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Criminology in Transition: Rethinking ‘Born Criminal’ in a Societal Context

First used by Frenchman Paul Topinard[1] in 1889, the word 'criminology' originates from the combination of two words - crimen, which signifies crime, and logia, which means study. Therefore, it pertains to the scientific examination of criminal behaviour, encompassing its nature, extent, causes, and methods of control. Criminology refers to "the scientific study of the nonlegal aspects of crime and delinquency, including its causes, correction, and prevention, from the viewpoints of such diverse disciplines as anthropology, biology, psychology and psychiatry, economics, sociology, and statistics."[2]

Throughout history, various criminologists have provided their perspectives on the meaning of crime, criminals, and the factors contributing to criminal behaviour paving the way for a divergence of opinions among criminologists, which in turn led to the development of different theories regarding criminal behaviour.[3] These theories are referred to as schools of criminology such as the pre-classical school, classical school, neo-classical school and positivist school of criminology, which offer scientific explanations for criminal conduct. Before delving into the 'born criminal' concept of crime, it is important to the different schools of criminology and their explanations into the causes of crime and criminal behaviour.

Evolution of Criminological Thought: From Divine Influences to Rationality

The pre-classical school of criminology is profoundly influenced by the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who emphasised the divine implications of crime through theology and philosophy. Aquinas believed that crime not only harmed the victims, but also had a negative impact on the rationality and sensitivity of the individuals involved. He viewed humans as rational beings, and argued that crime undermined their rationality. According to the pre-classical school, individuals do not commit crimes solely based on their free will, but rather due to external influences.

These external forces, often referred to as a devil force lead individuals astray from righteous actions. Formulated during the age of enlightenment by two renowned intellectuals, Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, the classical school of criminology views crime as a conscious decision made by individuals exercising their free will. The decision to engage in criminal behaviour is influenced by the pain-pleasure principle,[4] where individuals strive to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. The classical school firmly believed that human beings are inherently hedonistic, always seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In order to prevent crime, classicism advocates for deterrence through the fear of being caught and punished.

Based on the idea that all criminal behaviour is situation is dynamic and personally determined, the neo-classical school of criminology attributes criminal behaviour to individual circumstances and rational thinking, removing crime from the societal framework. It encourages scientific study and recognises that the psychological aspects of offenders play a significant role in the commission of a crime.[5]

It acknowledges that individuals lacking normal intelligence or with mental incapacities cannot be held fully responsible for their actions, as they may not have the understanding to differentiate between criminal and non-criminal acts. The neo-classical school postulates that factors such as personality, past history, character, and social and economic background should be taken into account when assessing the guilt of an accused individual.

Biological Determinism: Contributions and Critiques of the Positivist School

The positivist school of criminology originated in the 1800s as a contrasting concept to the classical school. It associates crime with external or internal influences exerted on individuals and attributes the causes of criminal behaviour to these factors.[6] Positivist criminologists also highlighted the importance of employing scientific techniques for comprehending and deterring criminal activity.

They advocated for utilizing data and empirical investigations to formulate policies and interventions based on evidence. This approach gave rise to the creation of novel research methodologies such as surveys, experiments, and statistical analyses. Positivism contended that criminal conduct was influenced by various factors that were outside of an individual's sphere of control, including biological, psychological, and social aspects. Accordingly, positivism has been categorised into biological or individualistic positivism, psychological positivism, and sociological positivism.

Biological positivism centers on the anthropological and biological aspects of an offender in relation to their involvement in a crime. This approach aims to establish a mutually influential relationship between criminal behaviour and the structure and functioning of the brain. Psychological positivism, on the other hand, examines the mental dimension of crime, delving into determinants, thoughts, reactions, and emotional intelligence.

Sigmund Freud introduced the psychoanalytical model, which explores three interacting forces known as the Id, Ego, and Superego, representing elements of human personality that shape behaviour. Social positivism takes into account the broader impact of crime on society as a whole. August Comte was a prominent proponent of social positivism. Thus, positivism emphasises the sociological definition of crime, focusing on the biological factors that contribute to criminal behaviour.

It proposes that the circumstances surrounding the crime must be address, placing less emphasis on the severity of the offence. Biological determinism postulates that individuals commit crimes due to biological defects and assumes that crime is a result of biological or genetic abnormalities, and not a rational choice of an individual

Nature v. Nurture in Crime: Lombroso's 'Born Criminal' Theory

Cesare Lombroso, known as the father of modern criminology, was one of the key contributors who played a significant role in the development of the positivist school. He put forward the theory of 'born criminal'.[7] Lombroso's theory emphasised that criminals are an inferior form of life, they are nearer to their apelike ancestors than non-criminals in traits and dispositions. Lombroso contended that individuals involved in criminal activities could be distinguished by certain common traits that he classified as constituting a criminal archetype.

