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Early Forms of Criminology

In this post, we will look at some of the first schools of thought on crime. The two schools, in particular, we will look at are classical and positivist criminology. Both of these schools of thought are still found in varying degrees in the modern era.

Classical Criminology

The classicist school of criminology dates back to the 18th century. Major influencers of this school of thought include Cesare Becarria and Jeremey Bentham. Classicism is also based heavily on ideas from the Enlightenment. For example, there is an assumption in Classicism that people are rational and free-willed and weigh the risk and rewards of actions. For criminologists, the assumption of rational thought implies that criminals go through a decision-making process before committing a crime. Therefore, if the deterrents are strong enough people will not choose to break the laws.


Social contract theory was another tenet of the classical school. Social contract theory states that people come together to make society work. In other words, people make agreements among themselves to abide by certain rules which implies that there is some form of a deterrent if people do not follow the rules.

A closely related idea to social contract theory is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that whatever is useful to most people should be implemented. Within the context of criminology, this means that laws that benefit the most people should be adopted and enforced.

Secularism is another critical component of classicism. Essentially, secularism within the context of criminology is based on the idea that man should make laws rather than God or the church. In other words, secularism seeks to push religious morals out of the criminal justice system. All forms of divine revelation and God’s law should not remove and reason should be the mechanism for right and wrong.

In terms of punishment, classic criminologists wanted to move from barbaric to more rational forms of punishment. During the 18th century, people were hanged, drawn and quartered, burned alive, tortured, mutilated, etc. For significant and even small crimes depending on their social rank. Classicists want to move to other forms of punishment such as imprisonment. Classists want the punishment to match the crime along with a measure of humanity in the method of correction.

Criticism of classicism includes the assumption that people are mostly rational in their decision-making process. People are often driven by emotions which is generally ignored in classicism. In addition, classicism absolves society from any role individuals play in breaking laws because it is assumed that society is fair and justice which is often not true.

Positivist Criminology 

The positivist school of criminology originated in the 19th century and was a reaction to the classicist school. Major proponents of this school included Cesare Lomroso, Enrici Ferri, and Francis Galton. The supporters of positivism use a scientific approach to addressing crime and its motives. Whereas classicism blamed the individual positivism would blame a person’s genetic makeup and or society as a whole.

Positivism has a deterministic view of crime based on the physical characteristics of an individual. For example, studies were done that would determine criminality by body type, the shape of the skull, and even the chromosomal makeup of people such as how many y chromosomes a person had. Men with XYY chromosomal were deemed more dangerous than individuals with only the more commonly found XY chromosome.

Since there was an emphasis on the appearance of the individual. It was commonly believed that criminals were different from society. Criminals are driven into crime outside of their own control. This implies a reduction in harsher sentences because people are generally not normal as they are committing crimes.

Positivism has its own problems. The traits found in criminals that are claimed to cause them to commit crimes are commonly found in the general public. In addition, it is difficult to establish causation just because a group of people all share similar traits and behavior. Lastly, positivism removes self-agency and the freedom of the individual to choose to do good or evil.


Understanding the origins of different ideas in a discipline can help an individual to appreciate the source of diversity of thought that is found in different places. Classicism and positivism serve different purposes in criminology. Each approach plays a critical role in shaping criminology in the world today.

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