Critically Assess the Contribution of Positivist Approaches to Criminological Thinking.

Different theories for the causes of crime can be categorised in terms of the approach they take.   For example, some theories take a classical approach, where people are seen as having free will, and act in a rational way, while others might focus on why people conform rather than commit crimes.   This essay will look specifically at theories that take a positivist approach, which try to explain crime in terms of how certain factors may cause people to break the law.

Positivist theories can largely be split into three different approaches: biological, psychological, and sociological; although some theories do cover more than one factor (Hopkins Burke, 2005).   The first person to be associated with positivist criminology was Lombroso (1876) who studied crime from a biological perspective (Hayward and Morrison, 2005).   Lombroso believed that individuals who had certain physical characteristics which could be observed and measured, were predestined to become a criminal.   Based on Charles Darwin’s (1859) ‘natural selection’ theory of evolution, Lombroso claimed that the physical characteristics of criminals were atavistic, i.e. they looked like throwbacks to previous forms of evolution (Marsh et al., 2006).   Some of these features included twisted noses, sloping foreheads, receding chins, long arms, and asymmetrical faces.   A study of 383 criminals found that about one fifth of them had one of these features, and over two fifths had at least five of them.

In his later work, Lombroso also took into account sociological factors such as poverty and urbanisation, as well as psychological characteristics, and came up with four categories of criminal (Hopkins Burke, 2005).   The first was the ‘born criminal’.   These were the people that had atavistic characteristics, and were therefore predestined to become a criminal.   The second category was the ‘insane criminal’, in which Lombroso included imbeciles, idiots, alcoholics, epileptics and paranoiacs.   Third were the...