There are several different explanations for crime and the reasons or motifs behind the actions of a criminal. However, in determining which school of thought; classicism, biological/psychological positivism and sociological positivism, provides the best explanation to crime, the above theories must be considered. In order to commit a crime, one must break a law set by a given government (Kohn, 2006).
The classical theory or classicism emphasises the notion of individual rights, the importance of free will and the rule of law (White and Haines, 1996). It also suggests humans are essentially self-seeking and self interested, and hence will make their decisions simply by choice. Criminologists such as Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham were contributors to the classical theory (Maguire, Morgan, Reiner, 1997). The biological theories are loosely based on the scientific study of criminals and criminal behavior. The most prominent and influential biological criminologist was Cesare Lombrosso who argued that criminals are essentially born, not made. He based his concept heavily on the theories of evolution as he attempted to distinguish different types of individuals on the basis of racial and biological differences (Maguire, Morgan, Reiner, 1997). Closely linked with this theory is that of psychological positivism. Psychological positivism directs its argument to the mind of the criminal and thus we encounter the notion of the ‘criminal mind’ (Burke, 2001). Within this theory there are three broad categories of psychological theories of crime. The first two categories are concerned with psychodynamic and behavioral learning theories, the third associated with cognitive learning theories. The likes of Sigmund Freud, Ivan P Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, Edward Tolman and Jean Piaget were all influential and prominent psychological criminologists of their time (Burke, 2001). The last theory, sociological positivism is arguably the most logical theory of the four, recognizing the social factors external to the human being, placing constraints on the given person’s choice of action. Circumstance and social pressure is taken into consideration when examining crime rather than placing reason on other factors such as biological/psychological positivism (Gibbons 1979). Prominent sociological criminologists include the work Emile Durkheim. This essay will discuss the above criminological theories and determine which theory provides the best explanation to crime.
The school of classicism or classical theory was introduced in the eighteenth century providing the first naturalistic explanation of crime (Moyer, 2001). The cruel punishments in medieval Europe were superseded by the newly implemented classical theory, which was heavily influenced by the eighteenth-century intellectual movement (Gibbons, 1979). The classical theory was the dominant perspective for around a century however; later fell into disrepute, particularly due to the new wave of American criminologists and positivism. Classical theory is however, still highly regarded, as it represented a remarkable humanitarian reform and provided fundamental rationale for many criminal codes of the western world (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). The Criminologist Cesare Beccaria is seen today as the father of classical criminology. Beccaria’s career began when he joined with two friends to form a club in which discussed topics of literary and social interest. Beccaria published a critical essay on administrative law, known as Dei deliti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments). It became an immediate success, however Beccaria initially remained anonymous, as the cost of criticizing the church and state could be harsh and brutal (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). His essay put forward the central principals of the classical school of criminology, which were “practically all of the important reforms in the administration of criminal justice” (Beccaria, 1767). Another well-known contributor to the theory of classicism was Jeremy Bentham, who was seen as a modern version of Beccaria (White, Haines, 1996). Bentham argued than humans are rational beings and thus implied that as humans, we all have free will. He believed that lawmaking should aim to achieve happiness for the majority of people under his idea of ‘utilitarianism’ (Moyer, 2001). The classical school represents the emergence of modern criminological thinking, dismissing earlier theories that crime was a supernatural phenomenon (Moyer, 2001). Classicism provides somewhat of a clear explanation to crime however, other factors should be considered when examining crime rather than simply individualistic actions, as sometimes we make choice because we have to- not because we want to.
