Examine classical and positivist schools of criminological thought and explore their influence on the modern criminal justice system. Why do you think these schools of thought were so influential throughout the twentieth century? In your answer you should explain the central tenets of each theory and their long-term impact on the justice system and understandings of crime and offenders.
This essay will discuss the historical and contemporary influences of the theories of classicism and positivism have had on modern day practice in justice systems, and how they attempt to explain crime. By comparing and contrasting these ideologies, the essay will discuss their strengths and weaknesses of these theories, and conclude on how each has approached criminal behavior from different perspectives.
Positivism theory is made up of three different categories; sociological, psychological and biological. In short, the theory maintains that individuals always behave in a predetermined way. Positivism has contributed greatly to the explanation of why criminals behave in such a way, and makes a link between such behavior and abnormalities in the person. The psychological and biological approaches would contend that crime is an abnormal behavior.
Biological positivism draws a relationship between the physical characteristics of a person and criminal behavior. It particularly suggests that certain biological traits would tend to increase the likelihood that an individual would engage in certain anti-social behaviors, for example violence. This stance would suggest that people are not self-determining individuals but their behavior is dictated by their biological make-up.
Furthermore, it would imply that a person’s traits are inherited, and that criminals are born from criminal families. Positivist theory has led to a an emphasis being put on social factors, leading tot the growth of social sciences such as criminology. It strongly suggests that that the cause of a particular crime can be corrected once it has been identified. Positivists believe that an under socialisation in addition to inconsistent social interactions, which can be affected by things like family background, can be held accountable.
Positivist theory is built upon the basis that society is a meritocracy, in contrast to classical theory, which contends that social order is a contract of sorts. Positivism suggests that a Judge would view a case from a scientific and social viewpoint, favoring rehabilitation treatments as opposed to punishment. An example of this today would be the use community projects and youth clubs, as well as interventionist polices. This ties in with Classicism theory, as it suggests that the rationality and intelligence of an individual are fundamental human characteristics, which would explain their behavior. Taking this into account, Classicism implies that people act in light of promoting their own personal interests.
The classic school of ideologies on criminal justice came to light at a time during which it was widely believed that criminals were under the influence, or “possessed”, by daemonic forces which encouraged the criminal to commit strange acts. Classicism theorists introduced the notion of free will of sanity and choice, which challenged the old school of thought.
In nutshell, Classism is the idea that crime is a result of an individual’s free choice, of whom would have assessed the potential benefits of committing that act, against the potential costs involved. Furthermore, Classicism infers that special circumstances and excuses are not plausible, as a person is fully in control and held responsible for their own actions. Elaborating on this school of thought, Classicism concludes that a criminal is not predetermined to commit a particular act, but is able to make rational calculations of the pros and cons prior to committing an offense.
Therefore, crimes are an viewed as the final outcome to to a rational decision. Classicism stresses the importance of the notion of free will in its school of criminological thought, and that people are not merely observers of their own life “along for the ride”, as Positivism does imply. Classicism claims that the individual makes the choice to engage in an act in which would serve their best interests. There are some criticisms to this theory. The classical approach does not allow the prospect of the offenders to rehabilitate, as the resulting punishment would have to fit the criminal himself, rather than the actual crime committed.
One must observe that different people have their own individual circumstances and requirements throughout their lives. Classicism does not hold an interest in the criminal other than the crime itself that they have committed, and holds them fully accountable for their own choices and decisions. It does not consider their social circumstances and how they would influence their actions.
Classicism theory infers that a person wishes to act on pleasure and avoid pain; hedonistic in a sense. This assumes that a potential offender will refrain from committing a criminal act if the pain is greater than the pleasure experienced. This idea seems very harsh, as it assumes that a penalty must be much greater than the crime itself. By adopting this stance, a crime and a criminal are treated and punished in unison; with little to no consideration for understanding the reasoning behind an offense and why it was committed. The “New Deviancy Theory”, or the theory of Social constructionism, came to light in the 1960s and 70s as a response to a society which was dominated by positivist thought of criminology. To reiterate; a crime is the result of the person, and their social and physical conditions. A social constructionist would believe in the notion of free will.
Social constructionism revolves around the idea that people tend to constantly create their own ideas and values. In our society, certain groups tend to dominate and impose their values upon the masses, condemning and labelling those whom break their rules as “criminals” and “deviants”. These groups are known as “the bureaucracy”. When an individual experiments in different behaviors, or even changes and evolves with differing values, are easily labelled by authorities. They are coined with terms such as the “drug addict”, or the “alcoholic”, or the “thief”. According to social constructionism, a crime is dependent on two things;the act of a person or a group, and secondly, a different individual or group with opposing values labeling their activity as ‘criminal’ or ‘deviant’.
According to this school of thought, meaning and significance of the individual are developed in line with other people within society, rather than separately and internally within the person. To put it simply, whether or not something is acceptable within the groups that we belong to is likely to affect that is considered right or wrong in relation to crime.
Furthermore, the society as whole, or the “bureaucracy”, will possibly deem some acts as criminal, i.e. drug use and theft. If a person has been exposed and become accustomed to such activities or behaviors, then they may become desensitised to the act, and may not deem it as criminal as a result. To explain the reasons and causes of crime, we must consider the motivation behind it, i.e. why the individual has indulged in the act. Social constructionists infer that this is what separates people who deviate and those who conform to society’s rules. They try to find socially constructed reasons within society as to why a person would commit such a crime; things like poverty and unemployment. Social constructionism is the idea that a crime is committed as a “reaction” to something affecting the individual.
The criminological theories discussed in this essay often seem to oppose each other, and they often do. However, in some way or another, they can also complement each other. Using these theories in conjunction with each other, we can gain a valuable insight as to the reasons why people commit deviant acts. All of the theories can contribute on our understanding to different factors and motivations that lead to criminal behavior. Although they are with their flaws, still are able to make great contributions today in explaining crime and setting the foundations for further study in the fields of social sciences and criminology.