Compare positivist approaches to crime with at least two other perspectives discussed in the module Essay


Since the creation of human societies, crime made its appearance too and became an unavoidable phenomenon for every society. At the same time with the appearance of crime, a number of questions emerged as well. ‘Why does crime exist?’, ‘What makes a person turn to crime?’. The answers to the above questions are pertinent to the explanation of crime. Understanding crime is essential not only because it presents the reasons that lead someone to break the law, but also because it determines the measures that must be taken in order to combat crime and the penal treatment of criminals (Alexiadis, 2004:44).

Attempts to explain crime were made for a number of centuries. First attempts relied on religious structures and specifically on demonology. According to this explanation crime results from the influence of unworldly powers. Criminals were driven by forces beyond their control and the punishment inflicted on them was extremely severe and brutal (legislation was given the title ‘the bloody code’) (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:2-18).

However, the 18th century constituted a period of immense change. Specifically in the late 18th and early 19th century, an intellectual activity emerged that it became known as the ‘European Enlightment’. ‘The Enlightment represented the development of human beings and their relationship with each other, institutions, society and the state’ (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:2-15). During the ‘European Enlightment’ an explosion of writings occurred and progressively a variety of theories trying to explain the prevalence of crime came to the surface. It is important at this point to note that all these theories had tried to explain and not to excuse crime. Providing the reasons that prompt someone to actual criminal behaviour does not mean that they perceive crime as an acceptable behaviour.

This essay will discuss three prominent theories in the explanation of crime. This essay will compare positivist approaches to crime with two other perspectives: the classical school and the conflict theory. The relative strengths and weaknesses of these approaches will also be discussed.

Firstly, positivism is divided into three main categories: 1) biological, 2) psychological and 3) sociological positivism. These formulations of positivism are based on the same theoretical foundations. ‘They argued that crime resulted not from what criminals had in common with others in society, but from their distinctive physical or mental defects’ (Crime theory, Positivist, 1998). This essay will begin by outlining biological and psychological positivist approaches. After highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, this essay will present the classical school of criminology. Classical thinkers claimed that humans have free will and are hedonistic. The benefits and the deficiencies of this perspective will also be presented.

Moreover, this essay will present the conflict theory and its advantages and disadvantages. This theory emerged after ‘Industrial revolution’ and has roots in the ideas of Karl Marx. ‘It is based upon the view that the fundamental causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within society’ (Criminology, 2005).

According to writer’s view, each of these theories holds part of an explanation and it cannot exist on its own. Isolated and taken out of context, these perspectives cannot provide any satisfactory explanation of crime. Each crime can be explained on the basis of a different theory or a combination of theories. As a result a new theory has recently been developed known as ‘the integrated theory of delinquency’ which reacts against single theory approaches and constitutes an attempt to analyse crime in a unified framework. ‘”Integration” has assumed a central role in criminological discourse’ (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Finally this essay will conclude that each of these theories had tried to approach criminal behaviour from a different aspect. While it seems that they oppose each other and in many areas they do, in some other level they can be seen to complement each other offering valuable insight. Despite their relative weaknesses, they did make a significant contribution to the explanation of crime and have provided the foundation for further study in the field of criminology.

Positivist Approaches

Biological Positivism

The theoretical framework of positivist criminology is based upon the assumption that behaviour is determined by factors beyond the individual’s control. This view implies that humans are not self-determining agents, free to do as they wish and as their reason dictates. In essence, this view maintains that people can only behave in ways that have already been predetermined (Vold, Bernard and Snipes, 2002:9).

Biological positivists argued that there is a relationship between biological characteristics and criminal behaviour. Specifically, they claim that certain biological characteristics increase the probability that individuals will engage in certain types of behaviour, such as violent or antisocial behaviours, that are legally defined as criminal or delinquent (Vold et al., 2002:3). In addition, they stressed that criminals are completely different types of people from non-criminals, they differ among themselves and they committed different types of crime. However, offenders who committed the same type of crime can be expected to present nearly the same characteristics (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:2-6).

