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Broad discussion of positivist criminology.

Positivism is the branch of social science that uses the scientific method of the natural
sciences and suggests that human behavior is a product of social, biological,
psychological, or economic forces.

Positivist criminology is aimed towards elimination oI crime through the systematic
application oI scientiIic methods.
Investigations are based on legal terms and related statistics and an attempt is made to
discover law-like generalities.
It propounds the philosophical doctrine oI determinism, (Iactors beyond the control oI the
individual determine their behaviour). This is at odds with Classical criminology which
holds intelligence and rationality as the Iundamentals oI human behaviour.
It shiIted the interest oI criminology Irom the crime to the criminal.
The positivist line oI thinking is presents in various other academic Iields, such as
psychology, sociology and philosophy.
The original positivist criminologists Iocused on biological Iactors, whereas more modern
ones tend to concentrate on psychological and social Iactors in an attempt to Iind the root
causes oI crime.
Its domination during the 20
century reIlects both the development oI science at the time
and the perceived crisis in classical criminology.

The Ioundation oI the positivist school oI criminology or the predestined actor model has
been attributed to various criminologists. However, it is their combined work that has led to
what we now know as positivist criminology, it would seem to be a standing on the
shoulders oI giants` theory.
uerry He published what Morris believed to be the Iirst work in 'scientific criminology`
when he showed through statistical analysis that poverty and lack oI education did not cause
crime in itselI.
"uetelet He concerned himselI with 'social mechanics`, that is the scientiIic analysis oI
social data.
'Society prepares the crime, and the guilty are only the instruments by which it is executed`.
ombroso He proposed that criminals were eIIectively biological throwbacks to an earlier
evolutionary stage.
Claimed there were 3 major classes oI criminals:
O orn Criminals
O Insane Criminals
O Criminaloids (majority)
y the time oI his death it was evident that his theories were 'too simple and naive (V$)

Biological Theories
Modern biological theories in positivist criminology do not argue Ior biological determinism,
instead they claim that certain biological characteristics increase the probability oI engaging
in criminal behaviour.
As well as this many oI these theories Iocus on the interaction between biological
characteristics and the social environment.
The earliest 'scientiIic studies examining human behavior now seem quaint and primitive,
however they played a crucial role in the development oI modern positivist criminology.
Physical Appearance:
Physiognomy Iace
Phrenology shape oI the skull
Lombroso was a great advocate oI studying the anatomical Ieatures oI the body an attempting
to link it with criminality.
The study by Goring(1913) concluded that there was no such thing as a physical criminal
However, body type theorists believe that there is a high degree oI correspondence between
the body and temperament, Ior example height and weight.

amily Studies:
This is based on the common sense observation that children tend to resemble their parents.
However, it is very diIIicult to know whether criminal resemblances stem Irom common
hereditary or environmental Iactors.
$tudies attempting to address a hereditary basis Ior crime Iound it impossible to disentangle
the eIIects oI nature (genes) and nurture (environment).
oth Grove and Christiansen studied twins who were reared apart. They Iound evidence that
antisocial behaviour can be inherited however only a small number oI twins were used.
Walters assessed a large number oI studies and concluded that they showed evidence Ior a
hereditary basis Ior criminality.
Another way oI researching is the study oI adoptees. Hutchings and Medrick Iound that
adopted boys are more likely to commit crime when their Iathers had a criminal record.
Two limitations to adoptive studies:
1. Adoptive parents tend to have a lower rate oI criminal behaviour than the general
2. Many studies look at property oIIences but not violent oIIences. It is easier to Iind
links with property oIIences as they are more Irequent.
Even iI genetics play a role in crime, that role clearly doesn`t involve just one crime gene.
Rather, a person may be genetically predisposed in varying degrees to certain activities or
emotions, such as anxiety, aggressiveness, or even learning impairments, all oI which can
play a part in a person`s decision to commit crime.
$ome people theorise that criminals can be created through a process oI evolution, that is that
the most aggressive males in society are more likely to mate and thereIore have more

Neurotransmitters and Hormones:
These are chemicals that allow Ior the transmission oI electrical impulses, they are the basis
Ior the brains processing oI inIormation.
$ome studies tentatively suggest that levels oI 3 neurotransmitters may be linked with anti-
social behaviour.
1. $erotonin
2. Dopamine
3. Norepinephrine
Neurotransmitters are initially determined by genetics but can be altered by changes in the
environment (e.g. diet or stress) and can also be manipulated by drugs.
The role oI the hormone testosterone in the aggressiveness oI many animal species has been
well documented, but humans?

