Biological and Social Theories of Crime

November 23, 2016 Criminology

Biological and Classical Theories of Crime
Dennis Neal
University of Phoenix
Tracy Williams
January 27, 2010

Biological and Classical Theories of Crime
The question of what causes people to exhibit criminal behavior is a question that continues to puzzle and intrigue scholars of criminology even after centuries of study.
Many theories of crime exist. A couple of these concepts are the Classical, whose supporters insist that humans freely choose to commit crimes, and the positivist theory, which maintains that biological, psychological, and social characteristics influence criminal behavior.
Both philosophies attempt to explain the causation of criminal behavior, albeit in different ways.
Classical Theory
The classical theory of criminology builds upon the writings of John Locke. Before Locke wrote his Two Treatises on Government, society believed that political authority came directly from religious authority, hence the Divine Right of Kings (Friend, 2006). Not only did the writings of Locke refute that theory, they also introduced the Social Contract Theory, in which individuals agreed to give the state power over the people.
Although the state was the official authority, in which power only prevented mob rule and anarchy. Punishment was arbitrary and unequal; many times, the punishment was excessive for the crime committed (Hoffman, 2004).
Cesare Beccaria
The Classical school espoused reform of the criminal justice system, which at the time (mainly pre-18th Century) was harsh, unequal, and corrupt. Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher, wrote On Crimes and Punishments in 1764. In Punishments, Beccaria wrote that the degree of punishment should be proportional to the crime and that swift punishment for crimes worked better as a deterrent rather than pure retribution (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [IEP], 2001).
Beccaria also argued against the use of capital punishment, stating the method is not suitable for utilitarian purposes and that it proves ineffective if a criminal possesses a high degree of determination (IEP, 2001).
Classical philosophers like Jeremy Bentham also believed in the utilitarian concept of hedonism. Bentham believed that pleasure and pain were the primary motivators of human nature and that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain determine happiness (IEP, 2001).
Positive Theory
Unlike the thinkers of the Classical school, Positive theorists used science to study the cause of crime. Positive theorists tend to believe that the root causes of crime lie in biological factors such as body type and other physical traits, such as the shape of the brain, facial structure and heredity (Greek, 2005).
An early aspect of the Positive school was the science of Phrenology, pioneered in the late 18th century by Franz Gall and Johann Spurzheim. Greek (2005) points out that the anatomists believed that the brain consisted of multiple sections, each responsible for a different activity. Gall and Spurzheim attempted to link the shape and size of the head to a propensity to commit crime.
The Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso believed that crime was hereditary. According to Lombroso, people with abnormal physical features were born criminal and possessed a savage and brutal nature. Unfortunately, advocates of Eugenics, including the Nazis, embraced the theories espoused by later advocates of biological criminology (Greek, 2005).
The Positive school also has a social aspect. In addition to biological factors, the criminologist Enrico Ferri believed that social, political, and economic aspects of life also played a part in the causation of crime, and advocated the use of statistics in proving his theory (Greek, 2005).
The Classical and Positivist (Biosocial) theories came about as the result of a desire to understand the causes of crime. Questions abound regarding which theory is more valuable in determining the causes of crime.
Human Behavior
The major tenet of the classical theory is that most, if not all humans possess free will and make his or her choices when deciding to commit a crime. The biosocial theory attributes the cause of crime to biological factors such as abnormal physical features, and the environment in which the person lives. Most criminologists no longer consider many of the hereditary aspects of Positivism as fact, although criminologists still use its scientific methods (Williams & McShane, 2010).
Justice System
The classical theory has much of its basis in due process and fair dispensation of justice.
Although the classical theory rejects the use of capital punishment, the theory does support punishment when it is proportionate to the type of crime committed (Williams & McShane, 2010).
Positivism, in comparison, proposes scientific treatments to cure the offender of his or her criminal behavior, presumably in some sort of mental facility.
In comparing methods of sentencing, the classical school seems to have a more humane attitude toward the sentencing of an offender. Although both theories support sentencing, the classical theory use punishment as a form of deterrence. The positivist theory instead advocates the treatment of criminals over punishment. The aim of the treatment is for the good of society in place of punishment. Unfortunately, the treatment of criminals lasted for as long as the court deemed it necessary, which was indefinite in some cases (Williams & McShane, 2010).
A sharp contrast also exists between the types of supporters of the two theories. The supporters of the classical theory were mostly thinkers and philosophers. These forward-thinking scholars believed in the necessity to implement significant social and judicial reforms.
Positive theorists, in contrast, sought to determine the physical and social causes of crime; many of the advocates of the Positive school were scientists and experts of the treatment of criminals (Williams & McShane, 2010).
Classical Support of Positive Theory
Although both schools of theory are centuries apart, many believe that the Classical theorists were not only ahead of their time, but also more humane toward their fellow human beings.
The classical theorists would more than likely reject much of the beliefs advocated by the positivist theory, no matter how well-intentioned. The advocacy of equal justice under the law promoted by the Classical theorists would undoubtedly clash with the belief of the Positivists that people are criminals through accident of birth. The classical theorists may have also found repulsive the fact that some Positivists advocated ridding society of those with ???undesirable??? physical and mental abnormalities by locking them away indefinitely, and even euthanizing them (Greek, 2005).
Williams & McShane (2010) mention the conservative shift in dealing with crime that started in the mid-1970s, something else that Classical theorists may reject. These more conservative attitudes eschewed social remedies and favored a more crime control oriented approach centered on the Positivist beliefs of biological and psychological causes.
The classical and Positive theories represent significant social and philosophical changes throughout the centuries. Some in modern society view many of the Positivist theories as ignorant and backward-thinking, and rightly so. Although these theories originated hundreds of years in the past, some of the frameworks of these philosophies remain in use in many criminal justice systems to this day.

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Friend, C. (2006). Social Contract Theory. Retrieved January 27, 2010 from
Hoffman, B. (2004). Explore Criminology! Retrieved January 27, 2010 from
Cesare Beccaria. (2001). Retrieved January 27, 2010 from
Greek, C. (2005). The Positive School: Biological and Psychological Factors. Retrieved January 27, 2010 from
Williams, F. & McShane, P. Criminological Theory. (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.



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