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The Strengths and Limitations of Classical and Biological Criminological Theories

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In this essay, I will be critically exploring the strengths and limitations of classical and biological criminological theories. The classical school of criminology was developed in the eighteenth century, as a direct response to the inhuman form of punishment around the time. Developing on from classical criminology in the nineteenth century, the positivist school of criminology took more of a scientific outlook on criminology by incorporating findings from biology and medicine into the subject, with the likes of Cesare Lombroso taking a lead role. With both of these theories being major strands of criminology throughout its history has meant that, undoubtedly, some of their theories have been discredited and falsified and are now are consequently outdated, however by using aspects of sociological positivist theories these can be updated and modernised.

I will be using sociological positivism to critically examine whether these ideals can be updated, for example, while some aspects of classicism still are strong and valid today, their idea of free will and rational choice, when using positivism areas such as different social backgrounds and their lack of means to have a happy life and therefore turning to crime, can be explored, suggesting that rational choice is not always black and white as it was once thought. Sociological positivism considers societal aspects into what could make a person an offender such as poor education, poverty and social structures. In recent years sociological positivism has become more important due to it removing the harshness on offenders that classical criminology applies by accounting for social reasons for crime. While some areas of classical and biological criminology are still valuable and correct in criminology today, other points have become outdated and discretised, however by updating them using sociological positivism they may be valid today.

Classical criminology is one of the leading strands of criminology, developed in the eighteenth century, where classical thinking emerged in response to the cruel forms of punishment that dominated at the time, which is still extremely relevant and still being used today. It explores the contemporary work of economics and deterrence as well as rational choice to create the fundamental principle being that people make their own rational choices to maximise their own utility. Classicism relies on free will, and idea of rational choice, this concept argues that criminals consciously weigh the risks and rewards of a crime and proceed accordingly, reacting against the unpredictability of punishment in the 16th and 17th centuries which created on the certainty on the correct amount of pain on the offender. Classism was brought on by a new era of Enlightenment thinkers, such as Cesare Beccaria, who is often referred to as the father of Classical Criminology.

Enlightenment thinkers strived to bring social reform for punishment and strongly believed in the principle of there is no crime without the law and therefore pushed for set criteria for criminal acts. This is a major strength of classicism as the law is still needed today as a criterion of punishment and is there both for punishment and a means of deterring people from committing a crime. However it isn’t used in the same way that Beccaria would accept, it is also used to stop offenders from being overly punished, which in the opinion of classical criminologists is needed for deterrence. Beccaria believed that there needed to be a separation of power in the law due to a large amount of abuse and misuse of power in the criminal justice system, a further strength to his theory, as sociological positivism has further validated that this separation is needed ignorer for further rulings. Unlike many Enlightenment thinkers, Beccaria believed that ‘it is better to prevent crimes than to punish them’ whereas some other Enlightenment thinkers found crime fundamental to our society, as explored by Emile Durkheim, a key figurehead of positivism. in which sociological criminologists would agree with as they do believe that crime is an essential function to our society.

Deterrence has links to sociological positivism as they believe the moral, as previously discussed, that it is better to let a guilty man go without punishment than to punish a guilty man, whereas before this innocent people were mistreated in order to gain a false confession. Deterrence relies on the idea that people are rational and their behaviour is a product of free will. However, rational choice and free will can be criticised when people are unable to make a choice about whether they commit a crime, for example, employees may be pressured into committing white collar crime on behalf of the company, while they have made the rational choice to do this, it is also more complicated than simply they broke the law for their own personal gain. Furthermore, classical criminologists believe that punishment must be in proportion to the harm caused, if this proportion is lost, then offenders may not fear the consequences of crime and therefore the level of crime in society will rise. While the majority of these views can be criticised, some do link into sociological positivism in the idea that punishment is needed however not falsely. While in some ways this approach is flawed but largely is still used in criminology today when cohesively used with sociological positivism.

