Background - Positivism is a school of thought which sees criminality as something which can be explained away using 'scientific' inquiry. This essay evaluates this position.Positivism has a key role in explaining why people commit crime.
This essay will explore the positivism position, and how it explains the causes of crime, positivism will also be contrasted with other theoretical perspectives associated with explaining the causes of crime; classicism and radical criminology; which will highlight the positivist perspective's strengths and weaknesses in explaining why people commit crime. The starting point of this essay is the classicism perspective, and the emergence of individualist positivism in contrast to it.
The classical school of criminology was influential in 18th Century discourses on crime. In line with Enlightenment and European philosophy its premise of human nature consists of the human (criminal) as a rational thinker, free-willed, a self-interested choice-maker - an individualist (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.7). Cesare Beccaria - Italian criminologist (1738-1794) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) - English philosopher and jurist, were prominent proponents of what is known now as classicism (ibid p.6-7). Where humans are self-interested, the cause of crime is seen to be a conflict of personal interest, Beccaria states: 'No man ever freely sacrificed a portion of his personal liberty merely in behalf of the common good [...] every one of us would prefer that the compacts binding others did not bind us; every man tends to make himself the centre of his own world' (Beccaria 1963 p.16). Emphasis on the rational, self-interested individual is included in Bentham's theorization too: 'Men calculate [...] I would not say that even a madman does not calculate' (Bentham 1791 p.7). This emphasis on free-will, choice, and individualism is unsatisfactory in social sciences and fails to acknowledge a number of factors which constrain and shape behaviour (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.
Classicism is directly challenged by the theoretical approaches to causes of crime laid down by positivism, such as determinism and deposition. These are to be looked at now, however, positivism’s weaknesses in explaining crime will also be looked at by introducing an alternate theoretical approach of radical criminology later on.
Cesare Lombrosso (1835-1909), in his ‘scientific’ research into physical and biological traits of criminal women, claimed to have found differences, or anomalies between types of female criminal, and between female criminals and what he called normal women (Lombrosso and Ferrero 1895 p.47). He finds that criminal females’ physical traits (such as differences in skull and body shape) are attributed more closely to that of a males, than a ’normal’ female.(ibid p.47-48). According to these results, there is a proposed association between one’s physical or biological characteristics and becoming a criminal. Lombrosso takes this further when he uses evidence of anomalies in female criminals to suggest that physical traits are associated with special rankings of morality.: ‘Here we see the crescendo of the peculiarities as we rise from moral women [...] to prostitutes [...] and homicides, which present the highest number of multiple anomalies’ . (ibid p.47) Although Lombrosso finds some apparent associations between physical/biological factors and crime, his mixing objective analysis with subjective qualities (morals) weaken his findings. They were enough, however, to challenge classicism and help develop individual positivism into an influential area of social science and sciences in the 19th century (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.10). Later on in the study of genetic hereditary, Mednick et al would strengthen the position of biological positivism through findings based on a study into adoptees and how their criminality is generally reflective of their biological parents’: ‘In a total population of adoptions, we noted a relation between biological-parent criminal convictions and criminal convictions of their adopted away children [...] We conclude that some factor is transmitted by convicted parents that increases the likelihood that their children will be convicted’ (Mednick, Gabrielli and Hutchins 1987 p.89). A certain genetic signature however, is not included in the conclusion - the research is based only on looking at figures of criminal convictions as an index of criminal involvement and information of adoptions which came from the Ministry of Justice in the Kingdom of Denmark (ibid p.78). An isolated genetic factor that causes crime is yet to be found (Rutter and Giller, 1984 p.12) but the research is still pursued and funded (Burrel, 1996; Tehrani and Menick, 2000 p.12). Biological positivism then, while disproving classic thought that every one act s as an individual, is yet to locate any exact factor which causes crime. Later on, an alternate form of individual positivism - psychological positivism - would shift focus from determining factors in biology, to differences in personality and mental characteristics in influencing propensity to crime (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.13). H.J Eysenk’s study is an example of the approach of the ‘psychogenic school’ (ibid).
Eysenk, as one of many psychologists attempting to explain crime (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.14), looked at personality traits in order to explain who is likely to commit crime (Eysenk 1987).
Crime, which is also defined as anti-social behaviour in Eysenk’s discourse, is a result of social conditioning, or rather, lack of speed and strength of its formation (B.McGurk, D. Thornton, M. Williams 1987 p,92). The theory (personality theory) suggests that people engage in socialized behaviour (in ’natural’ opposition to anti-social behaviour), and this is a result of psycho-social conditioning, it suggests that certain personality types are more prone to conditioning than others - introverts, for example, are noted to show more social conditioning than extroverts, however, if introverts were conditioned in an unfavourable environment (Raine and Venables 1981) they would likely show anti-social behaviour (ibid). Evidence to support the theory that extraversion would lead to criminality was not found (Crookes 1979 p.16), in response, Eysenk subdivided between factors and developed an additional scale of personality; psychoticism, which is characterized by aggression, lack of concern for others and insensitivity (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.16). Eysenk’s personality scale then consisted of 3 dimensions; psychoticism, neuroticism and extraversion (or, as used in studies; P, N and E scores) (B.McGurk et al 1987 p,93). Using this scale, correlations would be found in research; Allsop (1976) in a study of 348 white schoolboys for example, would find that those anti-social boys would be highly associated with high levels of personality trait P. and well-behaved boys would show low-levels of P contrasted with high levels of E and N (Allsop 1976 p.99) Other researchers would reach the same conclusion (Rushton and Chrisjohn 1981). A particularly useful function of personality theory, is that it is able to allocate personality types, to type of criminal; murderers (domestic type) were found to be highly introverted, and professional gunmen would show high extraversion (Eysenk 1977); A study of female criminals in Bangladesh found high E scores in those convicted of fraud, kidnapping and possession of illegal arms (Rahman and Hussain 1984); Drug users would show to have high N and E scores compared with non-drug users (Shanmugan 1979). Eysenk’s theory then, explains some personality variables between types of crime/offender, Critics suggest though, that the personality is not a fixed entity, but is rather a dynamic under constant development; here, psychological basis for the cause of crime, and individual positivism as a whole is contested; psychologies are not static (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.17). It could be that broader social conditions shape and influence crime rather than individual, or internal factors; this is a sociological positivist view, of which Emile Durkheim is an advocate (Durkheim, 1895).
