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positivist school of criminology


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One of the two major schools of criminology. In contrast to the classical school, which assumes that criminal acts are the product of free choice and rational calculation, the positivist sees the root causes of crime in factors outside the control of the offender. These are to be identified using empirical methods, in particular the analysis of statistics.

The earliest form of positivism, which arose in the late 19th century, involved an attempt to correlate criminal behaviour with certain physiological traits. This led to the identification of a genetic “criminal type” - an idea that is now wholly discredited. Later, psychological positivists used detailed studies to link personality traits with particular crimes and to identify those formative experiences (e.g. parental neglect) that might produce a general predisposition to law-breaking. Alternatively, sociological positivists have sought the causes of crime in factors external to the offender, such as poverty, alienation, high population density, and exposure to deviant subcultures (e.g. gangs or drug-takers). One particularly influential approach was that taken by the Chicago School of the mid 20th century, which used ecological methods to study the breakdown of social order in inner-city neighbourhoods. Other social positivist approaches include Marxist criminology, which sees crime as an inevitable product of class conflict and the capitalist system, and critical criminology, which focuses on the role of power elites in defining what and who is regarded as criminal (see Marxist legal theory). More recently, there has been a general retreat from social theory and a more pragmatic emphasis on crime prevention. See also sociology of law.

Subjects: law.


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