The Positivist School of Criminology

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  • 0:04 Criminology
  • 0:44 Positivism
  • 1:55 Types of Positivism
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Are people who commit crimes fundamentally different from law-abiding citizens? In this lesson, we'll examine the positivist school of criminology, which tries to answer that question by examining the ways in which criminals and non-criminals are different.


Heather is confused. Her friend Bruce stole some money from someone and is now in jail. Heather can't figure out what led Bruce to commit such a crime. Why would Bruce become a criminal, while Heather obeys the law? What's different about them?

Criminology is the study of crime and punishment. It tries to answer the question, 'Why do people commit crimes?' There are, of course, many different ways to try to answer that question. Let's look closer at one school of thought, the positivist school of criminology, and the different types of positivism.


When Heather thinks about what Bruce did, she first thinks that he must have decided that the money was worth the punishment. She thinks that he must have thought about what might happen if he got caught and still chose to commit the crime. But then Heather thinks about herself. Even if she needed money and the risk of getting caught was very low, she still wouldn't steal.

These two ways of looking at crime illustrate the difference between two of the major theories of criminology. The classical school of criminology says that people are rational and that they will weigh the pros and cons of committing a crime. If the pros outweigh the cons, the classical school believes that the person is likely to commit the crime. When Heather thinks that Bruce must have considered his options and rationally chose to commit the crime, she's thinking like a classical theorist.

But then Heather thinks that she'd never commit the crime, even if the pros far outweighed the cons. This is support for the positivist theory of crime. The positivist school of criminology says that criminals act in a different way than non-criminals and that they have their own distinct set of characteristics.

Types of Positivism

Heather is thinking more and more like a positivist theorist. It just seems like Bruce is fundamentally different than she is, and so she believes that perhaps criminals really are different from non-criminals. But what causes them to be different? Why is Bruce the way he is, and Heather the way she is? There are three major types of positivism. They are:

1. Biological positivism says that people commit crimes because of a biological abnormality. This might be a specific gene, or it could be a difference in their brains. For example, perhaps Bruce has less activity in the area of his brain that encourages empathy, so he is more willing to hurt other people to get what he wants. The biological perspective can be traced back to Cesare Lombroso, an Italian who, in the mid-1800s, first said that there were likely biological differences in criminals.

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