Positivist Criminology Essay

Criminology essay

Cesare Beccaria is known for his revolutionary role in the sphere of criminal science. He is the key thinker and initiator of the abolitionist movement who made a great contribution to criminology, mainly by introducing well grounded arguments against the death penalty that still evoke different opinions on whether it has been justified to implement such kind of punishment and whether people have a right to slaughter their fellows in such a brutal way. Back in 1764, the Italian thinker Cesare Beccaria published his writing widely known under the title On Crimes and Punishments. By writing this treatise, Beccaria aimed at arguing that there should be some proportion between crimes and punishments (Bessler, 2009). It seemed quite absurd to Beccaria that the laws, which were supposed to be the direct expression of the social acceptance, ought to allow the public murder.

Beccaria stood for the elimination of the barbarous kinds of execution arguing that they are a violation to the laws of nature. He voted for the liberty of every human being. He stated his position by saying that the death penalty cannot be perceived as a human right, but rather as the national war against citizens. The essence of his writing lies in the fact that he viewed the human life itself as a natural right calling for the abolition of the death penalty.  Thus, the contribution of Beccaria to criminology cannot be argued about, as in his philosophical writings, he expressed the strong and truly revolutionary opposition against the death penalty as a means of punishment. And his writings were the turning point for the criminal science in terms of the evolution of crime punishment. His writings attracted the attention of the public and authorities breaking the ancient views and raising a question of whether death penalty is at all justified. In order to break through the skeptical views on this matter, Beccaria expressed well grounded views against the barbaric and totally useless tortures practiced by people who claimed to be wise (Bessler, 2009).

Thus, the contribution of Cesare Beccaria to the development of criminal science should not be underestimated. Nowadays, people shudder with horror when reading about the violent tortures leading to unjustified deaths of numerous people who sometimes were severely punished without enough evidence that they were at all responsible for this or that criminal act (Carroll, 1998). The history bristles with the examples when totally innocent people have been severely executed by the authorities who used barbarous ways of punishment. In his writings, Beccaria expressed his indignity with death penalty, thus turning the whole criminal science upside down and causing a real revolution in the minds of people. Contemporary criminology perceives Cesare Beccaria as a key thinker who managed to give persuasive evidence that death penalty is not the right kind of punishment that should be applied even in case a person is to blame for severe criminal actions. Beccaria proclaimed the liberty of every human being and thus, taking away one’s life cannot be justified in any way.

Part II. The main components of positivism and its role

The notion of positivism finds its roots in the philosophy closely linked to logic, while criminology grew from the social science and became a major method of analyzing the essence of crime. Positivist movement was introduced in the late 19th century implementing a scientific approach to the criminology. Positivism evolved from biological theories emphasizing the idea of the so-called “born criminal” to the theories referring crime to psychological and social factors as the major cause of criminal action. The main component of positivism is logic that is based on three major aspects. These are biological, psychological and social ones. Positivism is all grounded on the rational approval or disapproval with scientific assertions (Barlow & Kauzlarich, 2010). Unlike other approaches to criminology, positivism aims at obtaining the objective facts and is much more concerned with revealing the meaning behind one’s actions.

One of the key components of positivism is rationalism aimed at uncovering the reasons behind behavior digging deep into the psyche of certain categories of individuals. Positivism is characterized by the replacement of ideological views with scientific ones that are all based on rational theories. Positivism tried to reveal some sort of defect inside criminally inclined individuals causing prejudice towards criminal behavior itself.

The major role of positivism is that it managed to avert the attention of criminal scientists from the classical standpoint that was widely promoted prior to the positivism movement. Here, it needs to be mentioned that classicism being first formulated by the prominent figure Cesare Beccaria was based on the idea that one’s decision to commit some kind of crime is rational assuming that all humans are by nature liable to commit crime (Comte & Lenzer, 1998). And this was the main difference of classical criminal science from positivism that viewed criminals as fundamentally different individuals biologically, sociologically, psychologically or in a certain mixture of all these three aspects.

