After a century of criminological theory, why does crime still exist

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27 April 2016

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After more than a century of criminological theory, a central question remains: why does crime still exist? To answer this question one must first come to a clear definition as to what crime actually means. In essence crime can be considered a social concept; a specific word attributes an individual to a particularly undesirable group. This allocations is based upon an event; some sort of wrong-doing or deviance from the norm which results in social, physical, mental, property or financial harm.

The fact is, there is no singular definition to crime- there are multiple views and opinions yet none stands as a concrete definition. From a formally legal perspective, crime can be defined as by the state; that is if a specific act is defined by criminal law and is subject to punishment than it can be considered a crime. Conversely from a labelling perspective, crime can only exist if a particular event has resulted in a social response. It is this social response which instigates the criminal label and thus if there is no label, there is no crime.

The ambiguity in the definition of crime alone provides grounds for its continuous existence. After all it seems only logical that we cannot rid of something that is not universally agreed upon. In attempts to unveil the cloak of criminality, various theories have been put forward which seek to clarify what is unclear. Of particular interest is the classical approach to crime and the idea of positivism and individualist behaviour. The classical theory of criminality locates the source of criminality within the individual and describes it as a rational choice (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990).

Positivism on the other hand emphasises causation and determinism, it focuses on both the external and internal factors which drive individual behaviour (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Both of these theories hold opposing views about the causations of crime however they both seek to give reason to the existence of criminal behaviour. By focusing on these theories we may receive some clarity as to why crime still exists. Classical Theory:

According to the classical theory criminality is seen to be derived from the individual and their ability to reason. This theory encapsulates crime as a matter of choice and intent on the part of the offender. Due to crime being represented as a choice of the offender, responsibility for that crime is thus attributed solely to the individual. Classical theory views all individuals as having equal opportunity to reason and be rational thus making us accountable for our actions. The basis of such a view stems from the assumption that there is general consensus among members of society; individuals surrender particular rights to state in exchange for its protection thus forming a social contract.

Because we are all viewed as having equal opportunity to reason, the classical view holds that any rules or laws developed by consensus should be viewed as reasonable and binding to all; this is the social contract. The classical theory thereby defines criminality as someone who acts irrationally or makes a bad choice which violates the social contract. The two leading figures behind the development of the classical theory are Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. According to Beccaria (1764) and Bentham (1970) the basis of all social action should be viewed as the utilitarian concept which results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people in society. Beccaria stated that crime should be considered as an injury to society as a whole and as such punishment should be used as a deterrent.

This concept alone is the core is the core policy classical theory adopts when responding to crime; deterrence. Punishment is in essence the force which maintains the existence of a social contract between the state and individual (Carlsmith and Darley 2002). Classical theory states that all crimes should be associated with some sort of punishment. However the purpose of this punishment within the law is to deter individuals and not to seek vengeance. Deterrence should be directed at both the individual (direct deterrence) and at society as a whole (general deterrence). As such punishment should fit the crime but still outweigh the attraction of individual(s) to commit that crime [Beccaria (1764) and Bentham (1970)]. The Persistence of crime:

To answer the question as to why classical theory has failed to rid society of crime we must further examine the work of Jeremy Bentham. According to Bentham (1970) “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters; pain and pleasure. Bentham outlines how all human behaviour can be linked to a self-interested pursuit of pleasure adaversion of pain. Thus according to this crime can be considered as behaviours seeking to satisfy some underlying universal desires.

In that sense people can be seen as rational when they commit crimes and when they do not. Furthermore it implies that people act first in the interest of the self and are free to choose a course of action, be it legal or illegal. Thus classical theory hasn’t failed to rid society of crime because it never attempted to do so; the theory merely accepts the fact that crime will co-exist alongside free-will and as such classicism seeks to minimise it.

According to Blumstein, Cohen, and Nagin (1978) a review of seminal studies conducted from 1960-1970 depicted that certainty of punishment and severity of punishment correlated highly with lower levels of crime. Furthermore Shepherd (2002) demonstrated that cross-sectional studies and surveys support the previous findings in that perceived certainty of punishment has a strong inverted association with criminal offending.

Strengths and Weaknesses:
The strongest point classicism holds is its emphasis on equality. In the eyes of the law classicism enforces that everyone be viewed and treated the same. Whilst in theory this notion may seem appealing as it rids the legal system of bias judgements such as lifting the laws for the rich, it also has a dark side. Classicism ignores the specificity of the defendant.

