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By Roger Perera


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Crime is a many and varied phenomenon. The search for answers to the problem of crime is not new nor an easy one. What is it that makes some individuals resort to criminal behaviour while others do not? It is intended in this essay to discuss and compare three criminological theories Classicism � Positivism and Sutherland’s differential association theory, and how they have aided today’s understanding of crime.

Prior to classical criminology’s evolution in European society, the explanation of human behaviour was approached in one of two different ways. One was spiritualistic and the other was naturalistic. The spiritualistic explanation was one of other world powers or spirits controlling objects or persons and effecting their behaviour. Therefore criminal behaviour was caused by the individual being possessed by demons. On the other hand the naturalistic theory postulated that the explanation must be found within the world of physical and material fact (Vold, 17).

The classical school was the first of the naturalistic theories. Led by an Italian mathematician and economist Cesare Bonesana Marchese De Beccaria (178 � 174) it viewed man as free, rational and hedonistic who based his actions on the costs and benefits. Society by increasing the costs and reducing the benefits reasoned the individual would choose legitimate options over illegal ones (Vold, 17).

Around the 180’s, a new view developed by the positivist criminologists declared that mans behaviour was beyond his control and was determined by biological or cultural factors. Cesare Lombroso (185 � 10) claimed that some people were born criminals. He believed that criminal types could be identified by the shape of their skull and were throwbacks to a more primitive human being. Lombroso saw most criminals as biologically defective, although conceded that the influence of socialisation could affect the development of criminal behaviour (A Giddens, 1).

The twentieth century brought forth many new theories with the advancement of the sciences. Edwin H Sutherland (188 � 150) put forward the idea of differential association. It was his view that crime was accepted in some societies and cultures, therefore some individuals could be socialised into criminal activities by others who were “carriers of criminal norms” (Giddens, 1). So to attain the accepted needs and values, some were socialised into illegal activities while others chose to use the law-abiding avenue.

To compare these theories one needs to remember the time in which they were formulated. The classical criminological theorists drew much of their information from philosophists Montesquieu, Socrates, Bacon, Voltaire, Rousseau and Descartes to name but a few. They held the view that mans intelligence and rationality were the basis of human behaviour Therefore by careful education and socialisation man could be master of his own destiny. The classical school theory was based on the premise of punishment as a deterrent. Beccaria among others, like Jeremy Bentham (1748 � 18) an English jurist and philosopher were very influenced by these great minds. Beccaria openly acknowledged his indebtedness to the “humanist writings of the French Philosophies” (Beirne, 1). Beccaria’s friendship with Alessandro Verri whose job was protector of prisoners in Milan, allowed him to become acquainted with the conditions and atrocities of the time, with the public hangings, whippings, mutilations and torture to extort confessions (Lilly Cullen & Ball, 15). Beccaria recognised that the laws were unjust and with the huge inequality in society, lawbreakers were punished wrongly. It was his view that all men look for a profit in life even when it means taking advantage of others.

It was with these images in mind that he sought to change the system of punishments, and in doing so created an explanation of criminal behaviour that is still relevant to today’s criminology. The book dei delitte that had taken 11 months to write took Europe by storm. He put forth a new set of ideas never before expressed. One of his more radical ideas suggested the removal of the absolute power of judges to be replaced by laws that determined the punishment of crimes (Vold, 17). The judges’ function was to determine whether or not the individual or individuals were guilty. He also argued that the punishment of the crime was not as important as the prevention of crime; that punishment should act as a deterrent; that by publicising all laws the individual could make rational choices about crime; that all torture and capital punishments should be abolished and replaced with prison sentences as determined by the laws (Vold, 17).

Many of the contributions of the classical school are still in place in today’s society, with impartial and specific laws for the punishment of crimes and that all individuals are treated fairly and equally (Lilly et al, 15). The 180’s saw a change in the thinking of criminology, as punishment as a deterrent did not appear to be working. In fact crime was flourishing. The causes of crime were not being addressed and a search was on for the “criminal man”, and why individuals behaved in this way rather than the idea of man being rational and acting in a criminal manner due to his own choice and free will. These were the beginnings of the Positivist school of criminology. Empirical facts were being sought to confirm that crime was caused by physical characteristics of the individual.

Cesare Lombroso a graduate in medicine largely developed the notion that crime was determined by multiple factors some biological and some environmental. This was a departure from the idea that crime was a result of Hedonism and the free will of the individual. He became interested in the biological explanation of crime while serving as an army physician between 185 and 186. During this time he documented the physical differences of ,000 soldiers (Lilly et al, 15). He used this information to form an opinion that criminals wore tattoos. Lombroso felt that criminals were representative of a more primitive type of human than the non-criminals and were a biological throwback (i.e. atavistic).

