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Biological/Individual Positivism was developed as a theoretical approach to criminology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and was established by key figures Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Raffaele Garofalo. These criminological positivists were the first to concern themselves with discovering and eliminating the causes of crime and criminality. To discover and eliminate the causes of crime and criminality, positivists engaged the methods of scientific, rather than philosophical analysis. The main argument of biological/individual positivism is that crime occurs because the offender has not been sufficiently or effectively socialized, or educated of society’s values. Core principles of positivism include, the doctrine of determinism, focus on the actor not the act, and treatment not punishment. Other core concepts of individual positivism include rejecting metaphysical or risky approaches and adopting scientific methods. The innovation of biological/individual positivism introduced a collection of new ideas and practices that have contributed significantly to the growth of criminology.
Biological Positivism represents the earliest manifestation of Individual Positivism and is associated with the Italian School of Positivist Criminology inspired by the work of Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso was famous in the 19th century because he claimed to have discovered the causes of crime. Lombroso’s theory suggested that “criminals are distinguished from non-criminals by the manifestation of physical anomalies that represented atavistic or degenerative origin”. Atavism means the hereditary transmission from earlier generations and ancestors. Atavism was a term Lombroso used to describe individuals who were not fully developed. Lombroso believed that the criminal was almost a separate species demonstrating a variety of mental and physical characteristics separating them from the rest of society. “Specifically, he claimed that criminals have abnormal dimensions of the skull and jaw”. Lombroso’s theoretical approach was to believe that becoming a criminal was somehow to be explained through identifying specific characteristics of individuals. On the basis of Lombroso’s arguments, he constructed and classified criminals in four main categories. Firstly, born criminals who can be distinguished by their physical atavistic characteristics. Secondly, insane criminals who are labeled as idiots, imbeciles, and alcoholics. Thirdly, occasional criminals are those who were pulled into crime by their environment or situation. Finally, criminals by passion are those motivated to commit crimes by love, anger, honor or other emotional factors.
Lombroso argued that criminology should focus primarily on the scientific study of criminals and criminal behavior. At the end of the 19th century, it was suggested that criminality is inherited in the same way as physical characteristics. The attempt to locate proof of genetic transmission for criminality was focused on three areas – family studies, twin studies, and adoption studies. Goring conducted a study with 3000 prisoners that had a history of long and frequent sentences, and a control group of non-criminals. According to the results, the “prisoners were inferior to the control group in terms of physical size and mental ability, while strong associations between the criminality of children and their parents and between brothers were found”. Osborn and West also discovered that around 40% of the sons of criminal fathers were criminals themselves, compared to a figure of 13% for sons of non-criminal fathers.
The twin study method was been widely used in seeking to determine the influence of hereditary in, for example, intelligence, and also in disturbances such as alcoholism, depression, and schizophrenia. Lange examined a group of 30 men, consisting of 13 identical twins and 17 fraternal twins who all had a prison record. Lange found that in 77% of the identical twin cases, the other brother also had a record. This percentage relationship is referred to as a criminal concordance, meaning both members of a pair have a particular attribute. According to the findings from previous studies, identical twins generally showed a much higher degree of criminal concordance than fraternal twins. However, the criminal concordance was found to be higher for both categories where more serious offenses had been committed, for example, murder.
An alternative strategy to the use of twins is to study adopted children. “The assumption in such work is that if adopted children resemble biological rather than adoptive parents in some important respects, then this is potentially evidence of a genetic influence”. Research by Hutchings and Mednick found evidence that adoptees with criminal records had a higher proportion of biological mothers and fathers with criminal records than adoptees with no criminal records. Researchers concluded that there was an inherited characteristic element that was transmitted from the criminal parents to their children that increased the likelihood of the children developing criminal behavior.
Compared to the classicism approach, positivism argued that criminals did not willingly choose to commit a crime, but instead were determined into crime by factors beyond the criminal’s control. Therefore, behavior is determined within individuals. Positivists called this the doctrine of determinism. As the approach of positivism grew over time, the biological and heredity concepts were reduced, and psychological and environmental factors grew more attention. ‘Focus on the actor, not the act’ is another core concept of positivism, as its beliefs were to focus on the criminal rather than the crime. Bradley and Walters also acknowledged that “if the crime is the result of factors beyond the control of the individual, then the criminal cannot be viewed as responsible but rather as irresponsible.” The positivist aspect was not to punish criminals but to rehabilitate them. The necessary steps to be taken would be to identify the causes of crime committed by an individual, then address these causes. “Thus, it was the job of the expert to both identify these factors and then designed ways of treating them”.
“Positivism was founded on the belief, that there were other factors either innate to the individual or to be found in the immediate environment which could be identified, and which would help determine the criminal from the non-criminal”. Burke acknowledged how The Italian Positivist School denied the concept of free will and the approach of equality that was expressed by the classism approach. Positivists replaced this with the assumption of determinism. Today, people consider Lombroso’s work to have been condensed and somewhat laughable. However, Lombroso and other key figures made some significant contributions to the development of modern criminological theory. ‘It should be remembered that these ideas led to rather more liberal interpretations of punishment”. Burke recognizes that Lombroso demonstrated the significance of examining clinical and historical records. “Most importantly, he recognized the need for multi-factor explanations of crime that includes not only hereditary but also social, cultural and economic factors”. Biological/individual positivism has significantly impacted the criminal justice system today. The theories and concepts previously developed have contributed to the ending of cruel, inhumane treatment of criminals and to the reformation of the death penalty. As Walklate says that these criminals may be different and abnormal, but they were subjected to forces outside of their control. “Therefore, imprisonment might be a more appropriate punishment than execution”. The Positivist School of thought made it possible to get the criminals the help they need to be rehabilitated.
This essay has been concerned with introducing the basic features of biological/individual positivism in criminology, and the importance of the historical development of biological positivism. It has outlined the new ideas and practices it has introduced into today’s society. According to biological positivism, criminals are different to non-criminals. Criminals are somehow impaired and are missing something that non-criminals have. This impairment was manifested in biological and psychological factors. Therefore, individuals did not choose to commit a crime, but factors beyond their control had driven them to commit a crime. Unlike the classicism approach, positivism believed that it should not only be about punishment. Positivism aimed to reform, rehabilitate or cure. The punishment should fit the criminal, not the crime.
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