Positivism and Crime

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The Positivism Theory of Crime was born out of a challenge to that of the Classical Theory of Crime. The positivism theory was a framework for crime put forth by Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso ascertained that criminals exhibited different traits than the usual individual and that they could be distinguished by their physical characteristics. Specifically, Lombroso identified two different types of criminals: the criminaloid and the insane criminal. The former, he rationalized had the characteristics of a criminal, but were not born seeking a life of crime; while the latter, did not have specific identifying markers of the characteristics he associated with a born criminal, but became criminals later in life. Lombroso additionally noted as a part of his theory that criminal acts were not conscious decisions, but that an abnormality or social defect was what caused an individual to commit the heinous behavior (Fleming, 2000). Perhaps the most interesting real world example of the Positivism Theory at work in today's society is the ability of criminals to be rehabilitated to reform them in some form or fashion from their criminal defects.

One type of behavior that could be explained by the theory is the correlation between alcoholism and crime. It has often been said that alcoholism is biological, thus, the positivism theory of crime is predicated on the premise that crime is the result of biological factors (i.e. an individual is inherently a criminal). So in explaining alcoholism and the criminal behavior that results, the theory is a sufficient justification for it.

DeHaan & Vos (2003) argued that one theory that trumps the positivism theory of crime or presents a limitation is the rational choice theory. The positivism theory of crime does not believe that an individual operates on free will when they commit a crime (p.31). To effectively build upon the limitation of positivism, further explanations would have to be made regarding nature versus nurture and whether or not Lombroso's rationale regarding physical characteristics and criminals. In other words, is it viable to make the blanket statement that all individuals that exhibit the characteristics that Lombroso noted are in fact, criminals?


De Haan, W., & Vos, J. (2003). A crying shame: The over-rationalized conception of man in the rational choice perspective. Theoretical Criminology, 7(29), 29-54. doi:10.1177/1362480603007001199

Fleming, R. B. (2000). Scanty goatees and palmar tattoos: Cesare Lombroso’s influence on science and popular opinion. The Concord Review, Retrieved from http://www.tcr.org/tcr/essays/EPrize_Lombroso.pdf