Examining Why Criminology Theories Are Crucial Criminology Essay


Compared to other positivist theories, sociological positivism emphasises on the importance of social factors as causes of crime, and compared to classicism, it views the individual as a body that is acted upon, and whose behaviour is determined by external social forces-such as anomie and social disorganisation. Historically, this theory of sociological positivism originated from the work of the French statistician, Guerry and the Belgian mathematician, Quetelet, in the 1830s, where they found that crime and crime rates were remarkably constant and due to this, it was proposed that criminal behaviour must be generated by something other than individual motivation. They generated the idea that changes in these crime rates were accordance to the changes in the social, political and economic structures of particular societies. It was, however, Emile Durkheim who became the leading figure of sociological positivism in which he portrayed crime as the 'consequence of social upheaval'.

Lady using a tablet
Lady using a tablet


Essay Writers

Lady Using Tablet

Get your grade
or your money back

using our Essay Writing Service!

Essay Writing Service

One of the primary reasons why sociological positivism is considered to be the strongest theoretical explanation of crime is because this theory recognised the limitation of individuals' freewill and how there is actually no such thing as free will as most of the time, individual's choice is constraint by their social circumstances. The concept of anomie and Merton's strain theory, which are the basis form of sociological positivism, argues that people are more likely to commit crime when they cannot get when they cannot get what they want through legitimate channels. Anomie, concept developed by Durkeheim can be defined (Muncie and McLaughlin 2007: 12) as 'a state of ethical normlessness or deregulation, pertaining either to an individual or a society. This lack of normative regulation leaves individuals without adequate ethical guidance as to their conduct and undercuts social integration'. For Merton, a 'strain to anomie' (Chakraboti: 2010) can be viewed as 'a result from a disassociation between cultural ends and legitimate means'. He identified that people in the United States of America are encouraged to pursue the goal of monetary success, which has become part of the American culture. It is the lower-class individuals that often are not able to achieve such success through legitimate channels and thus will turn to illegitimate channels to reach this American dream, because they tend to have lower chances of getting good education and good jobs, which prevent them to achieve economic success.

Building from Merton's theory was Albert Cohen's sub-cultural theory (1955) and Richard Cloward and Llyod Ohlins' differential opportunity theory (1960) which explain the origin of juvenile gangs in the lower-class. Cohen developed a theory of youth subculture, which viewed gang as a subculture with a value system different from the typical American culture. According to Cohen (1955 as cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2007: 427), subcultures of delinquency are characterised by 'working-class membership, masculinity, group loyalty, short-term hedonism, non-utilitarianism and a lack of specialism in delinquent acts'. He also then developed 'the notion of status frustration to explain how the subculture acts as a means for working-class men to find a solution to a lack of status in middle-class life'. These working-class men are not able to fulfil their desire to achieve a middle-class status and with such frustration, they then decide to set up their own status system, which praises criminal acts. Thus a gang is born, with the aim to be distinguishable from the dominant values. Similarly, Cloward and Ohlin's differential opportunity (1960) pointed out 'working-class deviancy as a collective, rather than an individual solution'. Cloward and Ohlin (1960 as cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2007: 427) distinguished three main types of delinquent subculture relative to the differential availability of legitimate and illegitimate means to gain material and status success. According to them, 'a criminal subculture develops mainly in lower-class neighbourhood where young people tend to access criminal success models when their access to conventional role model of success is denied. However, in more disorganised neighbourhoods when access to a criminal subculture is denied, a conflict subculture is more likely to arise in which the lack of legitimate and illegitimate opportunities for material success is solved by achieving status through fighting and violence. Meanwhile, a retreatist subculture arises when both legitimate and illegitimate are closed off and the gang resorts to hustling and drug usage.' As mentioned by Muncie and McLaughlin (2007: 427) 'these formative sub-cultural theories were influential because they showed that delinquency resulted not from psychologically damaged individuals but through a series of collective, local and cultural solutions to the blocked opportunities and inequalities of the American class structure.'

