No. XVIII (1992)

Positivist Criminology: A Critique

Krzysztof Krajewski
Jagiellonian University

Published 1992-08-19


  • criminology,
  • positivist criminology

How to Cite

Krajewski, K. (1992). Positivist Criminology: A Critique. Archives of Criminology, (XVIII), 7–50.


The origins of criminology as a separate and independent field of scientific research are usually linked to the emergence of the so called positive school of criminology in the second half of the nineteenth century and with the name of its leading representative Cesare Lombroso. Undoubtedly since that time criminological thought went through a long and substantial evolution which produced a variety of new concepts and theories. As a result of this one could assume that contemporary criminology has very little in common with the ideas of its founders. Despite this, there is growing conviction in the literature that the  heritage of Lombroso and Italian positivism still influences significantly contemporary criminological theory. Of course, the essence of this influence lies not in the details of Lombroso’s anthropological ideas which were proven wrong long ago, but in certain quetions asked by him and his school and methods adopted to answer them. Those questions and methods were strictly connected with and resulted from the particular ideas about human society and social world, as well as with the ideas regarding the role, functions and methods of scientific research which prevailed in the social sciences in the second half of the previous century which are commonly referred to as positivism. It justifies the designation as positivist criminology of almost all criminological thought and research since the times of Lombroso up to the late 1950’s.

            Positivist criminology is ditinguished first of all by its naturalism, e.g. an assumption that all methodological principles developed in sciences apply equally to social sciences which do not possess any substantial methodical peculiarities. It means also that the main task of scientific research is to discover and formulate causal laws and the assumption of objectivity and value neutrality of science and the scientist. The basic question of such criminology based on the deterministic concept of social world and human behaviour was an etiological one: why do certain people commit crimes while others don’t? It means that the main task of positivist criminology is the search for the causes of crime.

Another important feature of positivist criminology is the consensual model of the social order it usually assumes. Such a model implies that the entire social order and the very existence of human society result from the sharing of certain values and norms by the large majority of the members of such society. According to this view, also, criminal law represents an example of such consensus and its norms are subject to widespread acceptance. Criminals represent some unique category of misfits or outsiders somehow different from all other „normal” people, a category which refuses to submit to social consensus. A final result of this way of thinking leads to the conclusion that the explanation of a crime and finding its causes requires concentration on the individual who behaves criminally. Because of this, positivist criminology is a science having as its subject the criminal and his behaviour.

Pure accumulation of knowledge was never the sole purpose of criminological research. Positivist criminology tried always to be also an applied science, providing scientific grounds for lawmaking and law enforcement. Results of criminological research, data about the criminal and his behaviour should help to change him: rehabilitate, resocialize, correct or heal. In other words, the main purpose of positivist criminology was to provide scientific methods of bringing known misfits and outsiders back the social consensus they left. This feature of positivist criminology is usually referred to in literature as correctionalism.

The above reconstruction of the main features of positivist criminology probably corresponds better to European criminology, which was in fact for many years dominated by the ,,lombrosian myth”. One can doubt however whether American criminology  may also be described in such terms.  The problem is that, because of its clear sociological orientation, American criminology is regarded rather as a heritage of A. Quetelet, A. Guerry or E. Durkheim and not  of Lombroso. Usually it perceived crime as a social phenomenon and not as an individual pathology. But it is equally true that such classical American theories of crime causation as the differential association theory or anomie theory focus their attention on the individual criminal as well. What distinguishes those theories from the European tradition is the conviction that the criminal and his special features are products of an environment. However, in both cases criminals are treated as somehow a different kind of people. All this has important practical implications. The individual approach to crime casuation implies that the proper aim of any correctional influences is the criminal himself. The sociological approach claims that there is also no sense in correcting or changing the criminal unless we do something about the environment which produced him. The natural consequence of such an approach is the preference for social reform and social policy over criminal law as instruments of fighting the crime problem. The former is assigned only a secondary role. This is probably one of the main reasons for  a certain uneasiness and mistrust towards the sociological approach which may be observed criminologists with a legal background; it is considered too abstract and detached from the everyday problems of the criminal justice system as well as too difficult and complicated to implement.

