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CCJ 3014
June 8, 2006

Classicalism vs. Positivism

What is crime? What makes people commit crimes and how can we stop it?

These, and many other questions similar to these, are asked by criminologists everyday.

Criminology is an ever growing field, mainly because there is more and more research

occurring and new theories linking people and crime coming out everyday. Below the

main field of criminology there are many subfields that have different theories and

philosophies on what they believe link criminal behavior. Two of the main criminology

perspectives are Classical Criminology and Positivist Criminology. Although these two

are both studied in the criminology field, their views are distinctly contradictory from

each other. These two theories and many others like them all collaborate together and

make the field of criminology what it is today.

Criminology is basically “the scientific approach to studying criminal behavior”

(Siegel 4). It refers to the study of the nature of crime or way that crime occurs. There are

many facets of criminology and this definition is the broad umbrella term that covers the

main idea. There are three main areas of significance to criminologists: the development

of criminal law and its use to define crime, the cause of law violations and the methods

used to control criminal behavior (Siegel 4). Since criminology is a science, it is studied

in a scientific way using appropriate research tools and the scientific method. As well as

criminology being a science, it is interdisciplinary, meaning that it involves two or more

academic fields. Criminology intertwines with sociology, criminal justice, political

science, psychology, economics and the natural sciences. One can not come up with the

subject of criminology without mentioning what constitutes a crime. A “crime is an act

that violates a political or moral law” (Wikipedia). These crimes may or may not be

deviant. There are many ways to describe criminology, some include, an objective vs.

subjective approach, deductive vs. inductive logic and the interdisciplinary approach. In

using the interdisciplinary approach, the two main theories most looked at are

classicalism and positivism.

As one goes through the history of crime and criminology, it can be seen that

criminal codes have existed for thousands of years dating back to dark ages where

punishments for crimes were extremely harsh, mainly using different forms of torture.

After the Dark Ages came the Age of Enlightenment also known as the Classicalist Era.

During this period of time social philosophers came to rethink the punishment process

that currently existed and began putting in place a more rational form of punishment.

The main emphasis during the Classicalist Era was on philosophy, there was no science

involved. Philosophers such as Baccaria, Bentham, Hobbes and Locke found that human

beings are rational creatures and they had the free will to determine whether or not to

commit crimes. Their view was based on the utilitarian principle that people’s behavior

is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (Siegel 648). There are

different ways that followers of the classicalist view believe can deter crime. Their

punishment philosophy is to use the process of deterrence, retribution and incapacitation.

Classicalists are heavily reliant on the deterrence theory which basically states that in

order to deter crimes the punishment must be swift, certain and severe in order to be

effective. As with mostly every theory, there are some problems and criticisms

associated with the classicalist point of view. “Classical theory…assumes that rational

people will choose to enter the social contract; thus, anyone who commits crime is

pathological or irrational, that is unable or willing to enter into a social contract” (Bohm

16). This fails to take into consideration that crime might be rational depending on the

person’s social status. Another criticism is how classicalists believe that all people have

free will and are completely responsible for their own behaviors and actions without any

outside influences. Yet another criticism is their belief in deterrence. Research has

shown that there is little correlation between punishment and crime, meaning that there is

not a significant amount of information showing that deterrence actually works leading it

into a controversial issue. People commit crimes for many different reasons that

classicalists fail to acknowledge. Classical criminology was the first big step into what

makes up the field of criminology today, dominating around the eighteenth century. A

change in the way information was assembled with the emergence of the scientific

method challenged the classical perspective and introduced the theory of Positivism.

Positivist criminology emerged in the nineteenth century after people stopped

relying on pure thought and reason and started to observe and analyze to understand the

way things worked. “Positive philosophy was an explicit repudiation or reaction to the

critical and ‘negative’ philosophy of the Enlightenment [Classicalist] thinkers” (Bohm

21). Positivism has two main elements: One “is the belief that human behavior is a

function of forces beyond a person’s control [and] the second aspect of positivism is

embracing the scientific method to solve problems” (Siegel 7-8). . Positivism is known

for the use of science and the scientific method in their research. Positivists such as

Lombroso, whom is considered the father of criminology, set the stage for examination of

external forces that may affect why people commit crimes. The positivist perspective

believes that people’s behavior is determined and not a matter of free will. Positivist

criminologists study people who have their free will altered and those alterations have

shown links to criminal behavior. This gave rise to the aggravating/mitigating

circumstances. A difference between classicalism and positivism is that “positivists

believe that society is based primarily on a consensus about moral values but not on a

social contract, as the classical theorists believed” (Bohm 25). The positivist punishment

philosophy was not to deter or use retribution but to fix the problem at hand. This is one

of the many points that classicalists and positivists disagree on. Just like the classicalist

theory, positivism has some problems as well. A couple criticisms of this theory are that

positivists over predict crime and they ignore the criminalization process. Critics also

question their belief in determinism and their belief that social scientists and

criminologists can be objective or value-neutral in their work (Bohm 27). These two

criminological perspectives, Classicalism and Positivism, although different intertwine to

form an interdisciplinary perspective of both which makes up much of the criminology

field we know today

When one thinks of criminology, there tends to be a notion that it is strictly based

on crime, criminal behavior and the law. While these features are important and included

in the field, there are a lot more aspects involved in the study of criminology. As

mentioned before, this field is interdisciplinary and involves the cohabitation of many

views including those of the classicalist and the positivists. True, the two subfields have

different views on what contributes to crime and preventative measures but just as in

research, it is better to use multiple methods in order to come up with theories that will

satisfy the needs of the field. Criminology does this by using the interdisciplinary

method, taking points from each perspective in order to come up with the most recently

updated, best possible research. Criminology today as we know it would not be the same

without both the Classicalist view and the Positivist view. Differences between the two

have contributed to newer subfields taking parts of both in order to come up with yet

even more theories. As with everything, it is important to understand the background of

any industry and both Classical criminology and Positivist criminology are the roots that

make up the criminology field today.

In retrospect, criminology is a rather controversial field. Just like psychology and

sociology, it delves into people’s personalities, trying to figure out what makes people,

specifically criminals, behave the way they do. It is important to have a field that deals

with social norms and to have some understanding of causes and correlations in order to

come up with preventative measures. Crime, although it is mostly depicted as so, is not

necessarily “bad.” According to Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociological

criminology, “if crime did not exist, it would mean that everyone behaved the same way

and agreed on what is right and wrong. Such universal conformity would stifle creativity

and independent thinking” (Siegel 9). The classicalist and Positivist perspectives were

the stepping stones onto what criminology is today and have created the opportunity for

other forms of research on society and the social norms. Although there have been

criminal codes existing in mostly all societies dating back thousands of years, the field of

criminology is constantly growing and becoming more vast. With all the research being

done and new ideas coming out everyday, the future outlook for criminology and careers

stemming from it, only seem to look positive and only time will tell what new

breakthrough will come out next.



Bohm, Robert M. A Primer on Crime and Delinquency Theory, Second Edition.

California: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson Learning, Inc., 2001.

“Crime (disambiguation).” Wickipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 6 June 2006.


Siegel, Larry J. Criminology, Ninth Edition. California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.