Briefly explain classicism and positivism in criminology and describe and discuss the differences between them. Finally, with reference to contemporary theories show how classicism and positivism influence our thinking about crime today.
Within history, there have been numerous attempts to explain criminal behaviour through what we would now refer to as ‘pre-scientific’ theories. Medieval periods saw demonological forces as the coercion behind behaviour. During the Renaissance, methodological investigation alongside psychological experience became a more justifiable means of exploring criminal behaviour and from this progress saw the emergence of the analytical approaches in use today. The first approach to the reasoning behind criminal acts sat within the ‘classical school’ of criminology (classicism), proposed by Cesare de Beccaria. His ideas suggested that humans are beings of free will driven by pain and pleasure. Thus, criminal acts are the product of individual needs after calculating the intended benefits against the cost of the act, a utilitarian process. This freewill component of the criminal justice system overruled that which had predominantly been governed by religion. The act was seen as a product of individual decision and did not account for the social situation and its effect on individual behaviour. Classicism proposed that criminal acts were perpetrated by rational beings, that state intervention was a discouragement to crime rather than a penalty, that potential criminals should be made fully aware of the consequences of their acts (by clearly defining legal boundaries), that discretion was to be avoided (judges were to enforce the law, not construe it) and that punishments should be based on the crime and not the individual. Classicism however, is not without its criticisms. The ideas were based upon assumptions rather than scientific fact, the consistent manner in which it operated did not allow for discretion in incidences that were not straight forward (perhaps driven by self-preservation or morals) and there was an importance placed upon the individual in the act, ignoring the social situation and the mental challenges of particular individuals.
Neo-classicists began to question the purely individual approach to crime and were interested in the individual circumstances which led to the perpetration. Taylor et al. (1973) noted:
“The neo-classicist took the solitary rational man of classicism and gave him a past and a future”.
This has been the underpinning for criminal justice, but criminology has predominantly been of a positivist approach. Positivism’s advances were that the social sciences should follow fact, and not been confused with philosophical dealings with aspects of the ultimate nature of reality. Positivism began with a biological development to criminology with Lobrosso’s ‘Criminal Man’, suggesting a possible genetic link to criminological behaviour through innate urges. Lombosso’s work suggested physical characteristics as a determinant for behaviour and although such work may not hold as much value as within its own time, it was the beginning of the positivist’s view that criminological research should place a scientific concentration on the offender. Classicism was also the first approach which suggesting rehabilitation during punishment, rather than concentrating efforts on reprimanding individuals. Positivism argued against the free will components of classicism and suggested that criminal acts were perpetrated because of factors over which the individual had no control. Positivism has numerous divides, predominantly biological, psychological and sociological, although basic components are broadly shared. The main focal point should be the behaviour of the offender in a means to understand why acts were committed. It further suggests that society has common moral and behavioural values, signifying that a criminal is ‘undersocialised’. As to why an individual has become undersocialised is explained differently within the divisions of positivism, from a social, biological and individual method. Again, positivism is not without criticism. It implies that individual acts are due to determinism and as such, would mean that individuals are unable to refrain from committing crimes, have no control and therefore cannot be held accountable for the crimes they have committed. The idea that individuals commit crimes because of undersocialisation is criticised by Marxists views that society may not have comparable values and as such, individuals may in fact be rebelling against the views held by those in power. Positivism further suggested that crime was committed by the lower classes, and as such was unable to account for acts committed by those in high social classes. The positivist concentration on the individual within crime and not the act, could lead to injustices and an overlook of the severity of the crime. The comparison between the classical school and the positivist one appears simple at first. Classicism assumes the free will of individuals and concentrates heavily on the punishment of crime. Positivism assumes a deterministic nature to crime and that there lies within, a causation which is beyond the individuals control. However, the aforementioned issues within the body of this text show that the differences are not as straightforward as academics would like to assume. One primary difference between the two schools of thinking was that classicists lived in a pre-modern era and were unable to utilise the investigative and scientific resources available to positivists, explaining why their approaches were diligent toward the individual.
As radical or moderate as the approaches appear, they have assumed an underpinning in some of the contemporary theories criminologists use to evaluate crime in such that they have directed approaches away from the dated niche assumptions of classicists and positivists and combined the two, often using a social and individualistic amalgamation to account for criminal acts. By nature humans are idiosyncratic. However, they are conditioned by the social situation.
Modern learning theories offer some explanation in the understanding of crime. Differential association emphasises an inadequate socialisation from parents, allowing individuals to become affected by the pressures of peer groups and that criminal activity was a way of showing support for the views held by others in a social group. This allows for the explanation as to why in socially deprived areas, criminal behaviour is seen as an embracement. Social strain theory also advised that behaviour was socially determined. The interaction of an inability to achieve individual’s goals due to societal boundaries often leads to deviant behaviour and as such is argued that society itself and the constraints for the working class are predictive in enticing criminal activity.
Feminist theories further argue that gender structures created through society are predominantly responsible for criminal acts. Feminist argue that male power has dominated the modern world and that perpetrations of crime are often the result of male desires for dominance. The individualistic drives of the male ego, combined with the opportunistic societal governances, often exasperate violent crime towards not only women, but men also. A world dominated by power, yet with solid constrictions on who may hold that power, creates an unequal struggle for authority and as such may be resultant in crime.
Biochemical explanations of crime account for individual differences within the chemistry behind our actions. Abnormally low serotonin levels or raised testosterone levels in pre-menstrual women are suggested as explanations for particular criminal acts and there is also emphasis placed on the inadequacies provided by our diet such as excesses of lead or cobolt within the body. Without a depth of knowledge in nutrition, individuals may all fall victim to failures in the dietary standards of society.
It seems that a more probable explanation for crime would come from an inclusive approach, comprising all aforementioned aspects and seeing each crime as a combination of individual, situation and societal factors. Although this may appear a rigorous task for those within the criminal justice system, it allows for penal and rehabilitation decisions within crime and punishment to be based on an eclectic knowledge base, and as such should resound in a decision that is not only fair, but is specific to the accumulation of all the intricacies which shaped the criminal and the inherent criminal act.
 Blackburn, R. (1993). The Psychology of Criminal Conduct. Chichester: John Wiley, pp.13
 Joyce, P. (2009). Criminology and Criminal Justice. Devon: Willan Publishing, pp.22.
 Joyce, P. (2009). Criminology and Criminal Justice. Devon: Willan Publishing, pp.16.
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