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Criminology: Intellectual History


Criminology is the study of crime and the various responses to it. Over the long span of human history, going back even to ancient times, many of the world's greatest thinkers have addressed this subject in books and articles. It can be useful to look briefly back over this long history, in order to put modern views of crime into their historical context.

Early thinking about crime and punishment

The earliest form of punishment was private revenge, in which the victim or the victim's kin retaliated for injury and the community did not interfere. The problem was that private revenge often escalated into blood feuds that could continue for many years until one or the other family was completely wiped out. The loss of life and property became so great that the communities slowly started to impose trials and official penalties on offenders in order to restrict private vengeance.

For many centuries, this community trial and punishment largely was carried out in the context of religion. Criminal acts were said to be affronts to the gods, who might express their anger through plagues, earthquakes, or other desolation. Punishment proportionate to the wrongdoing was said to lessen the gods' anger. For example, the lex talionis ("an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"), as found in the Bible, prescribed this correspondence between crime and punishment. Properly read as "no more than an eye for an eye" it also significantly limited the excesses of private revenge in an attempt to reduce the consequences of the blood feuds.

While these religious and spiritual approaches to crime and punishment dominated early thinking, naturalistic approaches also go back to antiquity. For example, Plato (429?347 B.C.) argued that the basis of law was the prevailing social morality rather than the laws of the gods. Thus, every action against that morality constituted a crime. In his Republic and Laws he delineated four types of offenses: (1) against religion (theft within a temple, impiety, or disrespect); (2) against the state (treason); (3) against persons (poisoning, use of drugs, witchcraft, sorcery, infliction of injury); and (4) against private property (killing a thief caught stealing at night was not punishable). Plato also made various other arguments: that crime was the product of a faulty education, that the severity of punishment should be determined by the degree of culpability, that criminals are sick individuals who must be cured, and that if they cannot be cured they must be eliminated.

In Aristotle's (384322 B.C.) view, humans were a synthesis of a body and a soul, endowed with intelligence, emotion, and desire. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined crime as the act of free will, stimulated by desire. Thus he argued that children, idiots, the mentally ill, and individuals in a state of ecstasy should not be held responsible for criminal actions.

According to Aristotle, societal responses to crime could be preventive or repressive. Preventive responses could be: (1) eugenic (some children should be nurtured and educated while others should be abandoned and left to die because of some deformity); (2) demographic (the number of births should be limited, and unnecessary pregnancies should be terminated); and (3) deterrent (punishment should be designed to intimidate the offender and deter the onlookers). Repressive responses originally were limited to allowing private revenge, but later were extended to include such measures as banishment and turning the offender over to the victim's family.

Rome was the source of the world's most powerful legal influences. The Twelve Tables are considered the basis of all Roman law, public and private, and it is thought that they were promulgated about 450 B.C. The tables were secular laws, clearly different from religious or moral rules, and included some forty clauses.

The Eighth Table was similar to a body of criminal law and detailed crimes and their punishments. Intentional homicide, setting fire to a dwelling or harvested crop, treason, and parricide were all were punished by death. The intentional infliction of injury was punished by a fine or by the infliction of a comparable injury if the fine was not paid. Punishment for theft generally was compensation equal to double the value of the stolen goods, although a thief caught in the act could be killed. If the thief was a free man, he could be given to his victim as a slave. Death sentences were also imposed on judges or arbitrators caught taking bribes and on witnesses giving false testimony. However, the sentences could only be carried out with the consent of the whole assembly of citizens, and citizens of Rome were rarely put to death. After the second centuryA.D., exile and banishment became common punishments. The institution of slavery decisively influenced the evolution of the penal system in Rome because the very severe sanctions devised for slaves were later extended to the entire population, with the exception of a limited number of privileged and wealthy citizens. When the population of Rome reached one million, during the second century A.D., permanent tribunals were established, composed of thirty or more jurors presided over by a praetor. At first the jurors had to be of the senatorial class, but gentlemen, wealthy citizens, and soldiers later became eligible. These tribunals were empowered to deal with cases of treason, homicide, adultery, corruption, and kidnapping, and there was no appeal from their decisions.

