An overview of the positivist school of criminology

Born in 19th century Europe, the Positivist School of Criminology gained popularity during the Enlightenment or Age of Reason. This school of thought represented a shift from abstract thinking to rationalism. Classical criminology viewed people as rational beings with free will, implying that they chose to commit crimes. It also believed that punishment could be used as a deterrent to criminal activity. On the other end of the spectrum, positivist criminology, a product of the scientific age, rejects the idea that men are rational beings with free will. Instead, theorists of this school of thought lean toward determinism which views the cause of crime as factors lying outside of the offender’s control. Rather than using punishment as a method of crime control, positivism relies on identification and treatment of a problem to control crime.

Learn more about difference between free will and determinism.

Early positivists

Among the early figures of positivist criminology were Cesare Lombroso and Charles Darwin. Darwin influenced positivism with his theory of biological evolution. According to the writings of Darwin, humans were the end result of a long evolutionary process governed by natural selection and survival of the fittest. Lombroso incorporated some of the elements of Darwin’s work into his own work. He coined the term atavism which describes criminality as the product of primitive urges that survived the evolutionary process.

The term positivism was born in the writings of Auguste Comte who, in his work A System of Positive Polity (1851) suggested the use of the scientific method to study society. Comte posited that by using the scientific method, patterns of social behavior can be identified. Once these patterns are determined, environmental changes can be used to deter crime.

Positivism and criminal behavior

Because biological, social and psychological factors influence criminal behavior the offender’s role in these undesirable behaviors is lessened. By examining the offender’s environment, these factors can be eliminated thereby removing criminal behaviors.

According to the ethics of Positivism, punishment for criminal behavior should be be based on the circumstances of the crime rather than the crime itself. To do this, the underlying factors need to be addressed and changed. When it comes to dealing with crime, rehabilitation is an invaluable tool. Rather than using a ¨one size fits all¨ method of punishment for a specific crime, each crime needs to be examined and dealt with on an individual basis.

Although critics argue that positivist criminology is less objective and deals more with social factors than scientific facts, many of its ideas such as reporting of crime statistics are still used in today’s society. When it comes to explaining criminal behavior and predicting future crime patterns, measurement and quantification are very important tools. This involves, among other things, taking a closer look at crime statistics within a community.