Biological positivism was based on certain predisposition to the appearance of criminals and positivist scientists who explored this aspect created a whole description of the criminally inclined individual. Some of the positivist scientists supported the opinion that the blame should be removed from some individual criminals with biological defects on the grounds that these defects show that the individual acted without free will. Some other positivist scientists focused on the psychological and social factors as the major causes of criminal acts. The social positivists expressed an opinion that all people are to some extent affected by the environment, thus the criminal is a product of the society as it had direct influence on the criminal’s behavior. Finally, psychological positivism focused on the notions of aggression, violence, sexuality and psychopathology (Comte & Lenzer, 1998). These scientists developed the theories of personality and strongly believed that the criminal behavior should be investigated on the basis of the offender’s personal psychological traits.

Judging from the above stated facts, it can be concluded that positivism was wholly based on three main components: biological, social and psychological. All of these components form the basis of the positivist movement. In such a way, positivism surely made a great contribution to the evolution of criminal science.

Part III. The role of prisons and their effectiveness in modern American society

The role of prisons and their major functions cannot be identified without giving a definition of the notion of prison itself. It needs to be mentioned that over the past decades, the role of prisons has evolved. People tend to view prisons as correctional institutions, however, their definition changes along with the constantly changing American society (Gilling, 1997). Prisons are generally considered to be special state institutions that limit the liberty of convicted offenders for the sake of social security, but this definition seems to be no longer accurate (Lombroso, Gibson & Rafter, 2006). The philosophy concerning incarceration and its major role has changed from rehabilitation to limitation of freedom of those individuals who pose some sort of threat to the public safety and security. Today, criminalists perceive prisons’ major function as keeping offenders away from the public in order to ensure the public safety and avoid repetition of crime (MacCormick, 1950).

The justification for imprisonment lies in the fact that it reduces the crime rate within the country. And this is probably one of the most actively debated issues in modern days. Some criminal scientists argue that the increase of prison populations does not necessarily reduce criminal activity (O’Brien & Yar, 2008). Thus, it is arguable whether imprisonment leads to the decline of crime rates. Simply locking up the offenders does not guarantee the safety of common public in the streets, although to some extent it is really so. However, the essence of crime is quite complex, and that is why there is no definite answer to whether prisons are at all effective in modern society.

In fact, it should be admitted that nowadays prisons cannot be perceived as the most effective or desirable policy for ensuring social safety. In the United States, however, prisons are still used as the basic means of keeping criminals away from the public. Nonetheless, prisons have long stopped being means of either correction or rehabilitation. And thus, their effectiveness has considerably dropped. Although it is evident that prisons provide the society with some kind of protection from crime by keeping offenders away from the public for some period of time, all this does not ensure that criminal activities will extinct (Sampson & Laub, 1993). Modern American society surely seeks to protect itself against the violent acts of certain individuals, but imprisonment is hardly the most effective way to achieve this. And even extremely long sentences for some kinds of crimes or life imprisonment cannot guarantee that the American society can live in a peaceful environment without any criminal activity around. Thus, there should be found some alternative and more effective ways of preventing crimes and reducing crime rates.


To conclude, the above research investigated different aspects of criminal science. Firstly, it gave a full-fledged analysis of the contribution of Cesare Beccaria to criminology and the sociology of deviance. It needs to be said that Cesare Beccaria played a revolutionary role in the way that he was among the key thinkers who voted for the abolishment of death penalty that was customary in ancient times. He managed to reveal the essence of such kind of punishment showing that it is a violation of basic human rights. His contribution lies in the fact that he has given evidence and much justified information on the negative sides of death penalty as a direct violation of the laws of nature. Thus, his contribution to the criminal science should in no way be underestimated.

Secondly, the presented research revealed the basic features of positivism and its key components that are categorized as social, psychological and biological. All of these essential components of positivism have been fully discussed and argued about. The research also pointed out that positivism is all about rational thinking based on scientific logic. Such issue as the role of positivism for the evolution of criminal science has also been defined and investigated. Its major role implies turning from the classical school of criminology to a new and totally different one.

Thirdly, the research analyzed the role and effectiveness of prisons as means of ensuring social security within the United States. In fact, prisons have stopped being institutions of rehabilitation or punishment, but turned into the institutions that keep criminals away from common people who require safe and secure living conditions. However, it has been admitted that imprisonment does not guarantee the decline of crime rates as simply locking up the aggressive and violent individuals cannot ensure total extinction of criminal activity within the country. The above research is based on the existing investigations in the sphere of criminal science summarizing and analyzing their application to the criminology of modern days.