The Middle Ages

The acceptance of Christianity in Europe turned the thinking about crime and punishment in a spiritual direction, away from the naturalistic thinking found in Roman law. The influence of the devil was the most common explanation for crime, and punishments were primitive and cruel. Crime was identified with sin, and the state claimed that it was acting in the place of God when it inflicted these horrible punishments.

In the Middle Ages, this spiritual and religious basis for punishment was joined to the political and social organization of feudalism to produce the beginnings of the criminal justice system. In an attempt to further limit the blood feuds, the feudal lords instituted official methods by which God could indicate who was innocent and who was guilty. One such method was "trial by ordeal," in which the accused was subjected to difficult and painful tests. The belief was that an innocent person (protected by God) would emerge unharmed while a guilty person would die a painful death. For example, a common method of determining whether a woman was a witch was to tie her up and throw her into the water. If she floated she was considered innocent, but if she sank she was guilty. Other forms of ordeal included running the gauntlet and walking on fire. Trial by ordeal was condemned by the pope in 1215 and was replaced by compurgation, in which the accused gathered together a group of twelve reputable people who would swear that he or she was innocent. The idea was that no one would lie under oath for fear of being punished by God. Compurgation ultimately evolved into testimony under oath and trial by jury.

Shortly after the pope condemned trial by ordeal, St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274) began writing his theology, which included an important spiritual explanation of crime and punishment. Aquinas argued that there was a God-given "natural law" that was revealed by observing, through the eyes of faith, people's natural tendency to do good. People's tendency to commit evil, in contrast, was a manifestation of original sin and the Fall from grace, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The criminal law was based on and reflected the "natural law," so that people who commit crime (i.e., violate the criminal law) also commit sin (i.e., violate the natural law). Aquinas argued that crime not only harmed victims, but it also harmed criminals because it harmed their essential "humanness"their natural tendency to do good. He also regarded human misery as a cause of crime and he offered an impassioned defense of those who steal because of extreme misery.

The Renaissance

The end of the Middle Ages in Europe brought the beginning of the modem search for natural explanations of the phenomenon called crime. This was the time of the Renaissance, an age of great humanists who were interested in human character and personality, society and politics. Especially prominent were the utopian writers, whose name derives from the Utopia of Thomas More (14781535), and the "social contract" writers, whose name derives from The Social Contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 1778).

Beginning with Thomas Hobbes (15881678), "social contact" writers substituted naturalistic arguments for the spiritual and religious arguments of people like Aquinas. Where Aquinas argued that people naturally do good rather than evil, Hobbes argued that people naturally pursue their own interests without caring whether they hurt anyone else. This leads to a "war of each against all." But people are rational enough to realize that this "war" is not in anyone's interests, so they agree to give up their own selfish behavior as long as everyone else does the same thing. This is the "social contract"something like a peace treaty when everyone is exhausted from the war of each against all. But the social contract needs an enforcement mechanism to prevent people from cheating. According to Hobbes, that is the role of the state: Everyone who agrees to the social contract also agrees to grant the state the right to use force to maintain the contract.

Later social contract writers protested the criminal laws and punishments of the day and suggested ways to reform them. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu (16891755) insisted that prevention of crime was better than punishment of the criminal, and that punishment merely for its own sake was evil. Voltaire (16941778) became the leader of a movement against the arbitrariness of the French criminal justice system and the prevailing barbaric treatment of prisoners. He advocated rehabilitation and suggested employing prison inmates in dangerous public works as an alternative to enforced idleness. Rousseau was convinced that the institution of property, with the resulting poverty among some groups, caused most criminality. He strongly opposed the existing criminal justice system, which assumed that crime reflected the influence of the devil, declaring instead that humans are basically good and that only untenable social conditions transform them into criminals.

