Objective 3.5: Summarize some of the topics in criminology studied by psychologists.

Objective 3.5: Summarize some of the topics in criminology studied by psychologists.

Objective 3.5: Summarize some of the topics in criminology studied by psychologists.
Objective 3.5: Summarize some of the topics in criminology studied by psychologists.


While the champions of the classical period were writers and philosophers, the Positivists were more likely to be scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and astronomers. While the classical reform- ers sought to modernize and civilize the system within which they lived, the Positivists reached out to order and explain the world around them. The earlier concentration on building a moral and fair system of justice and government was thus displaced by the scientific exploration and discovery of other aspects of life.

Although the Classicalists believed that humans possess a rational mind and thus have free will to choose good over evil, the Positivists saw behavior as determined by its biological, psychological, and social traits. The primary characteristics of positivist criminological thought are a deterministic view of the world, a focus on criminal behavior instead of on legal issues such as rights, and the prevention of crime through the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders.

The use of scientific research techniques was common to those who studied criminals from a positivist perspective. In scientific analyses, data were collected to describe and explain different types of individuals as well as different social conditions. The theory of evolution, proposed by natu- ralists and anthropologists, formed a basis for the study of human behavior and, more specifically, of criminal behavior.

Most criminological texts limit their consideration of the Positive School to the work of three Ital- ian writers and thus create confusion among students when the term “positivism” is applied to later and broader theories. This chapter focuses on positivism as a more general approach and delves into the essence of what positivism is. In this way, one gains a more general understanding of positivism than the theories of a few people, and this view helps students transcend the biological emphasis usually associ- ated with the Positive School. In reality, positivism is a philosophical system that emphasizes the “posi- tive” application of science to knowledge production. Therefore, the Positive School is an all-encompassing scientific perspective. The school is also known today as the “modernist” perspective (a term used by those scholars who consider themselves to be “postmodern”).

26 Chapter 3 • The Positive School

the herItage of the School

the Social heritage

The years at the beginning of the twentieth century were alive with invention and discovery. Sci- ence became a major tool of scholars, and the world experienced a revolution in knowledge that brought countless changes to everyday life. Advanced communications put once-separate cul- tures in close contact. The Statue of Liberty was unveiled, the Eiffel Tower was completed, Hen- rik Ibsen wrote, Giuseppe Verdi composed, and Vincent van Gogh painted. The automobile, the airplane, the phonograph, and electric lighting were introduced. Medicine embraced science, and researchers discovered germs and how to combat them. Sigmund Freud developed psychoanaly- sis, and Albert Einstein pronounced his theory of relativity.

The application of science to problems of everyday life was central to the creations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps as never before, a method of gaining knowledge was almost deified. With the great strides made by the application of science to indus- try, it was to be expected that those concerned with human affairs would have a vision of perfect- ing humanity through scientific study.

Of great importance was the transformation of the agriculturally based aristocracies of the eighteenth century into complex, industrialized, urban societies. The French and American revolu- tions helped foster a new climate in which the concerns of the Classical School could be addressed. People became less concerned with their governments than previously was the case and focused more attention on social rather than on political problems. Social historian David Rothman (1971, pp. 59–62), for example, points out that Americans saw crime as the product of inequities in Brit- ish colonial rule and expected crime to be reduced with the institution of the new democracy. When crime rates failed to drop, Americans were forced to acknowledge that crime might have other bases in human behavior. Positivism provided the answers to that new concern.

the Intellectual heritage

Although some see little connection between the Classical and Positive Schools, it was the clas- sical reaffirmation that people could develop and verify their own knowledge that led to the widespread use of science in the positivist era. Among the various intellectual influences in this direction was the rise of a (positive) philosophy that underscored the importance of tested and systematized experience rather than pure speculation, or metaphysics. Humans were seen as responsible for their own destinies, and they were fully capable of adapting their own behaviors and social institutions to create a society that would fulfill those destinies.

A second important ingredient in the rise of positivist criminology was the concept of evo- lution that emerged even before the writing of Charles Darwin. Evolution became a standard form of thinking about subjects, popularized to the extent that human societies were seen as evolving. Western societies were seen as the pinnacle of human accomplishment, and all else was less evolved. Criminals were viewed as individuals who were not as fully evolved as more civi- lized people (“normal” members of Western societies). Leonard Savitz (1972, p. viii) even sug- gests that this evolutionary perspective contributed to the development of a racist view of criminality and fueled the popularity of the field of eugenics.

A final influence on positivist criminology was the emergence of anthropology. Still in its infancy as an academic discipline, anthropology presented evidence that other societies were more “primitive.” The chief purveyors of this evidence were missionaries and colonial adminis- trators, who were not well trained in the art of observation. Failing to look deeply into the societ- ies they reported on, they assumed that complex organization would resemble their own European societies. Failing to find European-style social organization, they concluded that other societies were less evolved, more primitive, and closer to original human nature. Their observations were then used by other disciplines and incorporated into social science theories of how societies develop and why humans behave as they do.

the PerSPectIve of the School

Positivism itself is more accurately called a philosophy than a theory. Even as a philosophy, there are several varieties of positivism. Abraham Kaplan (1968, p. 389) identifies two major forms. The first is a product of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy (the Classical School),

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