More specifically, heredity theory postulates that ‘criminality might be inherited in the same way as physical characteristics like height and hair colour’ (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:2-6). Some of the studies related to this theory are: Twin studies, criminal family studies and adoption studies. Genetic theory perceives crime as the result of abnormalities in one’s genetic structure. These abnormalities are predominantly related to the sex chromosomes (Alexiadis, 2004:54). ‘Psychoses and brain injury theories address the neurological and biochemical conditions that cause criminal behaviour (i.e. sexual hormones, blood sugar levels, adrenaline sensitivity, allergies and vitamin deficiencies)’ (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:2-6).

Some of the more interesting attempts at relating criminal behaviour to physical appearance are the body type theories. In the following paragraphs, a brief description of two prominent body type theories is provided.

Body type theorists argue that the physical appearance of the body is linked to the temperament of the mind. These theories emanate from Lombroso’s theory. Cesare Lomproso, who is one of the three founders of biological positivist criminology (or the Italian school as it is usually known), had attempted to establish some relation between mental disorder and physical characteristics.

More accurately, he created the theory of the ‘born criminal’ and he proposed that the most serious crimes were committed by individuals who were ‘primitive’ or ‘atavistic’. ‘Atavism’ was defined-first from Darwin and afterwards from Lombroso-as the throwback to an earlier stage of biological development (Crime theory, Positivist, 1998). During some people’s biological evolution process a complication occurs. Due to this complication people carry ‘the sperm of crime’ to their temperament and they can be distinguished from other people (non-criminals) based upon some physical characteristics known as ‘stigmata’ (Giotopoulou-Maragkopoulou, 1984:92).

Another important body type theory is Sheldon’s. Sheldon classified humans regarding their figure and personality into three categories: 1) endomorphs: people belonging in this category are soft, fat and extroverted, 2) mesomorphs: here belong muscular and athletic people who are aggressive and energetic and 3) ectomorphs: in this category belong people who are skinny, flat and introverted (Alexiadis, 2004:52). According to research the mesomorphs are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.

One of the most useful points of the biological positivist approach is that it sets criminals as first in terms of importance in criminology research. This perspective treats criminals as people having a special personality that deserves to be the centre of criminological studies. Until then, theories focused only on crime and the culprit was neglected. Biological positivists directed the study of crime towards a scientific study of the criminal and why he/she commits crime. ‘To biological positivists criminality is something essential in the nature of the criminal’ (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:3-28).

In addition, biological positivism helped develop and shape some other criminological theories and relevant research. A number of theories emerged from this type of positivism to express and develop their own explanation of crime.

On the other hand, biological positivist approach can be said to have some weaknesses. It tends to ignore different aspects of the interaction between a person’s physical characteristics and the environment. Poor people are more likely to have a poorer diet and therefore be small in structure. ‘The over-representation of such people among convicted criminals may be explained by a variety of social-cultural rather than biological factors’ (Eglima word press, 2008). For instance, individuals with more extreme physical flaws have less access to legitimate social pursuits.

Furthermore, the assumption of the existence of these physical characteristics provokes unequal and unfair treatment for the people who are exhibiting them. People must not be labelled as criminals due to their physical disorders. It is not an absolute prediction that everyone with these characteristics will commit crime (Alexiadis, 2004:49).

A final problematic issue is the methodology in the studies of biological positivism. The methodology used might be labelled as simplistic and consequently the conclusions about ‘real’ or ‘significant’ differences between criminals and non-criminals can in fact be highly speculative (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:3-9).

Biological characteristics of an individual are only a part of a multiple factor approach to criminal behaviour. Another part is addressed by the psychological positivist approach.

Psychological Positivism

‘Psychological positivism begs the question: Is violence and criminal behaviour the result of mental illness?’ (Shvoong, 2008). Trying to answer this question a number of psychological theories emerged. Basically, these theories (including psychodynamic models, development influences, personality and learning theories and psychiatric disturbance) have tried to reveal a relation between psychological characteristics and criminal behaviour.