Utopian writers took a position similar to Rousseau'sthat humans are basically good and that this basic goodness would emerge under the proper social conditions. Thus, their books criticized existing social institutions and described imaginary societies in which this basic human goodness was revealed. The most important such book was Thomas More's Utopia. More used sarcasm and satire to criticize social institutions in England. In particular he criticized the current economic conditions in England, discussed their relationship with criminality, and decried the extreme harshness of English justice under Henry VIII. More's book then went on to describe an imaginary land (Utopia) where humans were uncorrupted; where reason, love, and law worked in harmony to make a perfect society, pervaded by a sense of brotherhood among all educated people; where everyone worked and no one was idle; and where justice was designed to eliminate vice rather than to destroy the criminal.

Classical criminology

By the middle of the 1700s, the ideas of the utopian and social contact writers were well known and widely accepted by the intellectuals of the day, but they did not represent the thinking of politically powerful groups. Those ruling groups still held to the spiritual explanations of crime, so that crime was seen as resulting from the fall from an original state of grace and as manifesting the work of the devil. For example, this spiritual and religious thinking about crime and punishment appeared in the Puritan colony on Massachusetts Bay. During the first sixty years of its existence, this colony experienced three serious "crime waves" thought to be caused by the devil. The most serious of these "crime waves" occurred in 1792, when the community was said to have been invaded by a large number of witches. These supposed "witches" were subjected to extreme and horrific punishments.

In direct confrontation with these religious and spiritual views stood the utopian and social contract writers, who advocated rationalism and criticized the prevailing social conditions. Their protests against the abuses of judges, prosecutors, and jailers in the treatment of offenders evolved into the classical school of criminology, whose most outstanding representative was Cesare Beccaria (17381794).

Beccaria was an Italian writer who sought to change these excessive and cruel punishments by applying the rationalist, social contract ideas to crime and criminal justice. His small book, Dei deliti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments), was published in 1764 and was well-received by intellectuals and some reform-minded rulers who had already accepted the general framework of social contract thinking. Even more important for the book's acceptance, however, was the fact that the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 occurred soon after this book's publication. These two great revolutions were both guided by naturalistic ideas of the social contract philosophers. To these revolutionaries, Beccaria's book represented the latest and best thinking on the subject of crime and criminal justice. They therefore used his ideas as the basis for their new criminal justice systems. From America and France, Beccaria's ideas spread to the rest of the industrialized world where they have formed the basis for most modern systems of criminal justice.

Beccaria argued that the legislatures should establish a fixed legal scale of crimes, ranging from the least serious to the most serious, and a corresponding fixed scale of punishments, proportional to the offenses, ranging from the least severe to the most severe. Judges should determine guilt or innocence at trials, which should be public and speedy, and then should apply the punishment that has been fixed in law by the legislature. Any other actions by a judge would be considered tyrannical. Beccaria also argued that the prevention of crime is more important than punishment, and the certainty and quickness with which a punishment is imposed has a greater preventive effect than the severity of the punishment. He thought capital punishment should be abolished, and that prisons should be improved, with inmates segregated on the basis of age, sex, and type of crime.

Beccaria did not deal with the causes of crime but rather established a clear and easily administered system for responding to it. On the whole, it worked quite well and eliminated many of the injustices and abuses that had been the focus of protest writers for several hundred years. The major problem was that the fixed scale of crimes and punishments focused solely on the criminal act and not on the intent of the offender or the circumstances of the crime. As a practical matter, this meant that there were no distinctions between first offenders and recidivists, the sane and insane, or juveniles and adults. Eventually, this exclusive focus on the act was modified in the so-called neoclassical school, which retained the essential principles of the classical school but modified the concept of "the same punishment for the same crime." It allowed judges some discretion and individualization, so that the particular circumstances of each case were taken into account. The neoclassicists recognized that an individual's free will could be affected by pathology as well as by other factors. They introduced the concept of premeditation, admitted the validity of physical, environmental, and psychological mitigating circumstances as bases for attributing only partial responsibility, and accepted expert testimony as to whether an accused was capable of distinguishing and choosing between right and wrong. All of these issues later gave raise to what became known as the "positivist" school of criminology.

Positivist criminology

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 (17961874). 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 (18351909) 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.

