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Theories of Cesare Lombroso: Born Criminal

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2460 words Published: 2nd Aug 2018

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In this report I will be exploring the theories developed by Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso and the ethical implications of his work. He was the founder of the Italian school of Criminology, and is also considered to be one of the pioneers of the field due to his world wide appeal and notorious studies and ideas.

Cesare Lombroso was born in Verona, Italy in November 1835 and died in October 1909. His work gained a lot of attention in the area of criminology during the end of the 19th century and has been hugely influential since. His ideas have spread not just through Europe and the United States of America but across the world. His work has attracted many admirers and critics and sparked many debates on the grounds of ethics and morality. He is often referred to and considered as ‘the father of modern criminology’ (Wolfgang, 1972:232). He studied at universities in Italy and France and specialised in the fields of mental health, medicine and criminology. He was the director of an insane asylum, he then became a professor of forensic medicine and hygiene and later became a professor in criminal anthropology (Wolfgang 1972), though he is best know as the founder of the Italian school of Criminology. Lombroso abandoned the recognized Classical school of thought (eighteenth century work of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria) which assumed that people have free will in decision making. Instead he drew upon theories from physiognomy, eugenics, psychiatry and social Darwinism. Lombroso fundamentally stated that criminal behaviour was inherent and that a ‘born criminal’ could be identified from their physical imperfections, which defined a criminal as atavistic or as an evolutionary throwback.

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Lombroso’s ideas come out at a time when Italy was going through many social and economic problems, poverty and police corruption where among a few them. There were also concerns with recidivism and prison population. What’s more, the cost of policing cities and imprisoning criminals was ever growing. Every one of of these issues increased public awareness in crime and criminal behaviour, and as prisons growingly became over populated more importance was placed on predicting and identifying individuals that were liable to commit crime, this raises ethical questions of prejudice and discrimination. Lombroso’s general theory suggested that criminals are distinguished from non criminals by multiple physical anomalies. He claimed that criminals represented degeneration to a primitive type of man characterized by physical features similar to that of apes and early man. (Atavistic behaviour – the tendency to revert to ancestral type)

Lombroso popularised the notion of the ‘born criminal’ through biological determinism, claiming that criminal behaviour was not free will but biologically determined (opposes classical school). He claimed that criminals have particularly distinct physical attributes and abnormalities. He drew upon concepts from; Physiognomy which attempts to approximate personality or character traits based on physical features from the face or the body; Eugenics, which is the study of selective breeding applied to humans; Psychiatry, which is the treatment and study of mental disorders and social Darwinism or popularly known as ‘survival of the fittest.

Lombroso became convinced that the “born criminal” could be anatomically identified by physical atavistic stigmas such as; large jaws, low slanting foreheads, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned nose, handle shaped ears, prominent chins, hawk like noses, fleshy lips, shifty eyes, scanty beard or baldness, insensitivity to pain and long arms. These were all apparent indicators of criminality.

Lombroso’s theory of the ‘born criminal’ or of atavism was influenced by his medical background. Whilst at university he achieved a degree in medicine and in surgery. Throughout his time at university he developed an interest in psychology, which later advanced into an interest in psychiatry. Lombroso volunteered as a medical doctor for the army, during this time he observed 3000 soldiers and attempted to measure their physical differences (Wolfgang 1972). Lombroso supported the study of individuals using skull measurements in compiling data. He attempted to develop a scientific method to calculate criminal behaviour and identify individuals capable of the most aggressive and sadistic types of criminal activity. It was from this experience of examining soldiers that he formed his observations on tattooing. He later identified tattooing as a characteristic of a criminal.

The essential idea of Lombroso’s work came to him as he autopsied the body of an Italian criminal. Whilst looking at the skull of the criminal he noticed certain characteristics that were similar to that of skulls of inferior races and/or of apes.

Lombroso carried out research through years of post-mortem examinations and anthropometric studies of criminals, the insane and normal individuals. His research methods were clinical and descriptive, with precise details of skull dimensions and other measurements. However he did not have adequate control groups which might have altered his general conclusions.

Lombroso also studied female criminality. This began with measurements of females’ skulls and photographs in his search for atavism. He found that female criminals were rare and showed little signs of degeneration. Lombroso argued it was the females’ natural passivity that withheld them from breaking the law, as they lacked the intelligence and initiative to become criminal. Further, women who commit crimes had different physical characteristics, such as excessive body hair, wrinkles, and an abnormal skull (Lombroso 1980).

In attempting to predict criminality by the shapes of the skulls and other physical features of criminals, he had in effect created a new pseudoscience of forensic phrenology and craniometry.

Ethics was not an issue for Lombroso during his lifetime because his work was carried out in a time when poverty, police corruption and crime rates were at a high. It was also a period in which many states of Italy were ruled by foreign powers such as Austria and France. Italy was divided into separate states, for example the Papal State, Venice and the Kingdom of two Sicily’s. These divisions meant that Italy did not have a combined sense of national direction. There was also a history of a wealthy and poor divide between the north and south of Italy. The north of Italy had a history of wealth and it also became Europe’s foremost producer of silk. However the south of Italy had a record of being poor. The main resource of the south of Italy was farming but any advances in farming techniques practised in the north of Italy and throughout Europe had not reached the south and several regions had turned to crime and banditry. Education was poor and many children went to work on the farms and in sulphur mines. It was from this poverty and lack of education that the Sicilian mafia was formed during the mid 1800s. Crime, poverty and police corruption were among just a few of the social and economic problems faced by the country, and to add to its woes, Italy was one of the most over crowded countries in Europe. This led to less jobs being available and those jobs that were available offered low wages, taxes were high and crime rates were increasing, this in turn led to over crowded prisons and a higher rate of recidivism due to a lack of opportunities for those newly released from incarceration. This then led to a higher cost of policing all of the cities and imprisoning criminals and repeat offenders.