Lady using a tablet
Lady using a tablet


Writing Services

Lady Using Tablet

Always on Time

Marked to Standard

Order Now

Another reason why sociological positivism can be regard to be the strongest theoretical explanation of crime is because as Muncie and McLaughlin (2007: 412) noted 'compared to individual positivism, sociological theories tend to focus on general patterns of criminality rather than on individual motivations'. Therefore this means future pattern of criminal behaviours can be easily predicted which make it easy for crime prevention. One of the most influential forms of sociological positivism was developed by Chicago School in the 1920s where they found that 'crime and delinquency rates tended consistently to be lower in areas of high-socio economic status and higher in areas of relative socio-economic deprivation' (Newburn 2007:191). This founding is regarded as significant because it claimed that it was the nature of neighbourhoods, and not the nature of individuals who lived there, that determined levels of criminality. In other word, it is suggesting that, in contrast to biological positivism, the poor are not simply born into a life of crime but are driven by the conditions of their social environment. This led to the concept of social disorganisation. Shaw and McKay (1972) then went on to claim that socially disorganised neighbourhoods perpetuate a situation in which delinquent behaviour patterns are culturally transmitted. Simply it means that criminal behaviours are 'transmitted down through successive generations of boys, in much the same way that language and other social forms are transmitted' (Shaw and McKay, 1972:174 as cited in Burke, 2005:98). For instance once a community is disorganised and has developed a delinquent culture, then there is a higher possibility that the young people will be engaging in crime through cultural transmission. Edwin Sutherland afterwards drew on Shaw and McKay's concept and developed the differential association, which set out that criminal behaviour is learned and the processes involved in learning criminal behaviour are no different from the learning of any other behaviour. Therefore in a social disorganisation, individuals, especially young people, are more likely to learn about criminal behaviour by interacting with others. Learning includes techniques, motives, drives, attitudes and rationalisation. Therefore these theories called for efforts to reorganise communities. In 1932, Chicago Area Project was set up to 'redress social disorganisation by creating a sense of community feeling. This was then compatible with later applications concerned with a struggle to develop and improve communities, and to promote a better quality of community living with more cooperation, more mutual aid and more collective problem solving' (Raynor and Vanstone, 2002:112 as cited in Joyce, 2006:17). This shows that these theories help to give rise to a number of practical methods of crime prevention.

In contrast to sociological positivism, biological positivism as noted by Muncie and McLaughlin (2007:25) stresses that 'certain people are born to be criminal through the inheritance of a genetic or physiological predisposition to crime'. Simply it means that there is something about individuals' biological make-up that drives them to commit crime. There are many reasons why biological positivism is considered as the weakest theoretical explanation of crime. One of the most leading arguments is the fact that, many of the studies that form the basis of biological positivism tend to 'reveal correlations, instead of the real causes of crime' (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2007:413). In addition biological positivism fails to acknowledge the potential effect of a wide range of environmental and social factors. For example in 1925, a German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer identified the three major types of body shape: thin(asthenic), heavy(phknic) and muscular(athletic) but it was the American psychologist William Sheldon in 1949 who expanded this model by correlating body shape with behavioural tendencies. Sheldon (1949, as cited in Muncie and McLaughlin 2007:412) suggested that 'the shape of the body correlated with individual temperament and mental well-being' and recognised that a person's somotype is made up of three components: endomorphy(soft), mesomorphy(hard and round) and ectomorphy(fragile and thin). He found that most offenders are mesomorphs, and ectomorphs meanwhile tend to have the lowest criminal tendencies. To strengthen this somotyping theory, Glueck and Glueck made their own study in 1950 by using large samples of delinquent and non-delinquent boys. Similar to Sheldon, they concluded that there were twice as many mesomorphs among delinquents than could have occurred by chance. They contended that 'strength and agility might enable boys to fill a delinquent role. Endomorphs were too clumsy, and ectomorphs were too fragile to be successful delinquents.' From all these studies, it can be seen that 'physique does not cause crime, but it does correlate with temperaments that are impulsive and give to uninhibited self-gratification'. Muncie and McLaughlin also noted (2007:413) that 'being athletic in stature may be correlated with delinquency, but this does not mean that either is the cause of the other. Both are probably influenced by other factors, including the adequacy of nutrition, extent of manual labour and social class position.'