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Positive Criminology, an approach which attempts to explain criminal actions not as an exercise of free will or of one’s choosing, but rather as a consequence of multiple different internal and external.  Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909), an Italian criminologist views that criminals are born not made, and criminal an example of nature, not nurture. Focused on biological and psychological factors to explain criminal behavior, and studied cadavers of executed criminals in an effort to determine scientifically whether criminals were physically any different from non-criminals, he believed that people were born criminals and facial features of criminals included things like enormous jaws and strong canine teeth. “Atavism” In the 1960s, positivist criminologists argued that criminal behaviour lies in abnormal chromosomes, the XYY theory argued that violent male (genes)criminals have an abnormal XYY (super male) chromosome (XY is the normal pattern in males) The Positivist theory of criminals being born rather than made died out, and there were moral implications with this.

Classical criminology is an approach to the legal system that arose during the Enlightenment in the 1700s. Philosophers like Cesare Beccaria, John Locke, and Jeremy Bentham expanded upon social contract theory to explain why people commit crime and how societies could effectively combat crime. The concepts continue to play a large role in the legal systems of many nations today, although the approach in the modern world tends to be a bit more flexible. It is important to understand the context in which classical criminology was developed. During the Enlightenment, Europe was changing radically, with many nations emerging from feudal monarchies and radically reforming their laws. Across Europe, the law was wildly inconsistent and applied even more inconsistently. Judges and other legal officials often lacked extensive training, and prescribed punishments totally out of proportion to some crimes while ignoring others.

Many people recognized the need for a more uniform and effective justice system, and this approach was the result. According to the theorists, human beings are self-interested animals, but they are also extremely rational. While people will tend to do things that are in their own self interest, they also understand that some actions actually conflict with this, and many societies develop a social contract that dictates human behavior, with humans mutually agreeing to refrain from activities that hurt each other or society. People also have free will, which means that they can opt to violate the social contract. For example, someone might steal or murder to accomplish a self-interested goal. By having consistent punishments in place that are proportional to the crime and applied rapidly, classical criminologists argue, the legal system will create deterrents to crime.

Rather than committing a crime with a degree of uncertainty about the punishment, people in a nation with a clear and concise legal system will be well aware of the consequences of violating the law and the social contract, and they may think twice before committing crime. One of the big problems with classical criminology is that it does not allow for extenuating circumstances. Someone who robs a business for profit is treated exactly the same as someone who robs a business in order to eat, and some people feel that this is inhumane. Others feel that the assumption of free will is also somewhat questionable, as people may be forced into making decisions as a result of their circumstances or socioeconomic class.

Sociological criminology is the largest number of criminological theories have been developed through sociological inquiry. These theories have generally asserted that criminal behavior is a normal response of biologically and psychologically normal individuals to particular kinds of social circumstances. Examples of these approaches include the theory of differential association, which claims that all criminal behavior is learned and that the learning process is influenced by the extent of the individual’s contact with persons who commit crimes. The more an individual associates with such persons, the more likely it becomes that he will learn and adopt criminal values and behaviors.  Sociological criminology include the following theories;

Social Disorganization(Chicago School) is identified with neighborhood studies of crime and delinquency that focus particularly on the spatial patterns of such behavior, especially as reflected in maps of their spatial distributions. It assumes crime as a product of geopolitical environmental, or call as urban ecology(by Park and Burgess). The rapid social changes (e.g. population growth, rapid immigration or migration) causes the breakdown of normative structure or community, the left-alone youngsters becomes the delinquent subcultures, the crime is the transitional neighborhoods that manifest social disorganization and value conflict. And the urban ecology urban cities can be compartmentalize in five zones, from centre to outside are 1.Central Business District; 2.Transitional Zone; 3.Working Class Zone; 4.Residental Zone and 5.Commuter Zone, and the crime and social problems are usually happened in Zone 2, which is contained many recent immigrant groups, deteriorated housing, factories and abandoned buildings. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2)