Jeremy Bentham was a classical criminologist whose principles relied on a pain and pleasure system in order to deter crime. Classical criminologists believe that people choose to whether they abide by the law or become offenders by calculating the gains and consequences of their actions. However, this can be criticised as it is difficult to discover the successfulness of deterrence due to only those offenders who weren’t deterred are discoverable to study and therefore we are unaware as to why they didn’t offend meaning that this view lacks the verification that the scientific positivist approach would like for it to be approved. Bentham believed that the only way to benefit society was punishment, he called this the hedonistic calculus and was based on the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which was based on the idea of pleasure and pain resulting from an action, which included variables such as intensity, duration, certainty, and propinquity which show the value of the pleasure or the pain. Fundamentally Bentham believed that punishment should be scaled to prevent others from committing the same crime so, therefore, deterrence.

Which is a contrast to the soft approach that positivists take. Everyone has the ability to measure the pleasure and pain of an act and therefore if others have been greatly punished for something they are likely to be deterred from doing this in the future. While the classical approach to needing set punishment for a crime can be credited due to our criminal justice system using punishment to prevent crimes, this system can be criticised for being too harsh. Only certain punishments can be applied to certain crimes for example under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 Section 39: Common Assault, An offence of common assault is committed when a person either assaults or inflicts a battery upon another person, and the maximum penalty is a fine of £5000 or six months imprisonment. It has prevented Bentham’s unfair system on those who have committed minor crimes which didn’t take into account other factors as to why the person has committed the crime.

However, a way in which both Beccaria’s work and Bentham’s theories can be credited is the still strong belief that people have free will to make their own decisions and the ability to make rational choices and they do so by weighing up the pleasure and pain of their actions, as laid out by Bentham. While his approach can be flawed due to its harshness and outdated morals on punishment, its major benefit is the study is based on free will and rational choice as this is still the fundamental reason as to why people commit a crime, and even though it cannot be verified the scientific way sociological positivist prefer, they still rely on this ideal greatly. However, another way that classicism has been attacked is at the time when The school of classical criminology was emerging, people and activities were being controlled and removed from society such as drunkards, the mentally ill, the poor immigrants, those moving from one parish to another, prostitutes, those suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, petty offenders and hardened criminals. So instead of helping people, classical criminologists were passing on the issue to the punishment system which is no longer valid in today’s society.

A major link between Bentham’s work and sociological positivism is Merton’s strain theory. In his 1938 article “Social Structure and Anomie.”, in relation to Durkheim’s research. Merton argued that anomie does come simply from unregulated goals but from a faulty relationship between cultural goals and the legitimate means to access them. During our socialisation, we are taught what success is and how to reach it, however to some this success seems unreachable, but due to our socialisation we still desire it and therefore people use illegitimate means to gain this status. Merton defined several different strains. These were split into, a conformity which was achieving goals through the social approved means, Innovations, using socially approved or unconventional ways goals such as drug dealing to have financial stability, thirdly ritualism which is using the same socially approved means to get less elusive goals, and lastly retreatism which is rejecting the cultural goals and the means to obtain them is able to find a way to escape. This links to Bentham’s work as people make a rational choice of how they are going to achieve societal goals. This is a key example of how sociological positivism can be used in order to update and back up outdated Classical criminology.

Bentham and Beccaria’s work was hugely successful until the age of positivism. As previously discussed, positivism was the product of the 19th-century scientific revolution in which criminologists moved away from assumptions of free will and looked more at the scientific reasoning for human behaviour. However, positivists didn’t discredit previous theories. Criminologists and sociological positivists still believe that free will and rational choice are the ‘essence’ of human nature but however are not the only cause of why crime is committed, such as biological reasons as well as social aspects such as lack of education and a spoilt childhood. This can be credited because it properly evaluated why people commit crimes rather than generalising criminals as a whole. It was one of the first times where people started to sympathise with criminals rather than blaming them as academics started to believe that the reason why have committed crimes has been out of their control and therefore they wanted an easier punishment. However positivist theories have also been criticised, for example, James Wilson in 1975 argued in his book that “crime pays” and that in modern times criminals have become intelligent and aware of what they are doing, and take the rational choice approach to crime causation. The Rational Choice Theory is a major element when looking at crime causation, Rational choice theory refers to a set of ideas about the relationship between people’s preferences and the choices they make. Ration Choice Theory is clearly directly linked to Bentham’s work suggesting that even today, it still is not completely outdated.