Lady using a tablet
Lady using a tablet

This Essay is

a Student's Work

Lady Using Tablet

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Examples of our work

Other than the theories of body shape, studies on genetic inheritance also tend to expose correlation instead of explanation on crime. Goring (1913) in his studies of criminal families discovered high correlation between criminality of spouses, between parents and their children and between brothers. There was also evidence from the Cambridge study in Delinquent Development in the 1970s which revealed that 'convictions of one family member were strongly related to convictions of each other family member'. Three-quarters of convicted mothers and convicted fathers had a convicted child. This shows that 'undesirable' hereditary characteristics tend to pass down through families. In other words, criminal families tend to produce criminal children. However, it can be argued that criminality may not necessarily be an inherited trait, but be learned or generated by an excessive amount of environmental factors. For instance, this high correlation in the criminality of family members could be explained by reference to poor education, inadequate diet, unemployment, and most importantly cultural transmission of criminal values. Furthermore, Osborn and West (1979 as cited in Newburn, 2007:135) found that 60 percent of boys whose fathers had criminal records did not have criminal records themselves.

Following this study, a more rigorous research focused at isolating 'a genetic factor' has been carried out with twins and adoptees. It was found by Lange (1930) that 'hereditary plays a major part in the causation of criminal behaviour'. Mednick and Volavka (1980) meanwhile also discovered that '60 per cent of identical twins have more similar behaviour patterns compared to 30 per cent of fraternal twins'. There is no doubt that there is a strong evidence for the genetic transmission of some behaviour patterns but like most studies, they tend to undermine the influence of environmental factors because there is still a higher chance that the relationship between criminality and genetics may be made through environmental conditions, derived from the behaviour of parents or from twins' influence on each other's behaviour (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2007). In other words, there is a possibility that it is the process of socialisation that causes criminal behaviour.

As a result of this, Hutchings and Mednick (1987) proposed the study of adoptions since it could be shown that the criminality of biological parent and child was similar even when the child had grown up in a completely different environment. A study was then carried out by them in Copenhagen, where it was discovered that an adoptee was more likely to have a record where both the birth and adoptive father had previous convictions. It was thus proposed that some factor is transmitted by convicted parents to increase the likelihood that their children-even after adoption- will be convicted for criminal offences. However, now the real question is what factor exactly is inherited. Furthermore, there is still a chance for early formative influences to take place, which may affect later behaviour patterns. It is therefore often argued by various criminologists that biological positivism is displaying the fact that criminality is a matter of nature versus nurture, where actually it is nature and nurture that are important in explaining criminality (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2007). Generally it is argued that 'some people carry with them the potential to be violent or anti-social and that environmental condition can sometimes trigger anti-social responses.' For example, sociopathy may not be inherited, but biochemical preparedness for such behaviour is present in the brain, which, if given a certain type of environment, will produce anti-social behaviour (Jeffrey, 1978 as cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2007:27).

In addition, if we accept biological positivism as cause of crime then it allows us to justify pre-emptive action. Generally it was said that in order to reduce crime, it was increasingly recommended that people with such inherited characteristics should not be allowed to reproduce. In Britain and the USA programmes of selective breeding were proposed to encourage progress or to prevent civilisation from degenerating (Jones, 1980 as cited in Burke, 2005:71).It is compatible with eugenics which sought to improve the quality of the human race by eliminating its 'undesirable stock' before they could inflict economic or moral hardships on the rest of the country (Conrad and Schneider, 1992: 219 as cited in Joyce, 2006:8). This approach (which might involve measure such as pre-emptive imprisonment or compulsory sterilisation) breaks the human rights and civil liberties of those who are subjected to this treatment.

This essay has leads us to think what makes a theory the best and the worst. There are various criminological theories and each one of them is equally important and it is not fair to just pick any one of the theories. However for me, it is the sociological positivism that gives the strongest theoretical explanation. This is because we as individuals cannot escape from operations of society and our behaviours are greatly influenced by social processes. Biological positivism is considered to be the weakest because as noted, our behaviours are shaped by social processes such as socialisation and thus no one is born to be criminal. It is the social condition that sometimes triggers anti-social responses.