More specifically, low intelligence has probably been the psychological characteristic most often used to explain criminal behaviour since research has shown that low IQ scores are might be associated with crime and delinquency. Some other psychological theories have claimed that criminal behaviour is caused by individual’s personality characteristics, such as the antisocial personality and impulsivity (Vold et al., 2002:55). ‘The term personality refers to the emotional and behavioural attributes that tend to remain stable as the individual moves from situation to situation’ (Vold et al., 2002:55). Some research on the personality uses a type of psychological test ‘the personality inventory’ which is similar to the IQ tests used to measure intelligence (Vold et al., 2002:56).

One of the most important contributions to psychological positivism is Freud’s psychoanalytical theory which is briefly discussed next. Freud argued that criminal activities are not committed by a specific category of people. Everyone is capable of breaking the law under specific circumstances. According to Freud, the mind is divided into two main parts: 1) the conscious which includes everything that we are aware of and 2) the unconscious which retains unacceptable or unpleasant feelings, thoughts and memories (Van Wagner, n.d.). The unconscious part of one’s self fights the conscious part of one’s self. When the individual can neither retain balance between them nor resolve the conflict, then the unacceptable feelings and thoughts prevail and the individual presents abnormal social behaviour and consequently criminal behaviour (Alexiadis, 2004:59).

Another significant psychoanalytical approach is Aichhorn’s ‘Latent delinquency’ theory.

‘Aichhorn (1925) argued that at birth a child has certain instinctive drives for which it demands satisfaction. The child is unaware of, and obviously unaffected by, the norms of the society around it. Aichhorn describes such a child as being in an “asocial state” and says that the task is to bring the child into a social state (1925:4). When a child’s development is ineffective he/she remains asocial. If the instinctive drives are not acted out, they are suppressed and he/she is in a state of “Latent delinquency” (which could be translated into actual offending behaviour’ (cited in Department of Criminology, 2006/07:3-31).

The most obvious advantage of psychological positivism is that it stressed the effect that one’s childhood can have on his/her future life. Moreover psychological positivists emphasised the neglected problems of ‘Libido’, which according to research, may lead someone to actual criminal behaviour (Patient, 2008). ‘Libido’ is the term used by Freud to label the sexual instinct, which he perceived as ‘the basic and most powerful human drive’ (Discovery Health, 2008).

During the later stage of the development of Libido, one’s psyche is made up of three components: 1) id, 2) ego and 3) superego. Psychological Positivists were more interested in the third component as it determines ‘the learned and internalised social standards of behaviour, including an awareness of banned or punishable behaviours’ (Discovery Health, 2008). Several factors, including mental illness, may prompt the loss of Libido and consequently lead to the loss of superego and the neutralisation of the ‘deterrence mechanisms’ (namely of the awareness of what is illegal) which can prevent one from exhibiting punishable behaviour.

Nevertheless, while psychological positivist approach has shown itself to be of some significant value, it is subject to a number of criticisms. First of all, the psychological theory that connects delinquency with low IQ scores, though it was an influential type of theory in the early of the twentieth century it fell out of favour when research using IQ tests showed little or no difference in intelligence between criminals and non-criminals. ‘It is seems best to conclude that low intelligence has no direct causal impact on crime and delinquency. The differences between delinquents and non-delinquents probably result from environmental rather than genetic factors’ (Vold et al., 2002:82).

Furthermore, a similar problem is that many studies had actually been carried out on prisoners who were already diagnosed as mentally ill. Psychological positivists argued that offenders are mentally ill because that had been elicited from the studies with prisoners as a sample. However, ‘it is not possible to generalise findings to the rest of the criminal population’ (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:3-24). The fact that the majority of the prisoners had pre-existing mentally disorders could explain their over-representation to prisons. These abnormalities made them unable to find a way to escape after committing the crime and consequently they were easily arrested (Alexiadis, 2004:56).

That does not mean, however, that all offenders indeed have mentally disorders and consequently psychological characteristics should not constitute the main factor that it is assumed that lead one to delinquency.

