Home introduction to Criminology POSITIVIST CRIMIOLOGY


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Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857), the father of sociology is associated with the term “positivism”. He saw man’s intellectual development as an evolutionary process related to the progressive development of science, which he analysed in terms of his law of three stages: theological, metaphysical and positive. He saw positivism – the use of observation and experimentation to understand natural phenomena – as the key to man’s continued progress.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  discuss the views of the positivist school and their proponents  explain the combination of the factors necessary for criminal behaviours 
  2.  examine the three criminal types which characterise different types of persons involved in criminal acts. 


3.1 The Positivist Principle

The late nineteenth century writers of the positivist school, typically includes Cesare Lombroso, (1835-1909) Enrico Ferri, (1856-1929), Raffaele Galafalo (1851-1934) Charles Goring (1870-1919), Francis Galton, (1758-1828), Earnest Hooton, (1887-1954), and William Sheldon who claimed to be more empirical, and scientific in their approach to investigating the criminals by using the techniques of psychiatry, physical anthropology, and other new human sciences. The positivist school claimed to have discovered the existence of “criminal types” whose behaviour was determined rather than choice or become, and for whom treatment rather than punishment was appropriate.

The point of contention to the positivist school is the explanation of crime in the criminal, not in the criminal law. In other words, the positivists concentrated upon the criminal rather than the crime. The school saw the offender as being strongly influenced by an innate constitution which determines the crime. The innate constitution, they believed is determined by biological, psychological and social traits. The therefore prescribed that punishment is a major factor in the prevention of crime.

Cesare Lombroso (1836 – 1909) is usually seen as the founder of modern criminology; an Italian prison physician and director of mental asylum; a criminal anthropologist, and founder of the positivist school of penal jurisprudence. He changed to use a scientific approach to study crime and to develop a ‘positive’, factual knowledge of offenders, based upon observation, measurement, and inductive reasoning. As a medical doctor, Lombroso studied Italian army recruits and asylum and prison inmates and attempted to identify different racial types and to subject them to scientific scrutiny. In his book-L’Uomo Delinquente (The Delinquent Man) published in 1876, he was fascinated to discover that many of the military offenders sent to him for diagnosis and treatment had some peculiar physical characteristics. After further examination of hundreds of the offenders; he concluded that criminals are “atavists” or genetic, and that “criminal type” accounted for their inability to become law-abiding.

Classification of Criminals

The criminal is a specific type of person. Thus, positivist criminology drew up a long classification systems of different kinds of offenders. Lombroso for example, identified not just the born-criminal, but also the emotional criminal, the morally insane criminal and the masked epileptic criminal. Others are the imbeciles, morons, and idiots as well as those suffering from melancholia, dementia, alcoholism, hysteria and degeneracy. These classes of criminals commit crime as a result of brain damage due to disease or mal-development.
Positive criminology identifies certain categories of criminals
Born – criminals: they are the “atavists” or the genetic remnants of the primitive humanity which accounts for their inability to become law-abiding. That is born-criminal is an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and inferior animals. Because of this genetic make- up,Lombroso believed that born-criminals could not restrain theirviolent and animalistic urges. He argued that the society could be protected only by locking them up. However, since the criminality was not their fault, they ought to be treated as decent offenders.
(b) The Criminaloids: They are law-abiding citizens but who break the law under conditions which is beyond their control, implying that sociological and environmental determinants played a role in criminal behavior. By the twentieth century, it had been observed that the greatest contribution to criminology was sociological with emphasis in the environment of the offender.
At mid-century, William Sheldon (1949) posited that body structure might predict criminality. He studied hundreds of young men in terms of body type and, checking for criminal history, concluded that delinquency occurred most frequently among boys with muscular, athletic builds. Glueck and Glueck (1950) confirmed Sheldon’s conclusion, but cautioned that a powerful build does not necessarily cause or even predict criminality.

Recent genetics research continues to seek possible links between biology and crime. To date, no conclusive evidence connects criminality to any specific genetic flaw. Yet people’s overall genetic composition, in combination with social influences, may account for some variation in criminality. In other words, biological factors probably have a real, if modest, effect on whether individuals engage in criminal activity. Charles Goring (1972) later explained criminal behaviour as a result of mental inferiority and Ernest Hooton (1939) argued that there exists a “criminal stock” in the gene pool that cropped up from time to time. William Sheldon (1949) and Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck (1956) expressed the view that criminals could be distinguished from non-criminals on the basis of their physical factors. They claimed to have discovered three basic physique types: “mesomorphs”, “ectomorphs” and “endomorphs” criminals. They maintained, those with mesomorphic (“lean, muscular and thick skinned”) body types, were more likely to commit crime.
In 1884, Raffaele Garafolo (1851 – 1934) in his book “criminology”, examined the social and legal aspects of criminality as well as its “an anthropological (biological) embodiment. He used the concept of social dangerousness as the concept of a criminality. i.e. the criminal is considered to be at high risk to physically, psychologically or morally harmful to himself and to the society.

Enrico Ferri (1856 – 1929), “Criminal Sociology” and with Garafalo identified with the Italian school of Lombroso but Ferri attributed crimes to three factors: the biological (anthropological as it was often called in those days); physical and social. He was against the view that any one factor could cause crime and saw instead the need to take the factors in combination. Lombroso recognised other factors but highlighted on the anthropological factors, but to Ferri, he focussed on heredity and its constitution. He also classified criminals under five basic types: Criminal lunatics, the born-criminals, habitual criminals, occasional criminals and emotional criminals. This new science of criminology, as it was developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century was characterised by a number of distinctive features such as criminal biology, criminal sociology and criminal psychology. In a critical assessment of the positivist school, much of the early research was based on comparing the physiques of prisoners with those of non-prisoners. It is not surprising, and there is nothing scientific that male prisoners tend to be muscular (“mesomorphic”), Moreover, many people who commit crimes (particularly “white-colar crimes”) are not in prison, and so are excluded from prison-based research (Appelbaum, 1995).


In this unit, we examined the focus of the positivist school on the criminal person. Their approach and roots were based on scientific factors. We also viewed the human nature of crime as been determined by biological, psychological, and social environment, where moral responsibility is obscured and which characteristics marked the criminals from non- criminals.


We have discussed about the positivist movement and its views. We arrived at several factors that are responsible for criminal acts. The criminal types were classified into three categories for specific type of person. We also discussed about the born- criminals, the criminaloids, the insane, habitual, the imbeciles, the morons, etc.


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