Features of Positivist Criminology Dissertation

Features of Positivist Criminology

Positivist criminology uses scientific research (primarily quantitative, laboratory, empirical experiment) to investigate the causes of crime and deviant behavior. Positivist criminology posits that the roots of deviancy are located in the physical, genetic, psychological or biological makeup of the individual and the individual, consequently, is not held accountable (or is faintly held accountable) for his deeds. Use of instruments, statistics, classification, and similar scientific instruments are used in this branch of study.

Positivist criminology is the opposite of classical criminology which sees the criminal as responsible for his actions and able to reform would he so wish. The school is closely identified with the behaviorist way of thinking, which ignores mentalism (i.e. beliefs, values, and meanings) and sees individuals as tied to external dictates of action (as, for instance, that one’s environment impels one to act in a certain way; free-will is omitted from the equation).

Key figures of this school of thought included Entrico Ferri, Garoffalo, and Lombroso, with Lambroso positing that criminals indicated certain physical stigmata that traced their identity to certain primitive or apian ancestors. Although Lambroso’s arguments have been refuted, a certain brand of biological positivism still persists with works such as those by Gluecks (in the 1950s) linking deviance to physiognomy and the XYY chromosome theory of the 1960s where an additional chromosome was thought to indicate criminality. Hans Eysenck, too, saw criminality as an inherent trait similar to intelligence, height or weight.

Using science to predict criminality, practitioners of positivist criminology would, in turn, also use science to treat it.

2. What explanation did positivist criminologists give for the failure of classicism crime?

Positive criminologists argued that classical criminology failed to explain the origins of crime. Hall Williams, for instance, in his book Criminology and Criminal Justice (1982) saw classical criminology as being a ‘school of criminal philosophy’ and indeed this is what it essentially was — a rationalist way of perceiving deviation. Positivist criminology, on the other hand, offered a practical, scientific-grounded approach to understanding, and therefore, treating deviance.

Classical criminology, defined by rationalism and characterized by philosophers such as Bentham, Kant, and Hobbes was embattled (and in the field of practical justice and crime impeded) by the various philosophical questions that it had given rise to: for instance what was law? And what was ethics? Why then should certain people, rather than others, be held accountable for deviating from a certain system? Classical criminology led to questions about the limits of criminal behavior and, therefore, put into question the whole notion of establishing uniform criteria for social justice. This skeptical and critical position was overcome by the positivist school of criminology that asserted themselves ready and willing to place the system on a secure footing by identifying criminal via strict quantitative methodology and, by so doing protecting the public. The classical school debated whether objective reality could exist. The positivist school insisted that it could, and not only that but that it could be measured and, by doing so, its problems could be articulated, defined, and addressed.

The ideas of 2 major theorists of biological positivism

Cesare Lombroso was one of the most famous of all biological positivists as well as one of the forerunners of the system. His theory, known as atavism, posited that criminals possessed certain physical stigmata that traced their identity to certain primitive or apian ancestors and that this, in turn, determined their criminal and uncontrolled behavior.

Years of postmortem examination and vigorous anthropometric studies of criminal led Lombroso to point to various physical features that, he insisted, differentiated criminals from ‘regular’ mankind. The born criminal (otherwise known as reo nato) possessed distinct facial features such as a sloping forehead, unusual ears, asymmetry of face, unusually long arms, and other distinctive features. “Criminaloids” were another aspect of society. They were secondary to born criminals in that they turned to crime occasionally, and were instigated to do so by environmental conditions rather than by genetic or hereditary features.

Another well-known biological positivist was Hans Eysenck who, too, saw criminality as an inherent trait similar to intelligence, height or weight. A firm behaviorist, Eysenck believed that all behavior could be conditioned and that criminality emerged due to resistance to conditioning. Certain individuals were more resistant to conditioning than others, conscience was a conditioned reflex; those who were resilient to conditioning had weak or utter lack of conscience, hence their criminal behavior. Aggressive behavior is seen as pleasurable. This provides a certain reinforcement which encourages criminal and anti-social conduct.

The ideas of 2 major theorists of psychological positivism

Dividing human nature into the triad of id, ego, and superego, Freud proposed that criminality was either the result of mental illness or presence of a weak conscience or the presence of an overdeveloped superego that resulted from an excessive sense of guilt. In the latter instance, certain individuals wish to relieve the overburdened sense of guilt that they feel, and hence turn to crime as a means of courting punishment. Receiving the punishment serves as means of relieving the guilt, and hence Freud posited that guilt feelings precede the nefarious action.

Freud also explained crime via recourse to the pleasure principle that states that humans seek gratification for certain innate needs such as sex and survival. When recourse to these is not forthcoming, humans turn to crime as an instrument for achieving their natural needs. Children also learn right and wrong when developing as taught to them from their parents. If this parental instruction is lacking, the child — Freud believes — matures with a weak and underdeveloped conscience, hence his or her vulnerability to criminality.