Strain Theory is a sociological theory that tries to explain why people may be drawn to delinquency or crime. According to the theory, some crime may be linked to the presence of anger and frustration that is created by societal or personal strain. When a person cannot legitimately achieve the accepted goals of a society, he or she may turn to illicit means to create success. Three of the fundamental goals that contribute to strain-related crime are the pursuit of wealth, achievement of status and respect, and the need for autonomy. Sometimes is known as “American Dream”. Peoples see crime as a function of relative deprivation, and the theory assumes that the social structure as the source of crime. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2) Subculture Theory is that human behavior is learned via social interaction, most of the delinquency/ crime is learnt by exposing to anti-social definitions or becoming part of a group were delinquency is already established. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2)

Drift Theory is telling that human beings will look crime in conformist, give excuse to make the crime become reasonable and not as an illegal action, individual drift in/ out of delinquency by ‘neutralization'(e.g. denial). (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2) Social Control Theories tells that there is a non-pathological relationship between a criminal and a non-criminal, delinquent act due to a weak or the broken of ‘social bond’ (attachment, commitment, involvement, belief) to conventional significant reference groups (e.g. family, school) causes the less reluctant to commit crime. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2) Labeling Theory assumes that individuals would be influenced by stigmatization, crime/ deviance as a result of labeling / stereotyping, a Primary deviance (yet to be labeled) will be reinforced by limited opportunities and ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy, and then to become a Secondary deviance (subsequent behavior according to the lable given). (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2) Critical Criminology is telling that the source of conflicts inside the society is the political interest and inequality (capitalist vs working class), base on this assumption, the criminal law seems only a protection of the dominance, and the crime defined by the powerful. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2)

Environmental Criminology is including four main theories which are Jane Jacobs’s compartmentalization; Oscar Newman’s defensible space; Rational Choice Theory(RCT) and Routine Activity Theory(RAT). Jane Jacobs’s Compartmentalization is a modern design change lead to breakdown of social control hence lead to crime, compartmentalization of urban space into different zones lead to breakdown of social control (e.g. insufficient social interaction, unattended areas )hence lead to crime, the application of compartmentalization theory is to change the land use,(e.g. mixing land use) , or increase security for unattended areas. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2) Oscar Newman’s defensible space is similarly to Jane Jacobs’s theory, but focus more on building design or location, for example on these main points:

1.Territoriality, 2.Surveillance, 3.Image, 4.Envirnment, the theory thinks that the factors of the high crime rate is because anonymous open public space, many corridors and exits, insufficient lighting, location next to ‘bad areas’, etc, which is a bad design in the building or locations. To solve these problems , Oscar Newman suggest a thinking is call Crime prevention through environmental design(CPTED). (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2) Rational Choice Theory(RCT) emphasize the crime ‘opportunity’, offenders which is rationally weigh information on their personal needs and situational factors involved in the difficult and risk of committing a crime which is gain greater than lose. It will become easier to reduce crime by increase the risk of the offenders and reduce the opportunity of the offenders to commit crime. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2) Routine Activity Theory(RAT) emphasize social context, it thinks that crime is a function of 1.motivated offender, 2.availability of suitable target and 3.absence of capable guardians. In this theory, assumed that motivated offender can not be change, we have to reduce availability of suitable target and increase security measures to reduce crime. (OUHK, 2013, tutorial 2, unit 2)

As a result, Environmental Criminology is the most practical approach to the security manager, consider the Positive Criminology is the theory that criminals are born, and which their biological problems makes them to commit crime, a security manager can not control the customers biological problems and how they are born, so this Positive Criminology is not a suitable approach a security manager to use; the Classical Perspective suggested that the greater punishment issue, the less crime will be, but as a security manager, when they detected crime happen, they can only refer the crime to the legal system and the security manager do not have to right to issue any punishment to the criminals; the Sociological Criminology is telling that criminals are infect by the social structure, economic, social interactions, which are the factors that a security manager can not control any of them, the Environmental Criminology suggested that Crime prevention through environmental design(CPTED), which a security manager can change the design of a shop furnishings, or a plaza settings that can reduce availability of suitable target in the shop or plaza and increase security measures inside to reduce crime happen in a security manager control area.

References List

The Open University of Hong Kong (2013). LESM A204 tutorial 2 Criminology for the security manager (unit 2). Hong Kong :OUHK http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/143163/criminology/272204/Sociological-theories http://psychologydictionary.org/positivist-criminology/

http://sociologycriminology.wordpress.com/positive-theory-positivism/ http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-classical-criminology.htm

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