Outline the main features of classicism and positivism to the study of crime.

Criminological discourse from its inception has been contentious and prone to paradoxical viewpoints. Notions of crime and deviance are inherently shaped by complex social conditioning and terms of reference. Political, religious and social factors all come to bear on our perceptions of crime. When this reality is bound with the scientific study of causation the result is many paradoxical schools of thought pertaining to the same phenomena.

I shall illustrate within this essay the notion that perhaps crime is a much more fluid concept than rigid sociological, medical or political approaches can master. The infinite variable factors relating to crime and deviance coupled with society in a constant metamorphosis negate dogmatic approaches to crime. As Cesare Lombroso wrote: “Every crime has its origin in a multiplicity of causes” (Lombroso 1911 pg 1) I shall, however, also illustrate that classicism and positivism also bring jewels of truth to criminological discourse. The contrasting perspectives are essentially valid but different tools to work with. The art of a Criminologist therefore is perhaps the art of selecting the correct paradigm for the situation and negotiating between them. No single theory can claim a monopoly on truth. “Appreciative relativism” (Einstanter & Henry 2006 pg: 296) is perhaps a more useful perspective in the study of crime.

Notions of positivism within criminological thought can be seen since society developed an awareness of deviant behaviour and created the construct that we now know as “crime”. Judeo, Christian and Islamic explanations of deviance in a religious context evidence the existence of positivist thought from their first recorded act of


deviance: as Eve exclaims in her defence: “the serpent deceived me, and I ate” [Genesis 3:13]. The tendency to search for external factors for crime and deviance is evidently an innate one: based on the notion that, essentially, human nature is benevolent. Clearly the notion that external factors conspire in the commission of crime is a golden thread amid the fabric of criminology. This is perhaps interesting when compared to classicisms value structures which could be perceived as socially constructed rather than innate.

Within the academic study of crime the positivist school of thought can be seen to emerge from a distinctly medical paradigm. In the twilight years of the 19th Century the emergence of the Italian school of criminology sparked a departure in thinking on the study of crime. The schools founding member Cesare Lombroso introduced a Rosetta stone of sorts into the criminological world in that he contributed to the introduction of scientific methodology with regard to the study of crime. Lombroso most notably injected a biological positivism into the study of crime. An “Atavistic Heredity” (Lombroso 1911 pg 161) in relation to the cause of offending where physical features were viewed as evidence of an innately criminal nature in a kind of criminological anthropology.

Whilst Lombroso’s and subsequent Italian school theories are much lampooned for subsequently being discredited this broad commendation ignores the fact that Lombroso scientifically established consideration to a wide range of social forces including education, social class and alcoholism (Lombroso 1911). Whilst his conclusions can be debated or undermined the fact that an inter-disciplinary pluralism within criminology was established cannot be disputed.


In relation to the study of crime; the positivist notions forwarded by the early pioneers sparked a departure in the discourse of crime by enabling the study of the subject devoid of metaphysical dogma so engrained within European society at the time. This enabled the study of crime to become independent of moral and theological norms that pervaded the thinking of the day.

With the ascent of studies into psychiatry positivist criminological thought came to have a bearing in this field also. Sigmund Freud established a defective mind rather than bodily features in relation to the study of crime in the psychodynamic approach (Siegel 2005). Hans Eysenck later established a more substantial psychological

positivism with the development of personality theory and the notion of crime as an imbalance in personality constructs (Einstanter & Henry 2006)

The notion of crime as a psychological / medical condition is an undercurrent within public policy to this day. This is evidenced through the biosocial / medical paradigms used to respond to low level deviance within juveniles and specifically with the rise of pharmaceutical intervention in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Siegel 2005). The wholesale embrace of this approach however ignores underlying social, cultural and political issues. Difficult and revolutionary social questions can be bypassed for relatively simplistic solutions. Burning questions with existential ramifications can be exchanged for mass medication. The notion of criminal as “other” and defective is therefore reinforced, validating the rest of society. This has popular appeal and is perhaps why biological determinism and medical approaches


have always shaped the study of crime and make a popular bedfellow with policy makers.