Lombroso further asserted that physical attributes like a low forehead, large ears, and a protruding jaw could be used to identify criminals. His fundamental concept revolved around atavism, suggesting that he viewed criminals as regressive remnants of earlier stages of human evolution, inherently inferior to those who do not engage in criminal behaviour. Lombroso held the belief that criminal behaviour stemmed from primitive and regressive atavistic traits or characteristics, making criminals biologically distinct from non-criminals.[8]

Lombroso classified the criminals into born criminals, insane criminals, and criminoloids. Born criminals are labelled as the most dangerous ones and can be identified through their distinctive characteristics. Whereas insane criminals are not criminals from birth. They transform into criminal as a result of an alteration in their brain which interferes with their ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Criminoloids are habitual criminals and include criminals by passion.

The 'born criminal' theory has faced criticism on account of its deterministic perspective of criminal behaviour and its focus on biological factors. This viewpoint disregards the influence of free will and personal agency in criminal behaviour. They argue that it can result in the stigmatization and discrimination of specific groups, including individuals with mental illness or physical disabilities.

Lombroso's interpretation suggested that certain physical attributes were responsible for criminal behaviour, although it could be debated that these traits may have interacted with social influences. Robert Agnew in 'Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency' proposed that possessing these unfavourable physical characteristics could result in negative social interactions,[9] leading to frustration and anger, ultimately leading to criminal behaviour. Lombroso asserted that these physical characteristics were innate, but it is possible that they were influenced by environmental factors.

Beyond Lombroso: Decoding Criminal Tendencies through Positivist Lenses

Enrico Ferri, a proponent of the positivist school of criminology, shared Lombroso's view on the biological origins of criminal behaviour. However, Ferri emphasised the significance of social, economic, and political factors in determining crime. He argued that criminals should not be held morally accountable since they did not deliberately choose to engage in criminal acts, but rather were compelled by the circumstances of their lives.

Ferri opined that mere biological reasons were not enough to account for criminality and other factors such as emotional causes, social infirmity, or geographical conditions also play a vital role in determining criminal tendencies. Ferri is recognised as the founder of criminal sociology.

Ferri's 'law of criminal saturation' proposes that crime is the synthetic product of three key factors, namely, physiological or geographical factors, anthropological factors, and psychological or social factors. Ferri suggests that criminal behaviour is influenced by multiple factors that collectively impact an individual.

He believed that as society undergoes social change, disharmony and cultural differences arise, leading to social disorganisation and the breakdown of traditional methods of social control. These rapid changes significantly increase the likelihood and frequency of crime. Ferri argues that criminals should be viewed as products of the circumstances that shape their lives, and the primary goal of crime prevention should be to eliminate the conditions that push individuals towards criminal activities.

Another notable positivist criminologist was Rafael Garofalo who emphasised the importance of conducting a more in-depth examination of the situations and living circumstances experienced by individuals who commit crimes. According to him, criminals are products of their own surroundings. Instead of attributing criminal behaviour to physical characteristics, Garofalo connected it to psychological abnormalities, which he referred to as moral deviations.

He believed that natural crimes, which violate fundamental moral values of honesty and religious devotion, are found in all human societies and no civilised society can afford to disregard them. He was of the view that an individual who has an organic deficiency in these moral sentiments has no moral constraints against committing such crimes and hence could not be held accountable.

Other exponents of positivism, including William Sheldon and Earnest Hooton, built upon Lombroso's research by placing greater emphasis on the consequence of biological elements such as genetics and physique in relation to criminal behaviour. However, they argued that criminal conduct was not solely shaped by an individual's biology, but also affected by wider social and environmental factors such as poverty, social inequality, and limited access to education.[10] The positivist school played a major role in shaping the formulation of modern criminology.

It contributed to redirecting the attention of criminological research from individual decision-making to encompass wider societal and environmental influences. Despite the criticism it has received regarding its emphasis on biological factors, the relevance of its approach to encompassing social and environmental factors, as well as employing scientific methodologies to comprehend and deter criminal activities, remains integral in the present day.

The greatest contribution to positivist school of criminology was the attention of the criminologists to the criminal rather than the crime. The positivist school is credited with giving rise to the emergence of the contemporary sociological or clinical school, which views criminals as products of their circumstances and life experiences.

Positive criminologists propose that there are certain mitigating factors that could drive an individual to engage in criminal behaviour. Deviating from the notion that criminals are 'born criminals' who cannot be deterred from committing crimes, whether due to mental or physical disability and cannot learn to control themselves, contemporary theories of criminology emphasise on biosocial causes rather than strictly natural ones.[11]

Understanding the Sociological Roots of Crime Causation

The sociological school of criminology aims to find the causation of crime in the offender's social environment and attempts social determination of criminal behaviour. Adolphe Quetelet made a significant discovery regarding the behavioural patterns of groups within a society. He found that there is a consistent and predictable occurrence of various behaviours among these groups. Gabriel Tarde, an influential sociological criminologist, argued that the social environment has the most profound impact on criminal behaviour, while biological and physical factors only play a causal role.