There was a strong distinction between the industrial liberal north and the agricultural, conservative south. However, many of the people of Italy had hoped that unification of the country would end the poverty and in time reduce crime rates. This was not the case, though many parts of the north of Italy had advanced the country was still in turmoil and by the time Italy had gained Independence and was unified it was a relatively new yet weak country.

It is then, for all of these reasons that I believe ethics was not an issue for Lombroso. He provided the people of Italy with an answer or a reason to why certain people acted criminally or were criminals. People for hundreds of years have believed in the typical stereotypes of criminals. A person was labelled a criminal if they had shifty eyes, was unshaven or gruff looking, had a bent posture or a muscular physique. Lombroso’s work gave scientific confirmation to back up and support this common way of thinking. His work, therefore, ethical or not, was not questioned. His theories also provided a new way to study crime; it allowed or helped the police to identify criminals before these criminals actually committed any sort of crime.

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Lombroso’s idea of the born criminal raises the question of nature vs. nurture. The classical school of thought holds that crime is acted upon free will and choices made by the individual. However, Lombroso believed that criminals were born with the innate desire and inclination to commit crime or that they had some form of genetic or mental disorder which caused them to become criminals; such as sufferers of epilepsy and schizophrenia. He believed that there was a correlation between the born criminal and the mentally retarded in addition to the epileptic. In addition, Lombroso argued that although the rates of crime were low for females, they were fiercer in their actions. He held the idea that women were like children; they were unforgiving, envious, morally lacking and predisposed to spitefulness (Lombroso 1980). Also, as well as distinctive physical characteristics being identifiers of a criminal, he believed that criminal slang and tattooing were indicative of criminals.

His theories raise many ethical issues; if his ideas were practised today there would be an outrage and an outcry of immorality. If Lombroso’s work was being considered by an ethics committee today, they would firstly have to consider a number of major ethical issues, such as; what is being studied, who is being studied and how is the study going to be carried out. The first issue of what is being studied is not so much an ethical concern because crime, crime reduction and criminal behaviour have always been studied as it is an immense social need.

However, the second issue of who is being studied brings to light many ethical concerns within Lombroso’s work. More often than not, focus for research is put on the poor and minorities, ignoring the middle classes that may be committing white collar crime. In Lombroso’s case he focused on ethnic minorities, namely black people and those with physical or mental abnormalities, ignoring other causative factors such as poverty, involvement in illegal activity and a low standard or a lack of education. One must then ask the question; is it ethical to publicise prejudiced or subjective research findings which lead to further prejudice and discrimination. Also Lombroso’s study of female criminality raises ethical questions; he considered them inferior and incapable of committing crime, however those that did commit crime shared the same characteristics as their male counterparts, such as physical or mental abnormalities.

The third issue of how the study is going to be conducted also raises a number of ethical concerns. Lombroso’s methods included observing soldiers whilst volunteering for medical services in the army; he also received permission to study mental patients in a hospital in Pavia (Wolfgang 1972). One must ask whether or not the people he observed were aware of the fact that they were being studied in an effort to prove the significance of physical and mental abnormalities in relation to crime and crime rates. He also lacked adequate control groups which may have altered his conclusions; this then raises questions about the accuracy of his data.

Though nobody could be directly, physically harmed the consequences of being branded a criminal purely on physical appearances or mental fragility, in this day and age, would be terrible. Not only were his ideas unethical and prejudiced, but they were racist and sexist.

The assumption that someone is born criminal takes away peoples ability of choice and one could argue that this implies we as individuals have no free will and if we appear different, dependent on the definition of normal, then we are criminals or at least inclined that way. His ideas have a huge potential for harm as they abandon all other possibilities and causes of delinquency. Poverty, alcoholism, involvement in criminal activity, social class and poor or lack of education were all factors of crime but were ignored. Lombroso’s ideas came at a convenient time which allowed the higher class to not take into account the existing social problems and possible reasons for crime.

However, Lombroso’s theories were later shown to be highly inconsistent or plainly inexistent, and theories based on the environmental causation of criminality became dominant.

Although Cesare Lombroso is regarded as a pioneer of criminology, his work came under heavy criticism with social scientists and also raised many ethical questions. Lombroso was hugely criticised for his theories regarding the born criminal, atavism and phrenology. However, there are criminologists today that would argue that criminals are indeed born that way. There are also many that believe that brain pathology is a cause of violent crime. Let us not forget though that he paved the way for others to examine the influence of biology relating to criminal behaviour. Although his theories have been scientifically discredited, Lombroso had the plus point of bringing up the importance of the scientific studies of the criminal mind, a field which became known as criminal anthropology. Also despite the unscientific nature of his theories, Lombroso was hugely influential throughout the world.

However, considering all of Lombroso’s theories and the ethical implications of his work, one could argue that if his work was brought in front of an ethics committee today, he would be rejected ethics approval to carry out any further studies or research, as it is the responsibility of the ethics committee to protect the rights, safety and welfare of any persons involved in any kind of research or study.


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