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Classicism Vs Positivism

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Mark Bushell

on 7 November 2018

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Transcript of Classicism Vs Positivism

Main Principles
A main focus is on looking for causes beyond the actions of the rational 'actor'

The offender rather than the offence

This is a 'deterministic' approach - Crime is driven by biological, psychological or other influences and the criminal has a 'sickness' or dysfunction that is absent in non-criminals

Criminals are therefore seen as being qualitatively different from non-criminals

Positivism is influenced and often focused upon treatment rather than punishment
Biological Positivism
Origins in physical attributes and appearance and genetic heritage relating to a criminal

Cesare Lombroso

Atavism - criminals are an evolutionary 'throwback' to a primitave stage of human development

Criminals are

Head size and facial features can be measured and can be used to dicate criminal behaviour


Though biological factors may play some part in criminality, the extent of this is seen as very small
Ethical Issues - if criminality is bred into an individual, the assumption is that it can be bred out - Eugenics Movement
The concept of a criminal is taken for granted - crime & criminal meanings and definitions change across time and space
Psychological Positivism
Comprises several approaches which attempt to explain criminality through the psychological make-up and learning processes of the individual.

It is possible to idenify causes that are beyond the control of the individual offender

Learning Theories and Behaviourism
Psychoanalysis & Personality Theory
Psychopathy and Anti Social Personality Disorder
Cognitive Developmental Theories


Looks exclusively at the individual to the exclusion of important social & environmental factors
Application of animal studies to human behaviour
Often applied to more unusual types of
behaviour and fails to exlore/explain a large proportion of other criminal behaviour
Main Principles
The criminal can excercise:

Free Will

And makes decisions on the basis of:

Costs & Benefits

This approach was born out of:

A desire to limit the often random and brutal punishments of the pre-enlightment period
A need to create more predictable forms of legal regulation
To maintain order and protect society/property
The purpose of punishsment is to deter

- Punishment must be justifed in terms of some greater good

The main players
Cesare Beccaria
'It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them'
Punishment must be inflicted with speed and certainty
The penalty must be proportionate to the crime - there is no need for excessive punishment

Jeremy Bentham
Human behaviour is centred on maximising pleasure & avoiding pain (Hedonism)
Punishment must only be enough to produce the desired outcome
Supported the value of prisons - 'Panopticon'
Problems with Classicism
Do all offenders behave 'rationally'?

The growth of the Criminal Justice System - can justice always be delivered equally

Does rationalising the legal system mean a reduction in the power of the elite?

Focus is almost exclusively on prevention & deterrance without looking at the 'root causes' of criminality
Classicism Vs Positivism
Neo- Classicism
Still based on the idea of free will and the rationale individual

Rational Choice Theory
(Clarke & Cornish, 1985;1986;2002)

Criminality is a decision-making process
Criminals make the best decisions they can based on risk and uncertainty (bounded rationality)
Crime is purposive - always with the aim of 'benefitting' the offender

Routine Activity Theory
(Cohen & Felson, 1979)

The probababilty of a crime occuring is significantly increased when 3 factors are present:

A motivated offender
Suitable Targets
Absence of a

Sociological Positivism
Looks at social and cultural influences and their impact on the offender


Crime is normal and serves as a 'safety-valve' helping to maintain boundaries in our society
Looking collectively at society is more valuable in identifying causes of criminal behaviour than analysing individual action
Anomie (normlessness) is centrally involved in eliciting criminality


Individuals aspiring to ‘American Dream’
Where opportunities are lacking, those who who have the means to achieve their aspirations turn to illegal means
Conflict between goals and means leads to stress & Frustration

See also:
Chicago School
Sociological Positivism

Social disorganization is not clearly defined from the problems it is used to explain i.e. crime & disorder

Too little focus on individual decision-making and an over-emphasis on 'place'

Much of sociological positivist explanation centres on and over-predicts crimes of the 'lower-classes' and ignores middle-class and white collar crime.

A reliance on official statistics

Some of these approaches, particularly Merton's strain theory assumes that we are all driven by a desire for material success and generalized on a societal pursuit of the 'American Dream'

Research is often carried out on criminals who have been apprehended and it is taken for granted that this population represent the true nature of criminality whilst ignoring the dynamics of the 'dark figure'

Ignores the meanings indivuals give to their own behaviour
Note: This material is intended only as a brief overview of the two approaches, for further reading and more detail, refer to Sunspace and the reading list in the module guide

Material Extracted from:
Newburn, T. (2013)
. 2nd Edn. Abingdon: Routledge
Tierney, J. (2009)
Key Perspectives in Criminology
. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill
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