While for a large period of time Classicism was the most influential strand of criminology, its significance was attacked in the 19th century by scientific criminology. Positivism took a scientific approach to criminology with the shared goal of classicism to minimise crime. Bottoms defined positivism as the methods of the natural sciences that should be applied, and could be applied, to the social world as well as the foundation of our knowledge of the world is data derived from observation. The basis of scientific knowledge is scientific ‘facts’, facts must be distinguished from values and therefore the core methods involved the collection of data, the development of the hypothesis and the testing of these for verification or falsification. This led to the favouring of quantitive research methods over qualitative ones as the ability to quantify the data. While this helped biological criminology, it could be argued that this posed a problem for classical criminology due to the new sociological belief that crime is a fundamental part of society. A fundamental principle of sociological positivism is that crime is important for society to function, for example, Emile Durkheim’s suggesting crime is a normal paradigm within society and social solidarity. However, one element of the crime that both positivists and classical criminologists can agree on is the level of crime that our society experiences are dysfunctional and therefore punishment is needed in order to deter some offenders from committing crime. Deterrence has always played a key part in criminology and has been carried into the modern perception of positivism.

Biological criminology looks as crime and deviance as a direct result from pathological factors which has created an illness making the offender a ‘natural criminal’. Their criminal behaviour comes from an inability to learn throughout their life which has affected both their learning and socialisation leading directly to the crime. This links in to their childhood socialisation, interlinking with the sociological positivist approach. While this does have common links and explains a large section of crime it does ignore crimes such as corporate and white collar crime where middle-class intellectuals commit a crime within business or taxes as these people are seen as highly intellectual, whereas this is easily explained by Bentham’s pain and pleasure approach. One of the most classic biological theories is Lombroso’s theory, which in the 1800s rejected the classical criminological approach which believed that criminal behaviour was a human characteristic.

However, Lombroso’s theory countered this and believed that a person’s body was what made them criminal. Lombroso’s theory, while it use to be popular, has now been completely discredited. Lombroso’s theory solely relied on a person’s bodily features, which indicates whether a person will become a criminal. A major flaw of his was carrying out his research by examining Italian inmates and comparing them to Italian soldiers, where he found that they were built differently, however, when carrying out his research not everyone he studied was convicted yet. However, these points can both be discredited by The French criminologists falsifying Lombroso’s words. They argued that The born criminal established a determinism that deprived men from their freedom, especially their freedom of choice, or free will. Furthermore, they suggested that his work isn’t credible as some of the offenders he spied on weren’t yet convicted criminals and were still awaiting trial, which makes his evidence spoiled.

Sheldon’s Theory of Bodies determined three types of human bodies, Ectomorph, which was lean, and long but lacked muscle, Endomorph, which were described as large with high body fat and often pear-shaped and finally Mesomorph, who was well built with a high metabolism and muscle mass. Lombroso determined that mesomorphs are the most likely to commit crimes. While this can be verified by the prison population make-up, a body type is something that can be changed throughout somebody’s life and not something which a person is born with, discrediting this theory. However, this can be li lead to social groups having different bodily makeups, for example, a person with a tall lean body with muscle is likely to be a manual worker and therefore working class. It could be argued that this argument has more to do with sociological positivists’ ideal of social stratification, rather than why a person is born a criminal. Overall suggests that the only biological trait which has an impact on whether they become a criminal is a person’s brain rather than their bodily make-up.

Further biological and positivist research over time has completely discredited the ideal of this type of biological criminology, including positivism as it shows that other aspects such as childhood and education have a much more of a fundamental role in creating a criminal rather than a person’s physical make up. While this area of biological criminology has been discredited there are other theories which are backed up by solid evidence. A significant development in biological criminology was brain scanning, which was introduced in the 1980s which arguably revolutionised the understanding of brains functions. Professor Adrain Rain concluded in his study go scanning numerous murders’ brains that nearly all had reduced activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain which controls emotional impulses and generated emotions. This can be further credited due to the case of Phineas Gage, who was impelled in the pre-frontal cortex during a work injury, Gage’s friends in months following noticed differences in his behaviour as he became hostile and violent, a vast difference to his behaviour before his accident.