In Paul C. ernhardt`s publication nfluences of Serotonin and Testosterone in

Aggression and Dominance: Convergence with Social Psychology` he argues that when an
individuals have a high level oI testosterone they are more likely to seek dominance, and
when this is combined with the presence oI a low level oI serotonin, this 'increases
likelihood of aggressive behaviour`. He backs up this theory using studies done by others.
O Certain types oI aggressive behaviour may cause an increase in the levels oI
O Individuals may have normal levels oI testosterone but may respond to certain
situations with increased levels.

Nervous System:
The central nervous system consists oI neurons and systems that exist within the brain and
the spinal cord.
It is now possible to measure brain abnormalities with EEG and MRI.
There is a general hypothesis that:
Frontal lobe dysIunction violent behaviour
Temporal lobe dysIunction sexual oIIending.
The automatic nervous system controls the body`s involuntary Iunctions such as hormone
levels. This is especially active in a Iight or Ilight` situation.
Mendrick`s argument is that anti-social individuals may be more diIIicult to condition than
O Pavlov dog/bell experiment.
O A Clockwork Orange.

Environmentally induced biological components of behaviour:
Alcohol may have a biological association with violence however the reasons Ior this are
unclear. Also opiates, cocaine and steroids.
$everal studies have Iound a correlation between head injury and antisocial or criminal

mplications and Conclusions:
iological theories are part oI a multiple Iactor` approach that is that the Iactors generate
criminal behaviour when mixed with social or psychological Iactors.
The emerging synthesis oI perspectives oI biological and social criminologists will ultimately
beneIit biological criminology as extreme biological views oIten conjure images oI
Psychological Theories

This topic examines theories that explain criminal behaviour primarily in terms oI the
psychology and enduring personality characteristics oI the individual.
The most common is low intelligence.
$tupid people were once viewed in a spiritualistic manner, but that swayed to a naturalistic
" Tests and Criminal Behaviour:
In the order Ior the above to satisIy scientiIic judgment some sort oI numerical intelligent test
was needed.
Originally these tests were designed to identiIy slower students and help them.
As a result oI various studies, the idea oI Ieeblemindedness largely disappeared as a basis Ior
explaining criminal behaviour.
AIrican Americans score on average 15 points lower than European Americans in IQ tests.
Does this explain the diIIerence in delinquency between the two races?
O Doe IQ tests measure intelligence?
O Is it culturally biased?
O Is it a genetic or environmental inIluence?
It is clear that low IQ scores are associated with crime and delinquency, irrespective oI what
it actually measures.
The most common approach is that IQ measures some Iorm oI abstract reasoning or problem
solving ability and that it is largely inherited.
However as Mercer`s study demonstrates an aspect oI cultural bias certainly seems to exist.
There is also an argument that IQ measures general ability which is in turn largely
determined by environment.
Most researches do not think that low intelligence is directly linked to delinquency, rather
that there are intervening Iactors actually causing it.
II IQ measures intelligence then in order to help the issue, straightIorward steps would need
to be taken in schools, analogous to special needs.
It is important to note that IQ tests probably do not measure overall intelligence and as such
probably reIlect environmental Iactors.
Personality and Criminal Behaviour:
A personality is the complex set oI emotional and behavioural attributes that tend to remain
relatively constant.
DiIIerences in personality tests do not have any theoretical relevance to understanding the
causes oI criminal behaviour.
Antisocial personality disorder consists oI a persuasive pattern oI disregard Ior, and violation
oI, the rights oI others.
However, various researchers such as Cleckley point out that the majority oI psychopaths are
not criminals and vice versa.
The search Ior a general personality type which can be considered a cause oI crime and
violence has eIIectively come to an end.
$ome researchers are oI the opinion that the key personality Ieature associated with antisocial
behaviour is impulsivity.
Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) stated that criminality stems Irom a tendency to think in short
term consequences. This is generally associated with impulsivity and low intelligence.
V$ hold the view that the best candidate in the personality inventory would be impulsivity
and that at the present time it would be best to ignore the results Irom the majority oI
personality studies.
In conclusion, to understand the behaviour oI most criminals and delinquents, it may be more
proIitable to start by analysing the situations people Iind themselves in rather than their
psychological characteristics.

