Classical vs. Positivist Criminology

Updated on June 11, 2015
Classical vs. Positivist Criminology
Classical vs. Positivist Criminology | Source

Criminal Punishment: A Turning Point

In the mid-eighteenth century, social philosophers started arguing for a more rational approach to criminal punishment. They sought to eliminate the cruel public executions which were designed to scare people into obedience.

Cesare Beccaria and Utilitarianism

This moderate view was developed by Cesare Beccaria, an Italian scholar who firmly believed in the concept of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the view that people’s behavior is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. (Siegal, 2010)

According to Beccaria, crimes occur when the potential pleasure and rewards from illegal acts outweigh the pains of punishment. Beccaria’s theory was that in order for punishment to be effective, it must be public, prompt, necessary, proportionate, and dictated by law, and the least possible with the given circumstances.

The Classical Theory has several elements to it:

  1. People have free will to choose criminal or lawful solutions to meet their needs or settle their problems.
  2. Crime is attractive when it promises great benefits with little effort.
  3. Crime may be controlled by the fear of punishment.
  4. Punishment that is (or is perceived to be) severe, certain, and swift will deter criminal behavior. (Siegal, 2010)

The Pleasure vs. Pain of Utilitarianism
The Pleasure vs. Pain of Utilitarianism | Source

A Challenge to the Classical Theory: The Positivist Theory

In the nineteenth century, a new vision of the world was taking place. This view was challenging the validity of the Classical Theory. This was an innovative way of looking at the causation of crime. This was the Positivist Theory.

Ceasare Lombroso and the Born (Biological) Criminal

Cesare Lombroso, famous in the nineteenth century because he claimed to have discovered the cause of crime, became known as the father of criminology. Lombroso wrote The Criminal Man, published in 1876, in which he claimed that the dead bodies of criminals revealed that they were physically different than normal people. Specifically, he claimed that criminals have abnormal dimensions of the skull and jaw. Lombroso believed that criminals were born with these traits and did not commit crimes according to free will, as the classical school of criminology had suggested.

If criminality was inherited, Lombroso further claimed that certain physical characteristics could be distinguished. These would be large jaws, low sloping foreheads, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned noses, handle-shaped ears, hawk-like noses, fleshy lips, hard and shifty eyes, scanty beards or baldness, insensitivity to pain, and long arms relative to the lower limbs.

After successive research and analysis, Lombroso modified his theories and identified two other types of criminal: The insane criminal and the criminaloid. He concluded that insane criminals bore some of the characteristics of a criminal but were not born criminals. Rather, they became criminal as a result of an alteration of the brain which upset their moral nature. According to Lombroso, criminaloids had none of the physical characteristics of the born criminal but became criminals later in life.

These criminaloids also tended to commit less serious crimes. They were further categorized as habitual offenders who became so by contact with other criminals, the abuse of alcohol, or other distressing circumstances. Lombroso was also an advocate for the humane treatment of criminals. He argued for the removal of born criminals from society for their own and society’s protection, for rehabilitation for those not born criminals, and was against capital punishment.

Criminology Today

Each school of thought, Classical and Positivist, has impacted the criminal justice system today. They are both in force, and both of these theories contributed to the cessation of cruel, inhumane treatment of criminals and to the reformation of the death penalty.

Our Constitution is based on both schools of thought. The system's sentencing guidelines are based on the Classical school of thought with the concept “let the punishment fit the crime,” and the Positivist school of thought made it possible to get criminals the help they need to be rehabilitated. (Siegal, 2010)

Works Cited

Siegal, L. J. (2010). Criminology, The Core. Lowell: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Unknown. (n.d.). Cesare Lombroso. Retrieved September 30, 2010, from New World Encyclopedia.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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    • profile image

      abdul sattar arisar 

      2 years ago

      possitivists could be critisised according to modern world

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Okay, this tells me about the Classical school, but the info about the Positivist theory is lacking and not as concise as that of the classical school. ie. no numbered basic characteristics.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What are the comparative analysis between these schools?

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      both schools have cricts but both are important in the school of criminology.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Positivism and classical are all confusing

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Tracy, you make the age old mistake of believing that criminals and convicts are outside of the society in which you live. This is a common misconception.

      The government, to whom you pay taxes, pays police force wages to regulate and capture criminals. A portion of your taxes also pays to house, feed and clothe criminals but do you understand why? Prison is used as a punishment and a deterrence to put potential criminals off committing crime - look up hedonistic rationality.

      I don't even understand your babble about policemen becoming criminal because they're in the company of 'crimilinoids' (not even a real word). It is well known that a majority of policemen become institutionalised into the 'canteen culture'. Yes, we hear about bent coppers but that's media sensationalism for you - they pick up on the rare, serious problems and milk it for all it's worth.

      Did you also know that proper rehabilitation - educating the illiterate/innumerate prisoners and teaching them real employment skills - can reduce the risk of reoffending by up to 50%? That means less career criminals, less criminals in our prisons with shorter sentences and more money for the government to spend on education, healthcare, etc.

      The idea of dumping criminals in a cell and leaving them there for their sentence with no rehabilitation is ridiculous, at least in minor non-violent offences and even some violent ones. As a society, we don't want criminals reoffending and sponging money off us, which means we need to be teaching them, re-socialising them and making them productive, content individuals as part of society when they are released.

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      7 years ago

      You are educated Tracy.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      it is funny but the idea that this particular generation has is that the society within which these criminals by nature are born int is ne which should tolerate them

      It should not be my jb to house him feed him and clothe him

      It is quite likely that by subjecting our policemen to constant company of criminals will become crimilinoids are ruining them because the w criminaloids

      so I say that we grasb our stuff and go as far from criminals as we can let them know we do not want them


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