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Introduction to critical criminology
Introduction to critical criminology

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Positivist school of criminology

In the late nineteenth century, some of the principles on which the classical school was based began to be challenged by the emergent positivist school in criminology, led primarily by three Italian thinkers: Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Raffaele Garofalo. It is at this point that the term ‘criminology’ first emerged, both in the work of Italian Raffaele Garofalo (criminologia) in 1885 and in the work of French anthropologist Paul Topinard (criminologie) around the same time.

Positivist criminology assumes that criminal behaviour has its own distinct set of characteristics. As a result, most criminological research conducted within a positivist paradigm has sought to identify key differences between ‘criminals’ and ‘non-criminals’. Some theorists have focused on biological and psychological factors, locating the source of crime primarily within the individual and bringing to the fore questions of individual pathology. This approach is termed individual positivism. Other theorists – who regard crime as a consequence of social rather than individual pathology – have, by contrast, argued that more insights can be gained by studying the social context external to individuals. This approach is termed sociological positivism.

Table 1 Differences between individual and sociological positivism
Individual positivismSociological positivism
Crime is caused by individual abnormality or pathologyCrime is caused by social pathology
Crime is viewed as a biological, psychiatric, personality or learning deficiencyCrime is viewed as a product of dysfunctions in social, economic and political conditions
Behaviour is determined by constitutional, genetic or personality factorsBehaviour is determined by social conditions and structures
Crime is a violation of the moral consensus surrounding legal codesCrime is a violation of a collective conscience
Crime varies with temperament, personality and degree of ‘adequate’ socialisationCrime varies from region to region depending on economic and political milieux
Criminals can be treated via medicine, therapy and resocialisation and the condition of the majority thus curedCrime can be treated via programmes of social reform, but never completely eradicated
Crime is an abnormal individual conditionCrime is a normal social fact, but certain rates of crime are dysfunctional