A final problem involves the research in which personality is related to crime. These types of research have many methodological problems. The result of these problems was that many criminologists rejected much of the research as ‘meaningless’ (Department of criminology, 2006/07:3-24).

As mentioned above, biological and psychological positivism perceive crime as arising from biological and psychological factors, which are outside the control of the offender and which determines his/her behaviour. For positivist approaches, individual is someone who is passive in his own life. This school of thought argued that humans do not have free will. In contrast to positivism, the classical school of criminology proposes that anyone can potentially choose to commit a crime (Crime theory, Positivist, 1998).

Classical School

The classical school of thought about crime and criminal justice emerged at a time when the naturalistic approach of the social contract thinkers was challenging the spiritualistic approach that had dominated European thinking for over a thousand years (Vold et al., 2002:9). As mentioned above until that time it was believed that criminals were possessed by demonic creatures, who forced them to act strange. The classical school introduced the idea that people possess free will.

The basis of this line of thinking was the view that intelligence and rationality are fundamental human characteristics and should be the basis for explaining human behaviour. In this view humans are said to be capable of acting to promote their own best interests. Crime is the product of a process of free choice of the individual, who assesses the potential benefits of committing the crime against its potential costs. Therefore, people are fully responsible for their actions and consequently excuses are not acceptable.

Its most prominent members, Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, shared the idea that ‘criminal behaviour could be understood and controlled as an outcome of a “human nature” shared by all of us’ (Crime theory, Classical, 1998).

Bentham’s assertion was that people should look for ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’ (History home, 2007). Bentham, who is regarded as a utilitarian, believed that individuals are both ‘hedonistic’ and rational, able to act in such a way so as to satisfy their self-interest (Crime theory, classical, 1998). More accurately, he thought that happiness was equivalent to pleasure and that people through a calculation of their choices, which he called ‘felicific calculus’, will choose pleasure and avoid pain (History home, 2007). Bentham and the classical criminologists, in general, claimed that the criminal justice system could control people so as not to break the law by intimidating them. The penal system should ‘make the pain of punishment worse than the pleasure given by committing an offence’ (History Home, 2007).

Beccaria’s theory was also based on concepts of free will and hedonism. He believed that

‘Punishment should fit the crime. Criminals owe a “debt” to society and punishments should be fixed strictly in proportion to the seriousness of the crime. He supported “social contract” theory with its emphasis on the notion of individuals only being bound to society by their consent’ (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:2-26).

The major importance of the classical school of criminology is that it introduced a modern mode of analysis to the study of crime and stressed the role of free will in people’s choices (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:2-15). It asserts that humans are not passive observers in their own life (as the biological and psychological positivism claimed) but active master of their fate, able to choose and engage in actions which will satisfy them.

Nonetheless, the problems with the classical school of criminology are plentiful. First of all, according to Beccaria’s theory, crime is the very centre of criminology.

There is no interest in the criminal and thus he becomes marginalised. This approach ruins any prospect for offender’s rehabilitation. The punishment should fit the criminal and not the crime, because each individual constitutes a unique personality and demands a particularly treatment in order to be rehabilitated. In case that the criminal serves a sentence which is not appropriate for him, then he will not be reformed and maybe this is the start of a future criminal career (Farsedakis,1990:101).

Another weakness of this perspective is related to the deterring role of the fear of punishment. As mentioned above there is the assumption that after a calculation of the benefits and the costs of an action, one will avoid an action which contains pain. This approach, however, does not consider that free will may be constrained by biological or/and psychological circumstances. For instance, children, the elderly and people with mentally disorders are less able to calculate pleasure and pain that result from their decisions. Consequently, if they choose to commit a crime, the possibility of getting arrested and be punished is not considered (Department of Criminology, 2006/07: 2-29). Therefore, in these cases criminal justice system cannot control human behaviour.