Some people such as mentally ill or children are clearly not rational yet classicism overlooks this. Classicism incorrectly assumes that people are equal in terms of life chances and it does little to address the causations of crime. Thus although the deterrence policy adopted by classicism has been proven to work, the theory refuses to acknowledge external factors which may influence crime. Even though classical systems of crime are still used today, such theoretical models became largely unfavourable in the mid-19th century when a new paradigm of human behaviour became dominant (Tibbets 2012). This view became known as school of positivism. Positivism:

Positivism was first proposed by Auguste Comte (1968) – his theory sought to quantify, classify and acknowledge humanities individual differences when dealing with criminal acts. The core concept underlying positivism is that individual behaviour is shaped by both external and internal factors. The focus of positivism is of the individual and not the crime. Conversely to classicism, positivism asserts that individuals vary and that no two people are alike. As a result rehabilitation is core policy positivism adopts when dealing with criminality.

Positivists emphasize that attention should be drawn to the offender and the offender’s characteristics as opposed to the criminal act itself. Furthermore punishment is not viewed as means to a valid solution in resolving crime. Offenders should receive treatment and this treatment should be individualised to fit the unique characteristics of the offender. Defining Crime:

Similarly to classicism, positivism agrees that there is a moral consensus which exists in society in relation to what constitutes deviant and normal behaviour. However the differences arise when examining what drives criminal activity. Specifically positivists attribute three strands which underlie criminal activity: biological factors, psychological factors and biosocial factors. Biological Factors:

Cesare Lambroso (1968) was the first to put forward the idea that criminals may differ from normal individuals. He did this through his idea of atavism; criminals could be identified from a physical stigma which portrayed them as primitive. Although this is quite obviously wrong he did set in motion the idea that biological makeup may influence criminality. Fishbein (1990) suggested the idea that a person may be born criminal due to genetic dispositions. Similarly Fishbein (1990) and Anderson (2007) emphasise that biological factors are crucial in determining individual behaviour but also that the environment may largely affect these factors. In other words criminals can be seen as the product the environment they are exposed to. Good support for both of these ideas can be seen in substance abuse crimes such as alcohol fuelled violence and high crime rates in specific geographic areas. Psychological Factors:

Psychological positivism focus’s internally on the personality types and typologies which compose individuals. Gibbons (1977) exemplifies that looking at psychology behind deviant behaviour involves exploring the unconscientious mind and the way it shapes our experiences. Biosocial Approach:

Biosocial positivism refers to the acceptance of both biological and psychological factors influencing behaviour as opposed to making a distinction between the two. From this point of view behaviour can be seen as the product of nature vs. nurture, Eysneck (1984) suggested the idea that behaviour can be explained by the combination of biological and environmental influences. Strengths and weaknesses:

A strong point of the positivist approach is that it transcends the notion that people are always and indefinitely in control of their actions. Furthermore it acknowledges the existence of individual difference and emphasises the need for individualised treatment. A problem with the theory is that large amount of power is placed at the mercy of selective experts whose perceptions of intervention may vary greatly.

An example of this arises when attempting early intervention with those who are predisposed to crime. If intervention should take place before deviance the questions which arise are; how early should we do this? Who is to do it? And should we trust them? Dyzenhaus (2004) exemplifies this by drawing on positivism as a political tradition which rejects the connection between common law and morality. He states that when positivist judges are forced to operate with the parameters of common law they are forced to constrain themselves and as such impair their judgement.

Why does crime still exist?
Positivists emphasise the role of external and individual forces in shaping our behaviour. In essence the positivist perspective argues that individuals are not actually in control of their behaviour but rather at the mercy of the various biological and or psychological determinants influencing them. Thus positivism cannot rid society of crime because it acknowledges that we are vulnerable individuals who cannot necessarily control our actions or our fate. Conclusion:

Positivism rears the source of criminality within the idea that people are basically self-seeking. Positivism places its focus on the importance of external and internal determinants of crime and criminality. Both theories provide plausible explanations for crime but none are able to readily remove it from society. This is primarily due to the fact that these theories are mere attempts to understand and define crime as opposed to resolving it.

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StudyScroll. (2016). After a century of criminological theory, why does crime still exist [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 5 December, 2022]

"After a century of criminological theory, why does crime still exist" StudyScroll, Apr 27, 2016. Accessed Dec 5, 2022.

"After a century of criminological theory, why does crime still exist" StudyScroll, Apr 27, 2016.

"After a century of criminological theory, why does crime still exist" StudyScroll, 27-Apr-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 5-Dec-2022]

StudyScroll. (2016). After a century of criminological theory, why does crime still exist. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 5-Dec-2022]

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