Classicism was soon out shadowed by the emergence of positivism, as science was introduced to the criminological explanations of crime. Biological positivism is based on the scientific understanding of crime and criminality and how factors and forces beyond the immediate control of the individual shape it. It assumes a biological distinction between the ‘normal’ and the ‘deviant’ (White and Haines, 1996). Cesare Lombroso who is generally acknowledged as the founder of positive criminology first popularized it, as he claimed that criminal and deviant individuals are the way they are due to their biological composition (Burke, 2001). Lombroso adopting a social Darwinian perspective, suggested that humans can be grouped at various levels of development (Moyer, 2001). He contended that certain characteristics were indicators of an atavistic person. An atavistic person is said to possess physical, psychic, or functional qualities of remote and more primitive ancestors (Moyer, 2001). He classified these individuals as ‘born criminals’ and hence came up with the theory; ‘the criminal is born, not made’ (white, Haines, 1996). Lombroso then divided criminals into four broad categories. The first category, born criminals, was distinguished by their physical atavistic characteristics (Burke, 2001). The second and third categories included insane criminals as well as criminals or criminaloids. This included those who commit crimes in response to available opportunities. However, these categories also encompass traits that predispose them to criminal behavior (Burke, 2001). The final category, criminals of passion, is based on the premise that crime is motivated by anger, love or honor. Many criminologists today however, consider Lombroso’s approach to crime to be simplistic and naïve. This theory became unpalatable for many in the context of the mid-twentieth century instances of mass systematic extermination of certain groups based on, for example, ethnicity, sexuality or their health (Burke, 2001). Subsequently biological positivism does not provide a plausible or logical explanation of crime.
Linked closely to biological positivism is psychological positivism. Psychological positivism is based on the understanding that the mind is responsible for acts of crime and criminality and thus we encounter the notion of the ‘criminal mind’ (Burke, 2001). However, as mentioned, there are three broad categories of psychological theories of crime. The first category: the psychodynamic theory; was popularized by the extremely influential work of Sigmund Freud. His assertion that “sexuality is present from birth and has a subsequent course of development is the fundamental basis of psychoanalysis” and one that has provoked much controversy (Burke, 2001). Freud proposed that personality is comprised of three separate components. The first section is the id, which are the primitive biological drives that underlie behavior (Maguire, Morgan, Reiner, 1997). The id is the “unconscious aspect of personality that leads the individual to seek self-gratification” (Brown, Esbensne, Geis, 1991). Secondly, the superego or ‘the conscious’, which operates in the unconscious, yet consists of values that are internalized through one’s early interactions, usually with their parents. The superego represents the moral and ethical standards of society (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). The third is the ego or the conscious personality. The ego is the mediating force that arbitrates between the pulls of the id and the superego. The ‘normal’ person was said to comprise these three components representing a “balanced conflict” (Burke, 2001). The second category: behavioral learning theories; originate from the works of criminologists Ivan. P. Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. Pavlov famously studied the process involved in simple, automatic animal behaviors, in particular salivation in the presence of food (Burke, 2001). Pavlov carried out a series of tests and found that responses that occur spontaneously to the natural (or unconditioned) stimulus, could be made to happen (conditioned) to a stimulus that was previously neutral. He focused on the process of turning on a light just before feeding the animal. Eventually the animal would salivate when the light comes on regardless of food being there or not. This process is called extinction (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). While Pavlov’s work concerned automatic behaviors occurring in response to stimuli, B.F Skinner extended the same principal to active learning. This involved the animal having to do something in order to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment (Burke, 2001). They found that learned behaviors are far more resistant to extinction if the reinforcement has only been used occasionally throughout learning (Burke, 2001). This theory makes sense, for example, if you put money into a ticket machine but don’t receive a ticket, you simply stop using the machine, whereas many people put money into gaming machines despite their slight chance of obtaining a prize (Burke, 2001). The third category: cognitive learning theory;
has it’s foundations in a fundamental critique of the predestined actor model. Edward Tolman and Jean Piaget proposed, “by observing the responses that individuals make to different stimulus conditions, it is possible to draw inferences about the nature of the internal cognitive processes that produce those responses” (Brown, Esbensne, Geis, 1991). These psychologists emphasized the importance of the organizational process in perception, problem-solving and learning. From this they proposed that individuals were predisposed to organize information in particular ways (Maguire, Morgan, Reiner, 1997).
However in recent years it has been acknowledged that criminals have some degree of choice. They can choose to imitate the behaviors of others or choose not to. There also may be a number of variable factors to influence this choice and hence, it can be concluded that crime is not inevitably destiny. Consequently, psychological positivism does not provide an adequate explanation of crime (Burke, 2001).