Modern criminology as the search for the causes of crime

Criminology today is positivistic in the sense that it studies the causes of crime. But there are really two different methods of studying the causes of crime and therefore two different types of theories in positivist criminology. These can be illustrated with the work of Quetelet and Lombroso. Quetelet initially looked at different areas of France and tried to determine which social characteristics were associated with higher or lower crime rates in those areas. In contrast, Lombroso initially looked at individual criminals and tried to determine which individual characteristics were associated with more or less criminal behavior.

These are two very different approaches to the study of the causes of crime. On the other hand, by the end of their careers, both of these theorists had incorporated elements of the other's approach in their explanations of crime. This suggests that these approaches are not incompatible, but that they represent separate questions: Why are some people more likely to commit crime than others? and Why do some social units have higher crime rates than others? Answering these two questions has been the focus of and enormous amount of theory and research in criminology over the last one hundred years. In general, biological and psychological theories in criminology attempt to answer the first of these two questions, while social theories attempt to answer the second.

Biological theories in criminology

Studies of twins and adoptees lend general support for the notion that there is a connection between biology and crime. For example, some studies have found that identical twins (who develop from a single fertilized egg and thus have identical genetic heritage) are more likely to have similar criminal records than fraternal twins (who develop from two different fertilized eggs and thus have the same genetic relationship as ordinary siblings). In addition, some studies of adopted children have found that the criminal records of adopted children are similar to the criminal records of their biological parents, regardless of the criminal records of their adopted parents. These studies suggest at least some connection between biological heritage and the tendency to commit crime. On the other hand, it is possible that the increased criminality may instead be due to social conditions. For example, identical twins are physically more similar than fraternal twins, and so they may have more similar social experiences while growing up. These more similar social experiences then may explain the tendency for identical twins to have more similar criminal records than fraternal twins.

Other biological research attempts to identify specific biological factors associated with an increased risk of criminality. For example, recent studies have found that certain neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain such as low seratonin, and certain hormone imbalances such as extra testosterone, are associated with some greater likelihood of committing crime. Other studies have found that criminals tend to have slower reactions in their autonomic nervous systems. While some criminologists infer that these biological conditions increase the tendency to commit crime, other criminologists point out that all of these biological factors can be influenced by the environmental conditions. Thus, it may be that low seratonin and high testosterone increases a person's tendency to commit crime, but it may also be that committing crime tends to lower seratonin levels and increase testosterone levels.

At least some biological conditions result from a person's interaction with the environment. There has been considerable research, for example, on the influence of diet on crime, with some people arguing that excessive sugar intake results in increased aggression in juveniles. Consuming alcohol has a strong relationship with increased aggression in the short run, as does the consumption of certain illegal drugs. Ingesting various toxic substances such as lead tends to result in long-term increases in the tendency to commit crime. In addition, complications during pregnancy or birth and certain types of head injuries increase the risk of crime in the long run. There is, however, a similar problem with inferring that these environmentally based biological conditions cause crime. For example, some other factor such as poverty could cause both crime and the increased tendency to experience complications during pregnancy and birth, to ingest lead and other toxins, and to drink alcohol. If this were the case, then these biological factors would not themselves have any causal impact on crime.

Even if these biological factors are eventually shown to have a direct causal impact on crime, they would not determine absolutely that people with these factors would turn out to be criminal. Rather, the relationship between biological factors and crime is similar to the relationship between being tall and being a basketball player. Most basketball players are tall, but most tall people are not basketball players. Similarly, it may turn out that a fairly large number of criminals have low seratonin or high testosterone, but most people with these biological factors would not be criminals at all.

