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Enlightenment And The Positivist Revolution Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2180 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Two traditions outline the beginning of criminology, these are the classical school of the Enlightenment and the positivist revolution of the nineteenth century, they strike at the very heart of the criminologist, is criminality chosen or determined? The two perspectives though very different in nature, have formed the overall basis to addressing problems of crime in our society and in this essay I will examine each approach in turn, describing firstly the background and main features of each and then to critically assess the limitations and merits of each school of thought.

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#Firstly I will turn my attention to the classical school of criminology, which branched from the philosophy of the Enlightenment period resting on the central notion of the protection of the right of the individual against the corruption of existing institutions [1] .At this time, in 18th Century Europe, punishment and penalties for law- breaking were “haphazard, localised ,irregular and unsystematic” [2] , with no proportionate aims linked to the crime committed, torture was routinely used and the death penalty was common. It was in this context that Italian Cesare Beccaria (1738-94) formulated his principles of classicism, which he based upon the social contract theories of Rousseau [3] , Hobbes [4] and Montesquieu. [5] Also through the work of his British contemporary, Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) who contended that human nature pursues self-interest instinctively, after deliberate and rational consideration of losses [6] For these reformers , crime was centred upon punishment, or rather to prevent punishment from being, in Beccaria’s words, ” an act of violence of one or many against the private citizen” [7] Classicism presented a model of rationality, with a limited liberal state imposing fair and just punishment that must result if social harm has been perpetrated. [8] 

Classical criminology was born out of time of radical social change, with the emergence of a capitalist market which demanded a justice system that was predictable systematic and reliable, premised upon the notion of individual rights. This “social contract” is maintained though the use of punishment which purpose was to deter individuals from future offending ( e.g. the idea of the” pleasure/ pain principle” [9] , were the pain of sanctions would be outweighed by the pleasure gained in committing the crime) Classical criminology was centrally concerned with the establishment of a reformed, equitable and efficient system of justice” [10] 

This school of criminological thought was vastly important for the development of most civilisations towards and indeed all modem criminal justice systems in the world adopt the classical approach, also it is clear to be seen that policies from the rights of the accused to capital punishment have their roots in classical criminology. As well as this it ” provides a benchmark by which other theories can be compared and an important philosophical underpinning for anti-positivistic paradigms that emphasize free will” [11] . However, as J Mitchell Millar states,” Perspectives that imagine crime to be the outcome of a deliberative calculation have limitations” [12] and the classical school is open to many criticisms.

Firstly, it fails to take into account the societal causes of crime, or the reasons and conditions which social inequalities can lead certain groups towards a propensity to become socially deviant [13] . It does not address the complex issue which lie outside the human mind and body, the convoluted issues of class and hegemonic structures between the status quo who sculpt the law to adhere to their own interests and the lower classes that wish to rebel against such laws that do not represent them, in other words, society’s ” preoccupation of liberal governance in regulating those considered to be a threat to political stability, industrial expansionism and ” respectable” working class compliance” [14] 

As Gennaro Vito states, “The preventative potential of the classical approach is limited by its initial assumption about criminal behaviour, that all criminals are rational” [15] and can be seen from Neo-Classical revisionism, the actual implementation of classical premises is problematic. For the law to look upon everyone in the ” rational” sense was unjust and thus consideration was given for factors of incompetence , mental illness, pathology and impulsive behaviour. All these were deemed to be important when the individual was exercising their own free will, in other words “the actor is no longer the isolated, atomistic rational man of pure classicism” [16] Therefore even though Beccarria conceded that there were pre-rational and sub-rational people(i.e. children and the mentally insane) he failed to acknowledge the social conditions that effect individual rationality and decision-making.

Finally it is also worth noting ,In terms of gender this school of thought fails to take into account the disparity between rates of offending between men and women. Also if this was the case then why isn’t crime spread equally throughout society, as statistics show that higher crime rates usually coincide with law income areas. Also the application of the pure classical theory would rob judges of their discretionary powers [17] , the quantification of such acts and their perpetrators defies such a simplistic scheme [18] 

I will now turn my attention to positivism, which by the end of the 19th century had super-seeded the classical school. Emerged during the 19c, a period of further consolidation of capitalism, which seen the emergence of a new ” working class” who banded together to seek equal rights from the ruling classes and the birth of the trade union. Institutionally the rise of positivism coincided with the emergence of the professions and the ” scientific method”. The positivist criminologist veers towards this scientific understanding of criminality. Taking the focus away from the crime as seen in classicism and placing it on the “offender” and instead of punishment, adequate treatment was provided. Offenders could be scientifically studied and factors determining their criminality could be classified, diagnosed and treated. As Stanley Cohen states positivism came to symbolise ” scientism, technology, dehumanization, rectification and the personalization of a social problems by seeing them through the lense of pathology and psychiatry” [19] First popularised by French sociologist Augsute Comte(1798-1857) and then Lombroso(1911) who borrowed heavily from Darwinian theories on evolution and also by Enrico Ferri and Raffale Garrofalo. Discussion was focused mainly on the idea of the “atavistic criminal”, a person who was biologically inferior and such a person could be recognised through certain physical signs( i.e. large ears, abnormal dentition, asymmetric face etc).

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As many critics point out, Positivism lost credibility as crime rates began to climb in the 1970s, if crime was brought about social factors that had been suggested then why hadn’t strategies put in place to counteract crime in the 1960’s decreased criminal activity? [20] On closer inspection it is clear to be seen that this school has many limitations. These theories focus on particular types of crimes; mainly violent crimes, street crime and issues surrounding juvenile delinquency, they fail to examine more sophisticated crimes and the individuals who have a propensity to committing them, such as white collar and state-orientated offending. As well as this, many critics find the work of positivists to be biased and inadequate [21] .The large majority of positivist research has taken its subjects from incarcerated populations, thus it does not depict a wide picture of society as a whole and defines those in prison as impaired and thus by definition criminal. Most of these studies reflect Reid’s “dualistic fallacy” [22] notion, which assumes the mutual exclusivity of criminals and non-criminals. This can be eradicated, by the use of control groups but this is problematic to achieve in practice as it is extremely difficult to find matching variables ( such as age, employment status etc) thus most positivist research is discredited on these grounds [23] 

The correlation between criminality and “illness” is also a key criticism of positivism as linking the two suggests that criminality is like a “sickness” that can be treated and eradicated from society. [24] It also assumes that human behaviour is ” fixed” and this ignores the notion of continual human development , change and renewal and the complexities of the human form.

Radical critics, as Susan Harden Aikne states, define positivism as ” a commitment to the status quo, a commitment to ignoring the meaning of consciousness and a commitment to oppression.” [25] By doing this they thus ignore the use of positivism for the use of human liberation. What we must remember is that “criminal behaviour” is defined by society’s norms, and that such norms are defined socially not biologically.

Lastly. Focusing on the scientific method, not only makes it inaccessible to the general community, but completely rejects common sense notions of the majority and places criminality into hands of the medical profession, the societal elite, thus diminishing the responsibility of professionals.

In conclusion, I believe that even in light of the various contradictions each school implies on the other, it is most beneficial to look at the these two criminological perspectives as complimentary rather than paradoxical. Society and its relationship with criminality is a complex issue and as such it transcends the idea that one theory can capture it in its totality.


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