The role of sociological positivism in explaining crime starts with society: 'Crime is present not only in the majority of societies, but in societies of all types' (Durkheim 1964 p.65). Durkheim's view is that all societies face crime and that this is just a part of life. Crime then, is defined by Durkheim as a normal in contrast with the individually positivist perspective highlighted above, that crime or the criminal is abnormal (Lombrosso and Ferrero 1895 p.47). A society exempt from crime, as Durkheim suggests, is utterly impossible (Durkheim 1964 p.66): ’There is... no phenomenon that presents more indisputably the symptoms of normality, since it appears closely connected with the conditions of all life’ (ibid p.65). Crime also has a positive function, according to Durkheim it is a ‘factor of public health’, a society without crime would be a society without moral consciousness, he argues that it is moral awareness which controls crime: ‘For murders to disappear, the horror of bloodshed must become greater in those social strata from which murderers are created’ (ibid), Durkheim would also show in his studies of suicide, that individual decisions were influenced by broader social and economic conditions - a characteristic of sociological positivism (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.25). Another structural cause explanation is put forth by Merton (1957), that crime is cultural in US society - where aspirations and ambition are encouraged, yet the rather closed socio-economic setup denies people from realizing these ambitions and leads to them pursuing these goals illegitimately (Merton, 1957, p.200). The Chicago School’s zone theory shows that crime (statistics) or social disorganization are isolated within certain sectors of society, indicating structural causes (location) of crime (Park and Burgess 1925 p.55). All in all, evidence put forth by positivists has shown that crime can be isolated within and between individuals and society. There certainly does exist correlations between types of individual, or sectors of society and those convicted of crime. As shown though, these methods include using statistics and assume that crime is something objective while each theory has its own definition - immorality, anti-socially behaviour, abnormality, and so on. Radical criminologists inquiry into ‘criminalization’, or the process of labelling something a crime has highlighted the apparent flaws in this method and the weakness of positivist thought (Muncie and McLaughlin 2004 p.36).
Howard Becker challenges the positivist view, pointing out that positivist ‘scientific inquiry’ must first accept qualitive assumptions about crime (Becker, 1963). He argues that scientists do not look at the labelling process of criminal; that different social groups define criminality differently, and that by using measures of crime statistics, scientists must also accept the values of the social groups making the authority to penalize criminals in that society (ibid). From what has shown so far, positivism is dependent on crime statistics and pre-conceived definitions of crime. That positivism is not concerned with the process of criminalization highlights a profound flaw in its theoretical approach - crime is indeed not an intrinsic quality, but something socially defined (ibid). Whilst sociological positivist suggest we can look to certain sectors of society and see social disorganization is isolated, or characteristic of those areas (Park and Burgess 1925 p.55), Becker notes that identifying between functional and dysfunctional groups is not easy: ‘The question of what the purpose or goal (function) of a group is and, consequently, what things will help or hinder the achievement of that purpose, is very often a political question’ (Becker, 1963 p.4). Furthermore, Becker points out discriminatory factors in becoming criminal: 'The degree to which an act will be treated as deviant depends on who commits the act [...] Boys from middle-class areas do not get as far in the legal process as do boys from slum areas' (ibid p.6) there also exist racial profiling: 'It is well known that a Negroe believed to have attacked a white woman is much more likely to be punished than a white man who commits the same offence' (ibid). What appears in crime statistics, then, which positivists used to make their case, is not an objective picture of crime, but figures that have gone through wider social processes such as criminalization and labelling before becoming official (ibid). Positivism them, is shown to have an inherent weakness in its ‘objective’ approach to explaining crime.
Conclusively, positivism is able to narrowly explain why people commit crime, evidence shown suggests that there are identifiable traits which lead to criminality such as personality, biology, or social location. Positivism can not be seen as an objective area of research however. The statistics it comes into contact with are products of much wider social processes pointed out by radical criminologist Howard Becker, which shows crime can not be explained using the positivist approach. The conclusion is then almost contradictory. Deductively, it can be said that positivism does explain causes of crime, but only crime which the ‘labellers’ deem as crime - preconceived notions of crime. This means that positivism must submit to ideological and subjective circumstance in its inquiry into crime, affecting its ’objective’ or ’scientific’ status. The role positivism plays then, is limited. It can (loosely) explain how one’s personality might lead them to commit a crime, but it can not explain why certain actions are a crime in the first place, and it does not consider that those convicted of crimes are subjected to wider processing than just personality, biology, genetics, social location or subjective notions of social disorganization.
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