Contribution of Positivist Criminology Essay

The development of criminology was accompanied by the creation of various theories that targeted at the explanation of causes of crimes and behaviour of criminals. At the same time there was no universal criminology theory which could adequately explain causes of crime and be persuasive enough for all specialists. Nonetheless, it is necessary to underline that in the course of time criminology theories progressed and grew more and more complicated. Unfortunately, the same trend was typical for crimes. This is why the use of new approaches and theories in criminology became inevitable. In such a situation, the scientific development along with the progress of criminology resulted in the creation of a new theory which was known as the positivist theory which became extremely popular and is still relevant and highly appreciated by many criminologists. To a significant extent, such popularity of the positivist theory could be explained by its innovative character since this was the first criminological theory that applied a really scientific approach to the interpretation of crime, its causes and attempted to explain from a scientific point of view the behaviour of criminals and their motives.

Sociological positivism and causes of crime

Speaking about positivist theory, it is primarily necessary to point out that there existed different movements within positivist school, among which sociological and individual positivism may be singled out as the most substantial and popular ones. In fact, sociological and individual positivism are quite different but the trend to use scientific approach is a uniting factor that makes them really similar to each other to the extent that they are united in a common theory.

Taking into consideration the attention positivist paid to science, it is necessary to say that they used the latest scientific discoveries and achievement as a source of inspiration for the development of a new and unique criminology theory known as positivism. In this respect, it should be said that the recent discoveries in biology, social and other sciences contributed to the rapid progress of positivism.

As for sociological positivism, it should be said that this sort of positivism was significantly influenced by works of socialist philosophers and writers whose ideas was adapted to criminological science. To put it more precisely, sociological positivists, such as Emile Durkheim, who, by the way, is considered to be the father of sociological positivism, stood on the ground that the major causes of crime are socio-economic and that people commit crimes under the impact of external social factors.

In actuality, one of the basic ideas of sociological positivists was the belief that individuals and their behaviour are dramatically influenced by their social environment that is responsible for the formation of individual and their further behaviour. As a result, positivists estimated that the poor social and economic conditions of life can contribute to the high rates of crimes committed in certain area. It should be said that sociological positivists believed that individuals are practically forced to commit crimes by different circumstances that was not directly related to their own personality.

In this respect, it should be said that positivists named poverty as one of the major causes of crimes. According to their views, people, being in a desperate economic position, was forced to commit crime simply to survive. At this point it is possible to refer to Darwin’s theory which apparently influenced positivism, at large, and sociological positivism, in particular. In such a way, the natural competition and struggle for the survival was natural processes and, thus, crimes were caused by natural or, to put it more precisely, by socio-economic factors that were a constituent part of the social life. Consequently, it was possible to presuppose that it was not only a criminal who was responsible for a crime but the entire society as well since poverty, for instance, is not a problem of an individual but the problem of the entire society.

Among other causes of crimes positivists named low level of education which, as they believed, was also quite significant since low level of education deprived people of better job opportunities, their cultural level was low and so were their moral and ethical views. As a result, people with low level of education were more exposed to the risk of becoming criminals than people with higher education.

At the same time, sociological positivist paid a lot of attention to socio-cultural background of individuals. To put it more precisely, they stood on the ground that the membership of people in some subcultures could lead them to the deviant behaviour sine, if an individual lived or communicated with representative of a criminal subculture, i.e. he communicated with criminals or people characterized by anti-social behaviour, than he/she would more likely to commit crimes than an individual that belonged to upper classes, for instance.

In fact, the list of causes of crimes from the point of view of sociological criminologists may be continued but the main thing that should be said is the idea that people commits crimes under the impact of their social environment and socio-economic factors.

Individual positivism and causes of crime

Individual positivists developed quite a different view on causes of crime and criminology at large but it was not absolutely different views since, similarly to sociological positivists, they attempted to develop their theoretical concepts on some scientific concepts. In this respect, it should be pointed out that some of representatives of this movement within the positivist developed quite original and unique ideas which attempted to develop some system that could help to identify a criminal in the society or, at least, find the features, which were typical for people who were predisposed to committing crimes.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that, unlike sociological positivist, who mainly focused their attention on the external social, economic or cultural impacts of an individual’s environment, individual positivists paid more attention to the personality of a criminal, his/her internal inclination, heritage, character, etc.

In this respect, it is worthy to refer to the work of Cesare Lombroso, who developed his own ideas concerning the causes of crime and features of a typical criminal. In fact, this prison doctor developed a concept, according to which the physiological traits such as the measurements of an individual’s cheek bones or hairline, or a cleft palate, considered to be throwbacks to Neanderthal man and were ”˜indicative’ to atavistic criminal tendencies. Obviously, at this point it is also possible to trace the influence of Darwinism on the development of criminological science, at large, and on positivist theory, in particular. In such a way, Lombroso viewed criminals as a kind of under-developed people whose crimes were caused by their low level of development and negative features inherited from their ancestors.

Furthermore, it should be said that there were also quite interesting ideas of the supporters of individual positivism which explained the origin of crime by causes related to the personality of a criminal. For instance, Hans J. Eysenck focused his attention on the character of criminals and their psychology. This researcher believed that the individual psychology and character may play crucial role in the tendency of people to commit crime. To put it more precisely, he insisted that extraversion and neurocetnrism were among the major factors that increased the risk of the deviant behaviour dramatically.

In such a way, individual positivists emphasized that the causes of crime could be found in the personality of a criminal and, similarly to sociological positivist, they attempted to scientifically justify the causes of crime.

Critical evaluation of positivism’s contribution in criminology

In fact, it is possible to argue whether positivist theory was correct or not, whether positivists defined causes of crimes correctly or not, but it is not really important because the positivist theory, regardless some internal contradictions that existed between sociological and individual positivism, made the great contribution in the general development of criminology. Moreover, it is possible to estimate that positivism was practically the first theory which created certain scientific basis of criminology and contributed to the formation of criminology as science.

Naturally, nowadays, the views of positivists seem to be quite arguable, ridiculous and unjust. For instance, it is practically unimaginable that Lombroso views could be accepted in the modern criminological science since they are apparently racist in principle. On the other hand, the views of sociological positivists, even though they may be not so offensive as the views of individual positivists, are also quite arguable. In this respect, it should be said that sociological positivists, obviously, overestimated the role of the social environment and its impact on the individual making socio-economic and cultural factors the major causes of crime.

In actuality, on a profound reflection, it is possible to state that individual and sociological positivism represents two different but equally extreme positions. What is meant here is the fact that it is hardly possible to view a crime as an act committed under the impact of one group of causes either postulated by sociological or individual positivists but it is a much more complicated phenomenon. In other words, it is hardly possible to state that people commit crimes only under the influence of socio-economic factors or under the impact of their character or some inherited tendencies. In all probability, it is necessary to find a more moderate explanation of causes of crime since sociological positivists could hardly explain the crimes which are not related to material sphere, i.e. which are not determined by material factors such as a desire to get money, while individual positivist cannot explain crimes by unique features of an individual, when an individual commits a crime under the impact of some external circumstances, such as illness of a close relative that forces an individual to steal money for instance. In such a situation, it should be said that the real causes of crime should rather be found in the combination of socio-economic factors and individual characteristics of a criminal.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that positivism has made a substantial contribution in the development of criminology as a science and, what is more, it was the first criminological theory that attempted to explain crime and its causes from purely scientific point of view. Regardless the variety of views within positivist movement, this theory permitted to develop a qualitatively new approach to the analysis of crime and its causes.

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