Social Theories
Rather than biological or psychological causes, this branch oI the positivist criminology
school oI thinking identiIies society` as the cause.
A great proponent oI this line oI thinking was Durkheim. He identiIied society as a social
phenomenon, external to individuals, with crime a normal part oI a healthy society.
As he said, crime is normal as '.a society exempt Irom it is utterly impossible.
One oI the oldest theories in this line oI thinking which did not Iocus on the individual was
that oI economic diIIerence.
There has been an enormous amount oI research done on crime and economic conditions over
the last 200 years, however many oI the results oI these studies are oIten inconsistent with
each other.
Economic downturns have been Iound not to be associated with an increase in crime, in Iact
some studies have Iound that crime decreases in depressions and recessions.
Again, the studies concerning the relationship between unemployment and crime are equally
This is especially important in today`s world as Irelands unemployment stands at an
estimated 14.3 as oI $eptember 2011.
There are many diIIiculties with interpreting reseach on crime and economic conditions.
1. Poverty is in part a subjective condition. The variation in the deIinitions oI poverty
have led to contradicting results.
2. $peciIying the amount oI time beIore economic conditions eIIect crime is diIIicult.
3. There is also a problem oI determining the size oI the unit that economic conditions
4. There are issues in determining which Iactors in economically weak areas actually
aIIect crime. High unemployment tends to be mangled together with high divorce
rates, high population density, poor schools.
5. The Iinal problem concerns adequately distinguishing between the two distinct
concepts oI poverty and economic inequality. One oI the most consistent Iindings in
criminology is the connection between economic inequality and violent crimes, such
as homicide. V$

There is a reasonable strong case to be made that economic inequality in a society has a
causal impact in the level oI violence in that society. This would suggest that reducing this
gap would result in a reduction in the amount oI violence.
This is supported by recent experience in the united states where in the 1990s when economic
inequality decreased, so did crime. lumstein and RosenIeld.
At the neighbourhood level at least it would seem that there is a link between unemployment
and crime/delinquency.
From World War 2 to the massacre oI Nanking in the 1930`s, it is clear that humans have the
capacity Ior unimaginable evil. There is strong evidence to suggest that although social
Iactors such as poverty and unemployment are hard to attribute to the causes oI crime, society
does have a very strong impact on peoples` behaviour.
In 1961, $tanley Milgram conducted one oI social positivism`s most inIamous experiments.
Its aim was to Iind out to what level people will obey commands. The results shocked
America, as 65 (26 out oI 40) administered the Iatal shock marked by an xxx`.
Another social experiment that demonstrates the role society plays in positivist criminology
was the $tanIord Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo. The results oI
this experiment were shocking and it was called oII aIter just 6 days. The guards became
immersed in their roles and subjected the prisoners to physical abuse. Even Zimbardo was
aIIected, taking his role oI superintendent beyond what it should have been.
As Zimbardo said in his book The LuciIer EIIect` (2007) 'Only a Iew were able to resist the
situational temptations to yield power and dominance while maintain some semblance oI
morality and decency.
Also, in late October 2011, the television show remote control` was aired. In this show,
Derren rown sought to Iind out iI a live audience would subject an innocent guinea-pig` to
varying levels oI cruelty. As the audience wore masks and were part oI a larger group they
allow the individual to get Iired, arrested and even kidnapped.
It is clear that the social aspect oI positivist criminology has a lot to oIIer us.


As eirne notes, positivist criminology was hopelessly unable to account Ior the new Iorms
oI social dissent which mushroomed in the 1960's, one being white collar crime. In a
constantly advancing society crimes such as this will surely increase and positivist
criminology may have trouble explaining crimes which do not Iit the traditional common
viewpoint oI crime`.
As JeIIery notes, by Iocusing attention on the criminal, and especially on the problem oI the
motivation oI criminal behavior, the Positivist ignores the problem "what is crime?"
As well as this, positivism does not seem to pay heed to the Iact that what is criminal is set by
legislation and nothing more and as laws are constantly being repealed and updates, what it
means to be criminal is never constant.
Wright notes that although biological positivism Iaded in popularity (at least until the last 15
years), psychological and especially sociological positivism have emerged to substitute
mostly environmental Iactors Ior genetic Iactors as the preIerred determinants oI criminal
Although there is clearly a lot to be gained Irom positivist criminology it also carries with it
inherent dangers, Ior example it conjures ideas oI determinism and can be used to support
eugenics, an idea which Lombroso himselI advocated. For reasons such as these it would be
wise not to allow positivist criminology to much strength in a modern society.