Sociological criminologists propose that social factors such as culture, mobility, religion, economy, political ideologies, population density, and employment status directly influence the prevalence of crime in a society. For instance, Marxism offers an explanation for crime by attributing it to the criminogenic characteristics of a capitalist society. According to this perspective, individuals engage in criminal behaviour due to the influence of values such as ownership, materialism, and greed, which are fostered by capitalism.

In 1947, American sociologist Edwin Sutherland offered a groundbreaking perspective of a micro-level learning theory about criminal behaviour, which he called Differential Association Theory. Placing reliance on the multiple social factors such as age, sex, income, culture, religion, social status, etc. and their effect on crime, Sutherland sought to explain various processes through which a person becomes a criminal.

The Differential Association Theory proposed that human personality and culture are directly related and a person becomes a criminal mainly by the chain of circumstances in which he associates or moves. The sociological school of criminology has been referred to as the rational school of criminology recommending the application of humanitarian methods for treatment of criminals. It suggests that criminals should be corrected through persuasive methods as opposed to punitive measures.

Structural Functionalism posits that criminal behaviour plays a beneficial role in society by uniting different segments of the population within a given society. This is because deviance helps delineate boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, thereby reinforcing cultural values and norms.

The Social Strain Theory suggests that criminal behaviour can be categorised based on a person's motivations or commitment to cultural goals, as well as their beliefs regarding how to achieve those objectives. The primary types of social deviance include ritualism, innovation, rebellion, retreatism, and conformity. This theory also proposes that individuals may engage in deviant behaviour while pursuing accepted social values and goals.

Social Conflict Theory views deviant behaviour as a consequence of material inequality between different socio-political groups, which may be delineated by factors such as gender, religion, race, class, and so forth. From this perspective, individuals often act in defiance of social norms as a means to express grievances.[12]

Multiple Factor Theory, on the other hand, while explaining causation of crime contemplates that crime is a product of a great variety of factors which cannot be reduced into general propositions. The central idea of this theory is that no specific theory of criminal behaviour is ever possible since crimes are committed due to the combination of several factors or circumstances.

The Multiple Factor Theory has been criticised on the ground that the theory confuses 'factors' with 'causes' of crime. It is erroneous to find causes of crime in the factors because the latter can be readily eliminated without changing the social environment.

Modern criminology deems the distinction between criminals and non-criminals as put forward by the traditional schools of criminology is the result of an erroneous belief that certain offenders can be classified as 'criminal types'. Contemporary criminologists, on the other hand, associate criminality with a specific social category that has experienced significant disparities in terms of social classes, personal wealth, private property, social influence, and opportunities in life. The attribution of criminal behaviour to social deviance has been widely acknowledged in modern criminology.

There has been a paradigm shift 'born criminal' concept of crime causation to acknowledging the impact of social, cultural and various other factors as cause of crime. Much emphasis is laid on Multiple Causation Theory as crime is considered a social phenomenon. Efforts are being made to restructure the existing social arrangements and eradicate the social anomalies so as to eliminate crime from society. The criminal justice system is now in favour of the reformative approach that aims at transformation of the offender, providing them an opportunity to make amends and repair his relationship and social standing within the society.

  1. Jeffrey R. Wilson, 'The Word Criminology: A Philology and a Definition' (2015) 16(3) Debalina%20Roy/Downloads/405-the-word-criminology-a-philology-and-a-definition.pdf accessed 1 January 2023.
  2. Thomas J. Bernard and Hermann Mannheim, 'Criminology' (Britannica, 28 November 2023) accessed 26 December 2023.
  3. Asmi Chahal, 'Schools Of Criminology: Pre-Classical, Classical School' (Le Droit India, 6 March 2023) accessed 1 January 2023.
  4. 'Classical: pain-pleasure decisions' (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, May 2018) accessed 1 January 2023.
  5. Nikita Rai, 'Neo-Classical School of Criminology and Its Development' (The Law Communicants, 10 March 2023) accessed 1 January 2023.
  6. 'What is Positivism in Criminology?' (The Chicago School Insight, 2 July 2021) accessed 1 January 2023.
  7. Charles A Ellwood, 'Lombroso 's Theory of Crime' (1912) 2(5) Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology accessed 1 January 2023.
  8. Diana Bretherick, 'The 'born criminal'? Lombroso and the origins of modern criminology' (History Extra, 14 February 2019) accessed 1 January 2023.
  9. Robert Agnew, 'Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency' 1992 30(1) Criminology accessed 1 January 2023.
  10. Adam J Mckee, 'Positivist School | Definition' (Doc's CJ Glossary, 13 March 2023) accessed 1 January 2023.
  11. 'Major Criminology Theories and How They Affect Policy' (Kent State Online, 31 October 2023) accessed 1 January 2023.
  12. 'Sociological Theories of Crime & Deviance' (National University, 14 December 2022) accessed 1 January 2023.

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