To understand criminology, a person must first know what crime is. A violation
of criminal law, for example breaking the code of conduct set forth by a state,
is how Thorsten Sellin defines crime.
Thorsten also goes on to say that deviant
behavior that is injurious to society, but is not governed by the law is
inaccurately described as crime. Crime is also defined as an illegal act that is
considered punishable by the government.
In the late nineteenth century, some of the principles on which the classical
school was based began to be challenged by the emergent positivist school in
criminology, led primarily by three Italian thinkers: Cesare Lombroso, Enrico
Ferri, and Raffaele Garofalo. It is at this point that the term criminology
first emerged, both in the work of Italian Raffaele Garofalo (criminologia) in
1885 and in the work of French anthropologist Paul Topinard (criminologie)
around the same time.
Positivist criminology assumes that criminal behaviour has its own distinct set
of characteristics. As a result, most criminological research conducted within a
positivist paradigm has sought to identify key differences between criminals
and non-criminals. Some theorists have focused on biological and psychological
factors, locating the source of crime primarily within the individual and
bringing to the fore questions of individual pathology. This approach is termed individual positivism. Other theorists – who regard crime as a
consequence of social rather than individual pathology – have, by contrast,
argued that more insights can be gained by studying the social context external
This approach is termed sociological positivism.
Criminological Theories are an important part of criminology. Theory is a term
used to describe an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or
events. Therefore, a theory is suggested or presented as possibly true, but that
is not known or proven to be true, as well as, the general principles or ideas
that relate to a particular subject. Criminological Theories examine why people
commit crimes and is very important in the ongoing debate of how crime should be
handled and prevented. Many theories have been developed and researched
throughout the years. These theories continue to be explored, separately and in
amalgamation, because criminologists pursue the paramount elucidations in
eventually reducing types and intensities of crime.
· Classical School of Criminology
Classical School is Born. The Classical School of Criminology was brought to
light in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The classical school developed during
the Enlightenment in response to excessive and cruel punishments to crime.
Beccaria argued for more humanitarian forms of punishment and against physical
punishment and the death penalty. He believed that punishment should fit the
crime and not be excessive. Central to the classical school was the presence of
All people act within reason; conduct results from the conscious
operation of a person’s will after reflection and choosing among alternatives of
action. People know the difference between right and wrong.
Awareness of right and wrong combined with crime as a choice played into how the
classical school thought of punishment. Because crimes are chosen through free
will, they should be punished swiftly and proportionally to the crime. This is
the most effective deterrent to crime.
A primary premise of the classical school was the fundamental equality of all
people, which meant that every person should be treated equally under the law.
Criminal behavior would be subject to similar punishment, and people had to know
what categories of conduct were punishable. Punishable conduct would only be
that which encroached on someone else’s freedom in violation of the social
contract. No longer would status be a factor to receiving favorable treatment or
more favorable punishment.
· Positivist School of criminology
The positivist school opposed the classical school’s understanding of crime. All
people are different, and thus vary in their understanding of right and wrong;
this needed to be a barometer for punishment. The person and not the crime
should be punished.
Positivism saw its role as the systematic elimination of the free will metaphysics of the classical school—and its replacement by a science of
society, taking on for itself the task of the eradication of crime, Ian Taylor,
Paul Walton and Jock Young wrote in The New Criminology: For a Social Theory
of Deviance. This new, deterministic movement was consolidated by Enrico Ferri,
who championed the approach then being employed by an Italian military
physician, Cesare Lombroso.
The positive method consisted of carefully observing the characteristics of
criminals to gain insight into the causes of antisocial conduct or behavior. Ferri did not endorse all of Lombroso’s conclusions, such as that some people
are born criminals and that some physical features, like the shape of a person’s
head or the placement of one’s cheekbones, can predict criminal behavior.
However, Ferri adopted the inductive method and set out to create a science that
would explain the causes of crime within society and the individual offender.
The school started by considering crime a product of heredity and environment.
Instead of criminal conduct, criminal behavior became the focus.
Environmental factors such as societal conditions and pressures interact with
hereditary factors in a person to cause that individual to be predisposed to
criminal acts. The deterministic school was more concerned with the actual or
would-be criminal rather than criminal conduct.
Positivism’s focus on the individual may have been the greatest contribution to
criminology and the criminal justice system. It led to classifications of
offenders, such as habitual criminals, as well as categories between insanity
and sanity. It also led to the use of psychology in studying offenders, opening
the way for different kinds of sentences and treatments that fit the criminal
and not the crime.
The neo-classicist school emerged, in large part, to remedy some of the problems
created by the classical school.
According to Taylor, Walton and Young, contradictions in classicism presented
themselves in universal penal measures and in day-to-day practice. It was
impossible in practice to ignore the determinants of human action and proceed as
if punishment and incarceration could be easily measured on some kind of
universal calculus: apart from throwing the working of the law itself into doubt
(e.g. in punishing property crime by deprivation of property) classicism
appeared to contradict widely-held commonsensical notions of human behavior.
Classicism concentrated on the criminal act and ignored individual differences
between criminals. Neo-classicism still held that free will is important, but
that it can be constrained by physical and environmental factors.
neo-classicists introduced revisions to account for problems presented in
Allowing for mitigating circumstance by looking at the situation (physical and
social environment) in which the individual had been placed.
Some allowance was given for an offender’s past record. A court needs to take
into account an offender’s criminal history and life circumstances when making a
decision about someone’s sentence.
Consideration should be given for factors like incompetence, pathology, insanity
and impulsive behavior. Also, certain individuals, such as children and the
mentally ill, are generally less capable of exercising their reason.
Neo-classicism heavily emphasizes free will and human rationality; it simply
refined these ideas slightly so that they would work in the world and in
day-to-day operations of the criminal justice system. This model provided a look
at possible influences that could undermine volition. Agencies of social control
in all advanced industrial societies have adopted this model of human
The concept of social harm can be used to open up the possibilities of new
narratives in critical criminology, such areas as Green Criminology and eco
crime, human rights and human security. It creates the opportunity for new
considerations of how to govern global social relations and alternative ways of
conceiving justice. Within a social harm and supranational framework, a variety
of social and criminological concerns can be thought about differently.
Critical criminological perspectives all broadly refer to a strain of
criminology that views crime as the product of social conflict; unequal power
and social relations; and processes of labelling and meaning-making. As a
result, critical criminologies have invited a radical reconfiguring of our focus
from criminal justice to social justice.
Critical criminological approaches departed from the positivist origins of
mainstream criminology that had focused primarily on the search for the causes
of crime, rather than questioning the basic category of crime. These critical
approaches began to focus instead on the processes by which the law is made, and
by which, therefore, individuals and groups become criminalised.
of critical criminology represented a stark shift in criminological thinking. In
this course you have been introduced to a number of key ideas and clusters of
theories that rejected concepts of individual and social pathology in preference
to frameworks that examine crime and deviance through processes by which certain
behaviours are defined, labelled and policed by the state.
Written by: Pragya Pathak,
Institution: K.R. Mangalam University