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth fashioned their theory of parental, particularly maternal attachment that was essential for healthy development of a child and theorized that absence of this crucial attachment resulted in criminal behavior.

The child needs to feel safe and secure in a particularly threatening world. He, therefore, relies on the protection of his parents for this security. The strength of this attachment relationship will provide the child with the recourses necessary for his healthy functioning as an adult particularly in terms of being able to form and maintain social connections, his academic performance, identity of a healthy esteem, ability to engage in intimate relationships, and to refrain from engaging in sociopathic forms of conduct. To the reverse, the individual who lacks this necessary parental attachment and early framework is drawn to criminal acts later on particularly during times of stress. The attachment mechanism acts as survival strategy with the child’s sensations of threat reduced, if not eliminated, by the protecting figures of the adults. The child, lacking this nurturance, however, lacks the wherewithal to protect himself from stress, and seeing the world as a dangerous place is more apt to fight it, thereby engaging in criminal conduct.

The contribution of scientific positivism to criminology

Its legacies include the facts that we focus on the study of the criminal not the crime. That we approach the subject from a methodological, scientific stance. That we look towards potential rehabilitation of the criminal. That we work on identifying crime pattern analysis and endeavor to work towards formulating crime reduction strategies. Finally, that we persist in conducting limited research into genetic and psychological disposition to crime.

The positivist school introduced a range of impressive scientists and theorists who introduced both good and bad as their contribution. Some ideas were more harmful than others. Those of Lambroso, for instance, were more harmful than those of Eysenk and, in fact, resulted in the Nazi genocide where Nazis believed that a certain race of humans were descended from primitive people and simians based on their physical features. Given that certain individuals were scientifically characterized as criminals and hence dangerous to society, positivism was harmful in that it led others to characterize individuals based on their appearance alone. It was also erroneous as seen from certain cases where individuals who were protected when young and came from wealthy families nonetheless turned to crime. Criminals whose facial features were innocuous were overlooked, whilst innocent people with features resembling apes were accused by science and sentenced. Theorists such as Lambroso also led to needless oppression of minorities such as Blacks. In this way, the positivist school, intending good, ended up by perpetrating streams of injustice and ironically culminated in criminal conduct themselves.

What dangers lie in application of genetic and ethological theories of criminality and attempts to cure the criminal?

Given that certain individuals were scientifically characterized as criminals and hence dangerous to society, positivism was harmful in that it led others to characterize individuals based on their appearance alone. It was also erroneous as seen from certain cases where individuals who were protected when young and came from wealthy families nonetheless turned to crime. Criminals whose facial features were innocuous were overlooked, whilst innocent people with features resembling apes were accused by science and sentenced. Arriving at his conclusions by measuring skulls, rather than statistical designs, his ideas went on to become a part of Nazi Germany where skulls were measured too to determine ‘criminals’.

Criminality was seen as an under-socialized / under-evolved behavior. Biological positivism saw crime as a result of physical systems of under-development, genetically induced and/or pointing to psychological flaws in the individual. The solution was to medically treat the indivdual against his wishes, with crimes being arbitrarily labeled as such, and the ideal solution was to remove the individual from society. Biological positivism was the slippery road to castration and murder where it was argued that for the benefit of society the individual had to be prevented from reproducing.

Aside from the fact that biological positivism is methodologically flawed, the fact that the socially powerful were assumed to be superior made this a dangerous precedent. By calling certain individuals with certain characteristics that were displeasing to the people in power ‘criminals’, relieved society from any responsibility of harming these victims leading to both local and global aggression and anarchy. At the same time, deployment of this designation of ‘criminals’ enabled those in charge to justify widespread inequalities and to treat others in the names of ‘crimes’ that are today not considered as such.

Is scientific positivism relevant today?

We still use the essential tools that scientific positivism employed i.e. quantitative, empirical laboratory research, but a rigid code of ethics guaranteed by numerous government divisions inhibits us from falling into the excesses that positivism did. Science has progressed since then and what was considered science then, demands more evidence and reliability for it to be accepted now. None of the positivist theories current then would be considered science now. All have been disproved as sham. There is continued limited research into genetic and psychological dispositions to crime but all of this is done under a very different scientific approach to that which was practice by the positivist school and, therefore, one can conclude that whilst scientific research into criminality is still functional and operational, scientific positivism has expired.

Its legacies, however, continue to determine that we focus on the study of the criminal not the crime. That we approach the subject from a methodological, scientific stance. That we look towards potential rehabilitation of the criminal. That we work on identifying crime pattern analysis and endeavor to work towards formulating crime reduction strategies. Finally, that we persist in conducting limited research into genetic and psychological disposition to crime.


Coleman C & Norris C (2000) Introducing criminology, Cullomption: Wilan

Jones, T. (207) Theoretical criminology. Sage: USA

Williams KS (2008) Criminology. Oxford: UK

Newburn, T. (2008) Criminology. Willan: Cullomption.

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