The Sociological school has been extremely influential and is considered by many prominent criminologists today as the most logical, common sense, and, if partial explanation of crime and criminal behavior (Kohn, 2004). The sociological school essentially rejects the above individualist explanations of crime. It recognizes that crime is a socially constructed occurrence, however “acknowledges the threat it places on the continuance of the given society and thus needs to be controlled” (Freund, 1969). Emile Durkheim was known as the founding father of academic sociology in France and consequently extremely influential with sociological theories. Durkheim presented two central arguments to explain the growth of crime and criminal behavior (Burke, 2001). Firstly, he suggested that such societies encourage a state of unbridled ‘egoism’ that is different to “the maintenance of social solidarity and conformity to the law” (Burke, 2001). This describes pre-industrial types of society where individuals encompass similar or the same skills, beliefs, customs, religion or even work tasks (White, Haines, 1996). From this, certain patterns or trends could be acknowledged and noted. For example, Durkheim’s famous study of suicide demonstrated empirically that suicide rates vary depending whether or not the country is predominantly Catholic or Protestant. The point he made was that suicide could not be explained based on individualist actions or psychological factors, as it is a ‘social’ phenomenon (White, Haines, 1996). The second claim suggested the likelihood of inefficient regulation is greater at a time of rapid modernization. This is because new forms of control have not evolved sufficiently to replace the older, and now less appropriate, means of maintaining solidarity (Burke, 2001). However, Durkheim’s predecessor, Auguste Comte, is responsible for much of the work interpreted as his own. The two shared very similar views, however, the essential difference between the two was their differing views on human nature. Comte believed the human being has a natural and inherent desire to reach perfection whereas Durkheim rejects this view and proposes a ‘dualistic’ view of human nature. He proposed a duality between the needs of the body and the soul (White, Haines, 1996). The sociological school highlights aspects of offending which were clearly absent from psychological and classical theories. It acknowledges that the relationship between lack of opportunity, alienation and criminal behavior is more important in the current economic climate, as youth unemployment is high and the inequalities and divisions between the rich and the poor are continuing to grow (White, Haines, 1996). Rather than simply placing the entire burden on the criminal or their individualistic actions, the sociological school considers other factors, providing a coherent and logical explanation of crime.
The four schools of thought all provide differing explanations to crime. Classicism is based on the premise of free will and places entire responsibility on the criminal. Biological positivism differs in the sense that it places the responsibility on forces beyond control of the criminal and hence, suggests that the criminal is born, not made. Similarly psychological positivism puts emphasis on the mind as their explanation of crime as we encounter the ‘criminal mind’. However, the sociological school rejects individualist explanations of crime and considers social factors surrounding the criminal providing the most common sense explanation of crime. After examining the above theories it can be concluded that classicism, biological and psychological positivism are all heavily flawed to varying degrees and it is very difficult to establish any consistency within them. The sociological school or sociological positivism is minimally flawed and consequently provides a coherent, realistic, logical and the best explanation of crime.
Beccaria, C. (1767) An essay on Crimes and Punishments, J. Almon, London
Brown. S.E, F. Esbensne, G Geis, ‘Criminology- Explaining crime and its context’, Anderson, Ohio1991
Burke. R.H, ‘An introduction to Criminal Theory’, Willan, UK 2001
Freund, S. (1969) The sociology of max weber, vintage books, NY
Gibbons, D. (1979) The Criminological Enterprise: Theories and Perspectives, Prentice Hall, New Jersey
Gottfredson. M.R and T Hirschi, ‘A general theory of crime’, Stanford, California 1990
Kohn. M, ‘a reason for everything’, Faber, London 2004
Maguire. M, R Morgan, R Reiner, ‘The Oxford Handbook of criminology’, Oxford, Oxford 1997
Moyer. I, ‘Criminological Theories’, Sage, California 2001
White. R and F Haines, ‘Crime and Criminology’, Oxford, London 1996