Psychological theories

The earliest psychological approaches to crime were based on Sigmund Freud's (18701937) psychoanalytic theory, which divided the human personality into id, ego, and superego. The id (the Latin word for "it") described all the instinctual drives that come from our biological heritage. The "ego" (Latin for "I") is the rational and conscious self that mediates between the drives of the id and the restraints of the superego. The "superego" consists in the restraints on behavior ("conscience") that children internalize as a result of their great love for and attachment to their parents. Criminality largely was explained as a failure of the superego, a consequence of a failure to form healthy and loving attachments to parents. Later theories of crime were based on behavioral psychology, as originating in the work of B. F. Skinner (19041990). In Skinner's view, all human behavior is the product of its consequencesits rewards and punishments. In this approach, criminal behavior is acquired and retained if people experience rewards from it, and it is abandoned if they experience punishments. Somewhat later, social learning theory expanded Skinner's behavior theory to include social rewards and punishments, such as the approval or disapproval of family and friends. It also expanded the ways in which behavior can be acquired to include learning through observation of what other people do, including observations in the media, particularly television.

Mental illness does not cause very many crimes, but mentally ill people occasionally commit crimes that are extreme or bizarre, and thus highly publicized. Thus, the public might get the impression that mental illness is a major cause of crime. In addition, following the closing of most mental institutions in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, many mentally ill people began to be sent to prisons and jails because they were troublesome and appeared threatening and because there was no other way to remove them from the community. One particular personality disorderantisocial personality disorderhas been found in many studies to be associated with criminality. However, the official criteria for diagnosing this disorder include the commission of crimes and crime-like behavior. Thus, it is not entirely clear whether this personality disorder is a cause of crime or whether the term "antisocial personality disorder" is just a fancy label that psychiatrists use to describe people who are criminals. Current psychological research focuses on impulsivity (a tendency to engage in high levels of activity, to be easily distracted, to act without thinking, and to seek immediate gratification) rather than antisocial personality as a personality characteristic associated with criminality.

Sociological theories

Sociological theories generally assert that crime is the normal response of a biologically and psychologically normal individual to social conditions that are abnormal and criminogenic. A large number of these theories have been proposed. For example, Edwin Sutherland (18831950) proposed differential association theory, which argues that criminal behavior is normal learned behavior, that the learning takes place in a process of interpersonal communication with other people, that it consists primarily in the learning of ideas about whether laws are to be obeyed, and that the learning of criminal behaviors is determined primarily by the extent of the person's contact with other people who themselves engage in criminal behaviors. Robert K. Merton proposed a theory of social structural strain. He argued that American culture emphasizes the goal of monetary success at the expense of adhering to the legitimate means to achieve that success. This results in high rates of profit-oriented crimes. He also argued that American society has an unequal distribution of the legitimate opportunities to achieve monetary success. That is, people in the upper classes have very many legitimate opportunities to make money, while people in the lower classes had very few. Merton argued that this resulted in the reverse distribution of profit-oriented crimes, with the lowest classes having the highest rates of such crime and the highest classes having the lowest rates. Clifford Shaw presented an ecological theory that looks at crime at the neighborhood level. He generally found that neighborhoods with high poverty, frequent residential mobility, and family disruption (e.g., many divorced or single parents) have higher crime rates. Travis Hirschi proposed a social control theory that focused on the ability to resist the natural temptations of criminal behavior. Individuals who are more strongly attached to parents, more involved in conventional activities, have more to lose from criminal behavior, and have stronger beliefs in conventional moral values, will tend to commit less crime. Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi later proposed a general theory of crime as being the result of low self-control. Where Hirschi's earlier social control theory concerned the restraints on an individual's behavior that are found in the person's immediate environment, self-control theory focuses on certain stable characteristics that people have after age eight or so. People with low self-control, and therefore a higher tendency to commit crime, tend to be impulsive, insensitive to others, oriented toward physical rather than mental activities, prone to take risks, shortsighted, and nonverbal. Labeling theories, by contrast, argue that people who become involved in the criminal justice system tend to be labeled as criminals by that system, rejected by law-abiding people, and accepted as criminals by other criminals. All of this results in their taking on a criminal self-concept, in which they come to think of themselves as criminals. The criminal self-concept then becomes the major cause of crime. Radical criminologists focus on the structure of society, in particular its political and legal systems. In one way or another, often with a considerable degree of subtlety, the criminal law is seen as a tool by which rich and powerful people maintain and preserve their own privileges and status.

Thomas J. Bernard

See also Criminology: Modern Controversies; Prisons: History; Punishment; Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society.


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