He classified criminals into four major categories

“(a) born criminals, people with atavistic characteristics; (b) insane criminals, who included idiots, imbeciles, and paranoiacs, as well as epileptics and alcoholics; (c) occasional criminals or criminaloids, whose crimes are explained primarily by opportunity, and (d) criminals of passion who commit crimes because of anger, love, or honour”. Wolfgang, (17, pp. 5-5 cited in Lilly et al, 15).

His theory of the biological explanation of the criminal type was modified through five editions of his book “On criminal man”. During this time he emphasised the need to study the individual using statistical methods and measurements. As a “slave to facts” Lombroso taught us about scientific study of the criminal using anthropological, social and economic data. However his biological explanations are considered very unsophisticated in today’s world (Lilly et al, 15).

Enrico Ferri (156 � 18) one of Lombrosos’s pupils was interested in statistics especially in relation to the study of crime and expanded the theories of Lombroso. His main ideas were focused on “the inter-relatedness of social and economic and political factors. In “the homicide” Ferri put forward his famous idea that criminals were classified into four categories insane, born, occasional and criminal by passion. He argued that crime was caused by a number factors. These included physical (race, climate, temperature), individual factors (age, sex), and social factors (customs, religion and population) (Vold, 17).

As did Lombroso and Ferri, Raffaele Garofalo (185 � 14) rejected the idea that crime was a result of free will and hedonism. He was fully in agreement that crime could only be understood through the scientific study of the individual. Garofalo led life as a distinguished magistrate and was naturally concerned with what to do with the criminal. In line with a Darwinian principle of adaptation of the species and elimination of those unable to adapt, he developed a theory of punishment that called firstly for the elimination of those unable to adapt to civilised life, an example being those with permanent psychological problems. Secondly a lesser punishment existed which consisted of life imprisonment or transportation. Lastly for those who committed crimes and it appeared it wouldn’t happen again there was forced reparation (Vold, 17).

Garofalos argument that society is a “natural body” therefore crimes were offences” against the law of nature”, and that probity and pity were being violated (Lilly et al, 15) fell in line with the Darwinian reasoning of the time. Thus he felt very strongly that society was more important than the individual therefore the individual was expendable. Not surprisingly both Garofalo and Ferri’s work was accepted by the Mussolini regime as “science” was being used to rid society of racial, social and physical impurities.

The Italian positivist statistics were not very sophisticated which was demonstrated when Goring (11) using a expert statistician studied ,000 English convicts with a control group of normal males. Goring measured 6 different physical features and found no significant differences between the two groups, the convicts only showing a slightly smaller body frame (Lilly et al, 15). The search for body types and crime continued into the 0th century with many continuing the research.

Edwin Sutherland’s differential association developed from the previous work of Shaw and McKay on juvenile delinquency. Sutherland spent a large part of his career studying the “social roots of criminal behaviour, Geis & Goff, 18, 186; Schuessler, (17, cited in Lilly et al, 15). His research into “white collar” crime and professional theft led him to disbelieve the idea that criminals were a distinct physical type as he felt that the society they lived in directed their criminal involvement. He believed that the individual learned criminal behaviour regardless of their social status but through their social relationships.

Sutherland’s’ theory went through several stages but by 147 he had formulated nine principles.

1. Criminal behaviour is learned.

. Criminal behaviour is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

. The principal part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs within intimate personal groups.

4. When criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalisations, and attitudes.

5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of legal codes as favourable and unfavourable.

6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of law. This is the principle of differential association.

7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

8. The process of learning criminal behaviour by association with criminal and anticriminal patterns involves all the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.

. While criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values since noncriminal behaviour is an expression of the same needs and values Sutherland & Cressey, (170, pp. 75-76, cited in Lilly et al, 15).

Differential association had formulated an explanation of many types of criminal activities and helps explain affluent criminal’s behaviour. Criminal or noncriminal behaviour and attitudes were learned from family and friends and that it is a learning process just like any other (Siegel, 1). After Sutherland’s death in 150, Donald R Cressey and others like Ronald L Akers continued the work on differential association.

The legacies from the classical era, positivists school and Sutherland’s theory of differential association has been built on to help broaden our picture of crime and criminals. The classical school provided us with laws for the punishment of crime and equality in the treatment of individuals. The positivists have brought methodology and scientific research to us through their efforts with the biological quest for the causes of crime. Differential association and its later off shoots has allowed us to look at the social nature of man and how we interact and learn social processes from our fellow human beings. Through gradual social change and education, through our growing knowledge of the biological man and technological advances the theories of criminology continue to be defined and refined

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Beirne, P. (1). Inventing criminology. Albany State University of New York Press.

Giddens, A. (1). Sociology (nd ed.). Cambridge Polity Press.

Lilly, J.R., Cullen, F.T. & Ball R.A., (15). Criminological theory context and consequences (nd ed.). California Sage Publications, Inc.

Siegel L.J., (1). Criminology theories, patterns, and typologies (4th ed.). St. Paul University of Massachusetts.

Vold, G.B. (17). Theoretical criminology (nd ed.). New York Oxford University Press.

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