From the above it becomes clear that this theory considers the individual fully responsible for his decisions and does not appreciate the social circumstances and how they can influence the actions of a person. The classical school focused excessively on one’s free will and it presumed that human behaviour is disconnected from any sort of social context. However, after the ‘industrial revolution’ interest was raised in theories that studied the relationship between delinquency and social circumstances. Conflict theory as it will be discussed below, analyses the social and economic circumstances and how they can prompt one to break the law.

Conflict Theory

The social theories that emphasise social conflict were greatly influenced by Karl Marx. ‘Marx viewed the exploitative economic arrangements of capitalism as the real foundation upon which the superstructure of social, political and intellectual consciousness is built’ (Grinnell, 2000).

The social conflict perspective has several independent branches and one of the most prominent one is conflict theory. ‘This theory was first applied to criminology by three distinguished scholars: Ralph Dahrendorf, Austin Turk and George Vold (Siegel, 2004:250-253).

Conflict theory assumes that the intergroup conflict that exists in every society causes crime, which is defined and handled by those in power. In essence, conflict theorists argued that interests ultimately determine values and that the organised state does not represent common interests, but instead it represents the interests of those with sufficient power to control its operation. As a consequence, more powerful people are legally freer to pursue self-interests, while the less powerful are more likely to be officially defined as ‘criminals’ (Vold et al., 2002:228). According to the conflict theory the criminal justice system support the powerful people and facilitates control exercised upon the poorer or weaker segments of the population.

As conflict theory began to have a significant influence on criminology studies, several respected scholars were inspired by the writings of Dahrendorf and Vold. For instance, William Chambliss and Robert Seidman focused on:

* ‘Describing how the control of the political and economic system affects how the criminal justice system operates.

* Showing how the definitions of crime favour those who control the justice system.

* Analysing the role of conflict in contemporary society.’ (Siegel, 2004:255).

Another important conflict theorist is Richard Quinney and his theory is briefly showed next. Quinney influenced by the labelling theory, claimed that ‘social reality is merely what we perceive it to be and interpretations will vary according to one’s position in society’ (Department of Criminology, 2006/07:7-12). The concepts of crime are controlled by the powerful social elites and the criminal justice system works to secure the needs of the powerful. For Quinney, crime is created. It is a function of power relations and an inevitable result of social conflict.

Indeed, the powerful people into a society have the ability to control the criminal justice system and to define which actions should be characterised as crimes regarding to their economic interests.

Conflict theory has had an important niche in criminology. This perspective attempted to identify the power relations in society and draw attention to their role in promoting criminal behaviour. Moreover, conflict theorists stressed that those who deserve to be punished (namely wealthy criminals) are actually punished the least, whereas those whose crimes are relatively minor receive the stricter punishments (Siegel, 2004:255).

On the other hand, this view has not been exempt from criticism. There is little conclusive evidence that the criminal justice system has a tendency to show favour towards social elites and against poor (Siegel, 2004:258). For instance, socioeconomic status seems unrelated to the length of prison terms assigned by the courts (Siegel, 2004:258).

Despite the weakness of this approach, it provides information on how social circumstances in a non-consensus society can lead individuals to break the law and thus it has become a predominant theory.


In conclusion, the approaches discussed above have tried to provide a universal explanation of crime and deviance. Biological and psychological positivist approaches perceive crime as the result of not normal behaviour. Positivism has made a significant contribution to the explanation of criminal behaviour and has shown a link between delinquency and abnormalities in an individual.

The classical school of criminology proposes that individuals seek pleasure and attempt to avoid pain. As a result, a potential offender will refrain from committing a crime, if its costs outweigh the benefits.

While the classical school claimed that crime is the result of rational choices made by offenders who were motivated by greed and selfishness, conflict theory argued that the motives for criminal behaviour are poverty and hopelessness (Siegel, 2004:258).

The above mentioned theories, although they shed light to different factors that may lead to delinquency, they do not necessarily oppose each other. On the contrary, they may complement each other in certain areas and they do share the same aim: they try to identify the factors that can motivate someone into deviant and criminal behaviour.


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