While this case is strong it can also be discredited due to his frustration with the accident and ability to only use one eye so behaviour could be down to his frustration however the damage to the prefrontal cortex is the most likely reason for his change in behaviour. Furthermore, another biological study backed up with evidence was The Y Chromosome theory demonstrates that a significant amount of criminals have an extra Y chromosome, making their chromosomal make-up XYY instead of XY, meaning that they have a more of a male dominated brain, making them more of an ‘alpha- male’. There are more XYY inmates than XY inmates suggesting that this theory is valid for why this theory is so important into understanding why some people may have natural criminal instincts leading them towards a criminal life. However, this isn’t the only viable explanation as to why people become criminals, for example, this doesn’t explain why businessmen commit white collar crimes or cyber crimes which both contribute greatly to the criminal make-up today. This is another reason why sociological positivism is important as it used Rational Choice Theory, and aspect of classical Criminology, to explain this, something that biological criminology cannot do.

Biological criminology has a strong link to sociological positivism due to its scientific nature. As a whole, there is more evidence to suggest that there is a genetic link towards violent criminal behaviour than to suggest it does not. Furthermore, there has been a strong finding in twin and adoption studies linking to petty crimes, suggesting that biological factors do have an impact on both violent and petty crimes. However biological criminologists would support the idea that the relationship between someone’s genes and their environment and childhood both need to be looked at when exploring why a person commits a crime. Furthermore, Raffaele Garofalo strongly contributes to the idea of biological positivism, in which he argued for a universal ideal of natural crime, in which he suggested that society was an organism and crime the disease of society, linking in to how classical criminologists’ belief of crime being the downfall of society. While he did acknowledge these clear biological he believed in the positivist approach of deterring crime by separating the disease of society in order to contain it. However where his theory falls is its radical view that if a criminal cannot be treated or detained that they should be killed or exiled, today this would be criticised due to society’s belief that criminals should be helped and prisons’ focus should be on rehabilitation and the mental wellbeing of offenders in order to reduce reoffending rates. However, this is a contrast to sociological positivists who believe crime is fundamental to society.

In conclusion, while classical and biological criminology has had significant influence in the past over criminology as academia, their influence has significantly declined in the waking of modern criminology. Large parts of both strands have been falsified by new criminological theories. For example, criminology is now largely a scientific subject and therefore its findings should be able to be falsified and verified in order to stand as a theory, and for the large part, classical criminology cannot do this due to it being based on observations assumptions instead of quantifiable research. However, this does not mean that classical and biological criminology as a whole should be remotely discredited. Some aspects of classical criminologies, such as a person’s ability to make a rational choice and have free will to make the choice are still the fundamental reason why offenders choose to commit crime, and are still greatly being used and respected in all strands of criminology today, however in the wake of sociological criminology, as criminologists we can now explore the social reasons as to why people make these choices, as demonstrated by Merton’s strain theories.

Furthermore, while Lombroso’s work has been almost completely discredited, biological criminology still holds a major place in understanding why people may become criminals. As previously discussed, the facts that back up biological criminology make it greatly important as it can be falsified and verified, for example, The Y Chromosome study has secure findings backing it up. The foundation of sociological positivism is scientific research to back up social and biological reasons such as a person’s upbringing, education and mentality in becoming a criminal. Criminologists cannot simply discredit classical and biological findings but can use the sociological positivist finding to update and modernise these theories by exploring social reasons to adapt their outdated reasonings. In summary, the main flaws of classical criminology are its outdated nature and assumptions as well as harsh outlooks on criminals and punishment however their work on rational choice and free will and still critically important to criminology today. Biological criminology is critical to the modernisation of criminology to the scientific facts behind it and therefore in some ways does have more weight on the subject than classicism in modern days. However, while this is important it is constantly being falsified, which is important and this was evident with Lombroso’s work. Sociological positivism has been fundamental to criminology today as it was what truly made it scientific as well as updated its societal views as to why people may become criminals. While some areas become discredited, classical and biological criminology are both still critically important to criminology today, especially when analysed using sociological positivism.


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The Strengths and Limitations of Classical and Biological Criminological Theories. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from
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