Criminological schools of thought: An overview of the Positivist School

Dating to the 19th century, the Positivist School of criminology was born of the scientific age, and replaced the Classical School of thought. The Classical School relied on social philosophy and meted out punishment based on the crime committed as a deterrent to criminal behavior. Positivism sought to replace the ethics of the Classical School with hard facts, arrived at by the scientific method of studying a problem.

Influence of Darwin

In the beginning, this new school was influenced in part by the findings of Charles Darwin. Darwin, of course, is most famous for his theory of evolution, and his writing on the study of humans as “the same general kind of creatures as the rest of the animals, except that they were more highly evolved or developed,” came to play a role in the study of criminals and their behavior.

This new school of thought, evolving from the Classical School of criminology, was based on scientific principles and the belief that, in Darwin’s words, human “conduct was influenced, if not determined, by biological and cultural antecedents” and not just self-determined behaviors.

Influence of Comte

Positivism relies heavily on the scientific method, known to every school-age child as the method that relies on asking questions and testing hypotheses in order to determine the truth. In the case of this school of criminology, an early and important figure was August Comte, who posited that man used three phases of learning, with positivism being the most scientific, or advanced, state of knowledge.

In this elevated stage of discovery, Comte suggested, using the scientific method, man can determine patterns among social behavior that allows scientists to discover consistencies in criminal behavior and, in an effort to remedy crime, to assert control over the environment that produced such criminals.

Applying Positivism to criminal behavior

Applying positivism to the study of crime and criminals led scientists to believe that criminals are not acting with completely free will. Rather, factors related to psychology, social setting and biology all come to bear upon the criminal’s actions and behavior.

As a result of this positivist thinking, the criminal’s role in committing a crime is lessened, and eliminating this undesirable behavior relies on eliminating the factors influencing the criminal, rather than seeking out the greatest punishment.

Determining why a crime occurs in the first place, within the Positivist School of criminology, might mean examining the rate of poverty, probing dietary behaviors, implementing psychiatric testing or investigating educational levels of the criminal’s environment, among other factors.

Under the framework of the Positivist School of criminology, a fair system of justice should mete out punishment not based on the crime committed, but rather on the circumstances of the criminal. To eliminate crime, social and psychological factors need to be addressed and changed. To deal effectively with criminals, rehabilitation is seen to be a more valuable tool than punishment, and each case needs to be individualized rather than implementing a strict measure of punishment for each crime.

Measurement and quantification

The Positivist School of criminology relies heavily on crime statistics and quantifying the elements of society brought to bear on its perpetrators. From determining testosterone levels in criminals to examining local crime statistics in a community, explaining the behavior of criminals and predicting future problems can be achieved through quantification and scientific methods.

Elements of this Positivist School of criminology linger to the present day. While some ideas have been abandoned (such as phrenology, the study of the brain and skull), others continue to have value for criminologists. Regular reporting of crime statistics is a present-day phenomenon most citizens take for granted, but is, in fact, one modern-day result of this early school of thought.