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Criminology: Intellectual History - Positivist Criminology

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The first annual national crime statistics were published in France in 1827, about sixty years after Beccaria wrote his book. It soon became clear that the rates of crime in general and of particular crimes such as murder and rape remained relatively constant from year to year. In addition, some places in the nation had higher crime rates while others had lower, and these differences remained relatively constant from year to year. All of this suggested that there might be some broader social causes to crime, instead of it being merely a matter of individual free will.

One of the first people to analyze these statistics was Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874). He found that some people were more likely to commit crime than others, especially those who were young, male, poor, unemployed, and undereducated. Young males were more likely to commit crime under any circumstances, so that places with more young males tended to have more crime. But places with more poverty and more unemployment actually had less crime. As it turned out, the poor and unemployed tended to commit crimes in places where there were many wealthy and employed people. Quetelet suggested that opportunities might have something to do with explaining this pattern. He also pointed to an additional factor: the great inequality between wealth and poverty in the same place excites passions and provokes temptations of all kinds. This problem is especially severe in those places where rapidly changing economic conditions can result in a person suddenly passing from wealth to poverty while all around him still enjoy wealth. In contrast, provinces that were generally poor had less crime as long as people were able to satisfy their basic needs. Quetelet found that people with more education tended to commit less crime on the whole but they also tended to commit more violent crime. He therefore argued that increased education itself would not reduce crime.

Quetelet concluded that the propensity to engage in crime was actually a reflection of moral character. Relying on Aristotle's views, he identified virtue with moderation: "rational and temperate habits, more regulated passions . . . [and] foresight, as manifested by investment in savings banks, assurance societies, and the different institutions which encourage foresight." Young males often did not have these virtues, and so they committed high levels of crime. Similarly, these virtues tended to break down among poor and unemployed people who were surrounded by wealth. Thus, his main policy recommendations were to enhance "moral" education and to ameliorate social conditions to improve people's lives.

Quetelet retained the view throughout his life that crime essentially was caused by moral defectiveness, but increasingly took the view that moral defectiveness was revealed in biological characteristics, particularly the appearance of the face and the head. This also made him a direct predecessor of Lombroso, whose major book was published two years after Quetelet's death.

Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) was a physician who became a specialist in psychiatry, and his principal career was as a professor of legal medicine at the University of Turin. His name came into prominence with the publication of his book L'uomo delinquente (The Criminal Man) in 1876. In that book Lombroso proposed that criminals were biological throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary stage, people more primitive and less highly evolved than their noncriminal counterparts. He used the term atavistic to describe these less-evolved people.

The idea of evolution was quite recent at the time. Darwin had proposed the evolution of animals in 1859 in his book On The Origin of Species. In 1871, in his book Descent of Man, Darwin argued that humans were the same general kind of creatures as the rest of the animals, except that they were more highly evolved or developed. He also suggested that some individuals might be reversions to an earlier evolutionary stage. In that same year, Lombroso conducted a postmortem examination on a certain Vilella, a highwayman who died in prison, during which he found certain unusual characteristics of the skull. Those anomalies that led him to conclude that Vilella was not as highly evolved as other people. Lombroso then discovered a second subject, Vincenzo Verzeni, who had raped, strangled, and dismembered women, who was physiologically similar. As a result, he concluded that criminals in general are atavistic, less evolved than noncriminals.

Lombroso is known principally for his theory of the atavistic criminal, but the real basis of the positive school is the search for the causes of criminal behavior. That search is based on the conception of multiple factor causation, where some of the factors may be biological, others psychological, and still others social. Lombroso did much by way of documenting the effects of many of these factors. As his thinking changed over the years, he looked more and more to environmental rather than biological factors. By the end of his life, Lombroso included as causes of crime such things as climate, rainfall, the price of grain, sex and marriage customs, criminal laws, banking practices, national tariff policies, the structure of government, church organization, and the state of religious belief. It had also become clear that his theory of the atavistic criminal was much too simple and naive, and it has since been largely abandoned.

Criminology: Intellectual History - Modern Criminology As The Search For The Causes Of Crime [next] [back] Criminology: Intellectual History - Classical Criminology

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