Positivist Criminology: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:05 Definition of…
  • 0:46 Positivist Theory
  • 3:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Review the definition of positivist criminology and examine the theories behind the concept. Upon completion of the lesson, you will be able to take a short quiz to test your understanding.

Definition of Positivist Criminology

In the early 1800s, public executions used to be commonplace. The idea was that society would be afraid of the public punishment that came with wrongdoing and adjust their actions. This reasoning for punishment aligns with a view known as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a theory that one is motivated by pleasure and the fear of pain, so punishments can be used as a deterrent to commit crimes. In the mid-1800s, ideas about criminals and punishment started to evolve. Positivist criminology began to emerge, which is the study of criminal behavior based upon external factors.

Positivist Theory

The primary idea behind positivist criminology is that criminals are born as such and not made into criminals; in other words, it is the nature of the person, not nurture, that results in criminal propensities. Moreover, the positive criminologist does not usually examine the role of free will in criminal activity.

One famous positive criminologist was Cesare Lombroso. In the mid-1800s, he studied cadavers and looked for physiological reasons for criminal behavior. Lombroso distinguished between different types of criminals, including the born criminal and the criminaloid. Lombroso issued studies indicating that born criminals possessed similar facial features, which included large canine teeth, large jaws, low-sloping foreheads, high cheekbones and more. Criminaloids, on the other hand, had no physical characteristics of a born criminal but morphed into a criminal during their lives due to environmental factors. Criminaloids supposedly committed less severe crimes than other types of criminals.

In the 1960s and 1970s, positive criminology theories focused on abnormal chromosomes giving rise to criminal propensities. One theory, known as the XYY theory, indicated that violent males had an extra Y chromosome, which resulted in a likelihood toward crime. However, this theory was later disproved.

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