal justice system. Again the crime itself is not of great importance to positivists, the attention is on the criminal.

Human nature and the "criminal"

As opposed to classical theorists who believe offenders actively chose to participate in criminal activity, with positivism there was no element of choice involved. To positivists, human behaviour is predetermined. Human nature is therefore a fixed element in the individual, inherent to one's biological make-up, thus human nature is intricately linked to the "criminal". Our nature and behaviour are a direct result of our genetic make-up.

Lombroso studied to establish a link between one's physiological make up and one's behaviour. He likened their features to that of savages rather than of a developed member of modern society and posited that their body type was atavistic. Lombroso is not alone in his assumptions about the criminal - there has been and are many other theorists who agree. Their argument being that a mesomorph is more likely to engage in a criminal act than an ectomorph. Using this theory it is also more likely for a man to become a criminal than a woman due to their larger muscle mass, physique and production of testosterone (Winfree et al, 2009). Indeed Sheldon (1949) noted an association between body type and criminal behaviour, finding that the majority of offenders held a larger muscle mass and stocky build. It is important to note however that this was not true in all cases. Some offenders were of lesser build and physicality while a smaller number of non-offenders had features akin to that of a mesomorph. Positivism seeks to identify the criminal externally through empirically measureable traits and scientifically classifying the causes of criminal behaviour; this is where it differs from the majority of other theories including classicism.

The Criminal and the Justice system; policy implications

Because the cause of criminal behaviour is identified as a biological and inherent problem that the criminal cannot control, the biological method advocates medical treatment of the criminal as the method of rehabilitation. The duration of treatment and intensity should reflect the crime. If taken in its full form, positivism would suggest the replacement of juries with a panel of experts all with the ability to understand and diagnose proper management of the illness. Positivism is reflected in certain areas of today's justice policy, especially when dealing with the mentally ill however it is rarely seen in its full form namely because of the potentially distaorous policy implications biological positivism could have (Young, 1980).


While composing this essay I identified the main areas which pertain to the study of criminology in both theories as society, human nature, the crime, the criminal and the justice system. We can see the stark differences and even similarities in both classicism and positivism and can understand why these elements are so important to modern day criminology, even if not used in their entirety.