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Crime Causation: Political Theories

Political Orientations And Theoretical Affinities, Theories Of Crime And Explaining Political Crime, Conclusion, Bibliography

From its inception criminology has been embedded in politics (Radzinowicz). Despite frequent claims to scientific objectivity, criminological inquiry has been defined and sustained by political concerns. Affinities between political orientations and explanations of crime have often been noted, and debates over theoretical differences have typically included references to such affinities. Indeed, pointing out the ideological assumptions and implications of theories has been a standard element in assessments of their worth—with or without regard for research findings.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the idea of studying crime and criminals was closely associated with that of making governance more effective. European intellectuals saw the arbitrariness and cruelties of despotic rule as threats to social order. Their views were crystallized in 1764 by Cesare Beccaria, one of the Italian illuministi, who forcefully and concisely argued that punishment of offenders should be "public, necessary, the minimum possible under the circumstances, [and] proportionate to the crime" (quoted in Beirne, p. 38). By the 1830s the movement to rationalize governmental social control through law promoted statistical studies of the "dangerous classes" (ultimately leading to Cesare Lombroso's search for "born criminals") and the mapping of associations between crime and various indicators of moral deficiency (for the detailed history see Beirne).

Until the 1960s, disagreements among criminologists centered almost entirely on how best to measure and explain the characteristics of people who ran afoul of the law, or who were statistically likely to do so. It was generally assumed that the goal of criminology is to learn what pathologies, individual and/or environmental, cause criminal behavior. That assumption was challenged by a growing number of "conflict" criminologists who argued (1) that criminality is defined by a lawmaking process influenced mainly by the more powerful classes in society, and (2) that the prime directive of law enforcement is to protect the interests of the higher classes, so that (3) the lower classes are more likely both to commit the kinds of acts legally defined as crimes (while the often much more harmful behaviors of the higher classes are not so defined) and to be labeled as criminals regardless of their behavior.

Where criminologists stand on the issues raised by traditional and conflict criminological studies largely determine the research questions they ask, and the theories they find most promising in looking for answers. Although the complexity of theories may sometimes leave them open to differing political interpretations and uses, there are affinities between conservative, liberal, and radical political orientations and major statements about crime causation.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law