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Introduction to critical criminology
Introduction to critical criminology

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Positivism and causality

The positivist school introduced the problem of causality into criminological thinking. Examining the potential causes of crime has been tackled from a range of differing perspectives, including:

  • Biological: Are criminals born or made?
  • Psychological: What are the individual factors that lead to criminal behaviour?
  • Sociological: Why do some neighbourhoods have higher crime rates than others?

The project of seeking the ‘scientific facts’ that can explain criminality has been – and continues to be – a dominant strand within academic criminology.

Positivism does not concern itself with the abstract and unprovable, but rather with the tangible and quantifiable. Through the acquisition of ‘objective knowledge’ it is assumed that most social problems can be better understood and treated. The key characteristic of the positive school is its emphasis on applying the methods of the natural sciences to the study of human behaviour. Within criminology, positivist approaches have focused on searching for the causes of criminal behaviour and have assumed that behaviour is predictable and determined.

Key features of positivism

  • The use of scientific methodologies, from which quantifiable data are produced and are then open to further empirical investigation and scrutiny
  • The emphasis on the study of criminal behaviour, rather than on the creation of laws or the operation of criminal justice systems
  • The assumption that ‘criminality’ is different from ‘normality’ and indicative of various pathological states
  • The attempt to establish ‘cause-and-effect’ relations scientifically and to therefore increase the ability to predict criminality (when particular criminogenic factors can be identified)
  • The assumption that, because criminals are ‘abnormal’, criminal behaviour is in violation of some widely held consensus in the rest of society
  • An interest in the treatment of causes, when these become known, with the ultimate goal of eliminating criminal behaviour. Since behaviour is involuntary and not a matter of choice for the offender, punitive responses are misplaced.