Two new criminological currents emerged during last thirty years which remain in opposition towards positivism. The first one, called antinaturalistic criminology, was born during the sixties. It rejected the positivist concept of  social science, asked new and different questions and tried to answer them using different methods. The decisive role in launching this new approach was played by the labelling approach, Its main contribution constituted rejection of the old etiological question and its substitution with the „reactive” one, a question regarding origins and development of the societal reaction to criminal or dewiant behaviour. This meant also an abandonment of positivist methodology of searching for casual laws and a turn towards the methods of humanistic sociology, including understanding, empathy and other similar qualitative methods. According to this trend the main task of the criminological enterprise is to create a sociology law and other forms of social control.

Antinaturalistic criminology also adopted an unequivocally pluralistic model of society. Crime and deviance ceased to be perceived as something necessarily pathological. Instead, an attempt was undertaken to treat those phenomena as the result of natural diversity of human beings. To support this stance the labelling approach provided a variety of research on deviant subcultures conducted from what may be called ,,ethnographic positions”, which also denounced the negative effects of punitive social control. The final result was growing scepticism towards the agencies of official social control and such ideas as for example radical nonintervention.

The next development can be attributed to radical and critical criminology. These trends assume that social conflict is the main feature of social order and try to understand criminal law and the criminal justice system as the result and manifestation of such conflict. This means that criminalisation processes, e.g. lawmaking and law enforcement, should be explained primarily in terms of political and economic power. Certain groups, because of their access to power, are able to enforce their own values and norms against the will of other groups which may not share them. All this means an unequivocally negative evaluation of the mechanism of social control in contemporary societies which are considered oppressive and unjust. An alternative vision of the society is proposed, a society where facts of human diversity are not subject to the power to criminalize. The way such vision should be implemented are very different and may be placed on the broad continuum from the orthodox Marxism-Leninism and belief in ideal socialism to the humanistic utopias of contemporary abolitionists. Such visions are accompanied by very strong opposition to traditional, mainstream criminology which is accused of being totally and uncritically apologetic and subservient towards the state and institutions of power. According to this view, positivist criminology under the disguise of scientific neutrality and objectivity, in fact legitimizes the existing political and moral order and serves the interests of the privileged groups in society. As a result a new attitude of moral and political commitment is proposed. Science, according to these postulates should be definitely partisan. Such an attitude should break the monopoly of positivist criminology in creating social consciousness about crime and deviance and show the broad audience that alternative are possible. In sum, one can say that the main subject of interest for traditional, positivist criminology constituted always the criminal and that the main problem was to root out his criminal propensities. For antinaturalistic criminology the main problem is the system of social control which requires fundamental change.

During the seventies another criminological current emerged, known as neoclassicism, which criticized traditional, positivist criminology from quite different angles. This current, which remains primarily an American phenomenon, constitutes, first of all, opposition against the traditional, in the United States, domination of the sociological approach to the crime problem. Representatives of neoclassical criminology are troubled first of all by the above mentioned unclear practical implications of these theories for the criminal justice system. They are, namely, very difficult to translate into the language of policy actions. Moreover, proposed remedies against crime usually remain beyond the reach of traditional measures which the criminal justice system has at its disposal. As a result the turn towards the tradition of the European classical school of criminal law is proposed and enriched by recent achievements of behavioristic psychology and the economic theory of bohaviour. The essence of this approach constitutes the concept of free will and the assumption that criminals are quite normal human individuals making only false decisions. The fact that human behaviour is always guided by the desire to maximize gains and minimize loses makes this behaviour susceptible to external manipulation. The easiest way to influence human decisions is to create a high enough barrier of costs which should eliminate undesired decisions. Criminal law should play a key role in creating such a barrier and preventing criminal behaviour. Moreover, the barrier of costs provided by criminal law constitutes practically the only factor easily accessible to manipulation by any democratic and liberal government. Other ways of influencing crime rates are usually too costly or too difficult to implement. The basic task of criminology is to provide the necessary empirical data on the functioning of criminal law and the criminal justice system, which should be than used to formulate the most effective policies.

All three criminological currents discussed above were usually treated as mutually exclusive and competitive paradigms. Today, when the heat of the discussions of the sixties and seventies diminished, there is a good chance to have a less emotional analysis of recent developments in criminology. Probably it will be possible now to come to the conclusion that the emergence during last 150 years of the three distinct paradigms in theoretical criminology may be comprehended not only in terms of consecutive scientific revolutions. Probably it may be also interpreted as the evolutionary process of the cumulation of knowledge about crime. During this process points of view and focuses’ changed as every paradigm considered different aspects of criminal phenomena as being most important and worth of researching. But all three may be considered, at least to a certain extent, complementary ones.


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