The collective known as the Chicago School however advanced the study of crime as one might currently recognise it. The positivist influence, this time, stemming from a sociological viewpoint. Robert Ezra Park and Ernest Burgess’ work essentially focused on the social disorganisation created by the mass urbanisation prevalent at the time (Maguire et al 2002). Crucially this collective of academics built on the sociology of Durkheim and others to widen the scope of criminological study by exploration of the sociological aspects of crime and deviance.

The inherent danger of positivist thought with regard to crime is clearly a total acceptance of determinism leading to an amoral landscape in which moral considerations are devoid. With the erosion of universal truth, underpinned in positivism, the danger is that universal principles cannot be applied in broad contexts.

Classical criminological thought can be traced to the Enlightenment and intellectual thought pertaining to the social contract, criminal justice and penology. Cesare Beccaria’s 1764 publication on crimes and punishments introduced a serious consideration into the harm caused to society by crime, an ideological outline of the basis for punishment and the relationship between state and offender (Beccaria 2003).

Jeremy Bentham’s writings on penology and notions of “rational free-willed character of offenders” (Maguire et al 2002 Pg11) forwarded the study of crime in that the central concerns of free-will, rational choices and utilitarianism blended to attempt a


more logical, and humane, analysis of the problems of crime and suitable punishments. Crucially Bentham’s notions championed the idea that punishment is not an end in itself. Bentham’s utopian vision for society added to criminological discourse a more hopeful and humane outlook.

Classicism’s contributions have profound implications in relation to the study of crime. If crime essentially exists primarily as a free choice on the part of the offender then the study of causation within criminological disciplines is thrown into disarray. This has proved particularly convenient for conservatively inclined governments and most blatantly is evidenced in the works of theorists such as James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray (McLaughlin et al 2003). The effect is to present criminal activity as a matter of personal responsibility and choice made upon a pain/pleasure equation. The underpinning assumption that pleasure or gain is derived from all crime could be said to be either a naïve analysis or a populist and politically expedient one owing to the reduced obligation placed on the state.

The most flawed facet of classical and positivist criminological thought is perhaps the underlying avoidance of considerations in relation to social power relationships. Both perspectives essentially are underpinned by moral landscapes in which a common consensus is shared. The fact that social norms and laws governing criminal behaviour are created by an elite and mostly directed at lower socio-economic groups betrays the integrity of the perspective. Crime is therefore ignored as “a question of political and economic power” (Scraton 2007 Pg 219). On a base level the same moral precepts cannot be applied to a vagrant stealing food as to a city trader embezzling


funds for financial gain. An egalitarian view of crime can only have meaning in an equal society.

In conclusion it can be seen as evident that both classicism and positivism have their uses in the study of crime. The absurdity of total positivist determinism is paralleled by the absurdity of total classical rationalism. It is best, perhaps, to view the perspectives as complementary rather than paradoxical in the collective

criminological discourse. In an age of sound bites and shortening attention spans the intricacies of the study of crime must be maintained. Chaque homme à son propre

each man (sic) to his own taste. It is this attitude that continually evolves the

study of crime. Society is constantly in a state of flux and crime is a much more fluid concept and than any single theory can capture in totality.


Bibliography Beccaria, Cesare (Editor: Richard Bellemy), 2003, On Crimes and Punishments and other writings (4th Ed). Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. Downes, David & Rock, P, 2007, Understanding Deviance (5th Ed). Oxford. Oxford University Press. Einstadter, Werner & Stuart Henry, 2006, Criminological Theory: An Analysis of its underlying assumptions. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. Maguire, Mike (ed) et al, 2002, The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (3rd Ed). Oxford. Oxford University Press. McLaughlin, Eugene (ed) et al, 2003, Criminological Perspectives: Essential Readings (2nd Edition), London. Sage Publications. Lombroso, Cesare. 1911, Crime: Its Causes and Remedies Translated by Henry P. Horton New Jersey: Little, Brown and Company. Scraton, Phil. 2007, Power, conflict and criminalisation. Oxon. Routledge Publishers. Siegel, Larry 2005, Criminology: The Core (2nd Edition). Wadsworth Publishers. California Vold, G. Bernard, T. and Snipes, J. 1998, Theoretical Criminology. Oxford. Oxford University Press


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