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Criminological Theories - An Overview

Posted by Buffy on: Saturday 5 May 2001

Whilst the 'psychology of victims' may, for now, be an under-explored area, the psychology of the criminal is not. For centuries man has tried to understand the workings of the criminal mind. What makes an individual criminal? Does criminality have a particular cause? If so can this cause be eliminated and the criminality prevented? Early explanations relied on biological explanations of criminality.

Biological Positivism

In the late 19th century the idea existed that criminality was something essential to the nature of the criminal himself/herself. Criminality was not a result of sociological factors or social inequalities, but rather of biological inferiority. The theory of Biological Determinism umbrellaed this idea as well as that instituted by the Biological Positivists, of whom Cesare Lombroso was founding father. Lombroso was a 19th Century criminologist who has become best known for his notion of the 'atavistic criminal'. These individuals were individuals who had not 'evolved' properly. They were seen as born criminals who were at an earlier evolutionary stage than modern mad. The notion of atavism was first suggested by Darwin and illustrated in the text:

"With mankind some of the worst dispositions which occasionally without any assignable cause make their appearance in families, may perhaps be reversions to a savage state, from which we are not removed by many generations." Charles Darwin

On this premise Lombroso claimed to have discovered the 'secret' of criminality. Having done this he believed that atavistic individuals of which criminals were a form, could be recognised by particular physical characteristics. Among these were abnormal dentition, supernumerary nipples, toes, fingers, large ears, eye defects and asymmetry of the fact. In testing his hypothesis Lombroso compared a group of known criminals to control groups of soldiers and found significant differences in the instances of such characteristics. With the newfound idea of Darwinism, Lombroso's theories did hold a bit of ground for a time. However, in the face of rising criticism he was forced to give way, both in his own studies and those of others, to more social and environmental causes of criminal behaviour. Once the notion that criminality was a biological or physical abnormality was dispelled the theorists refocused. There is no such things as a born criminal. The word 'criminal' is simply a label. A label given to behaviour which falls outside acceptable boundaries. And it was this deviant behaviour which was studied.

Personality Theories

Eysenck attempted to explain crime through a combination of biological and individual factors which he believed led to an individuals inability or failure to follow rules. Eysenck believed that certain personality types were inclined to crime. He classified these individuals as 'neurotic extroverts' and felt that they would be unlikely to learn the basic rules of social behaviour. Because of this they would be outgoing sensation seekers and therefore impulsively inclined towards antisocial behaviour. Among these personality types lay psychoticism, a personality trait marked by aggression and impersonal behaviour associated with criminal tendencies.

Psychoanalytic Theories

As in all other areas of psychoanalytic thought, this school emphasizes unconscious 'child-like' tendencies motivated by pleasure-seeking and self-destructive impulses. Thus explaining adult criminal behaviour in terms of childhood legacy. The idea is that children are gradually socialized away from such impulsive behaviour and thereby develop their Superego. The success of this socialization depends upon the success of the child-parent relationship. IF a disruption occurs within the this relationship then the child's Superego may not be fully developed and may therefore not function property in controlling antisocial impulsiveness. Such a disruption may also result in a lack of guilt which further encourages deviant behaviour.

Another explanation for criminal behaviour which falls under the heading of psychoanalytic theories suggests that a disruption of the attachment bond between mother and child in the early years might lead to later deviant behaviour. The rationale behind this is that the child may, later in life, retain an inability to develop meaningful relationships.

A problem with this theory is that its underlying assumptions predict females will have less developed Superegos than males. If this were so then it would follow that females would commit more crimes than males. All statistical evidence, however, goes to prove otherwise.

Social Learning Theories

Though psychoanalytic theories do have their strength, unconscious conflicts during childhood does not do much by way of explaining criminal behaviour involving rational planning. The Social Learning Theory identifies such behaviour as a learned phenomenon or, alternatively, as a failure of the socialization process which guides behaviour. Individuals learn which behaviours are inappropriate by associating those behaviours with fear or anxiety of consequences. The process of learning criminal behaviour is no different from the learning of any other behaviour. The idea that criminal behaviour, like all behaviour, is learned is illustrated in the theory of Differential Association. Differential Association states that criminal behaviour is a learned behaviour that takes place through an association with other people. The bulk of this learning takes place within close personal groups and includes techniques to carry out crime as well as specific attitudes and motives conducive towards committing crime. The learning experiences, or differential associations, will vary in frequency and importance with each individual.

The Social Learning Theory also states that individuals who engage in criminal Behaviour have powerful social forces working on them which affect either attitudes and beliefs. This area of thought also emphasises the role of rewards and punishment and yet also allows for the consideration of learning by imitation or observation of others' behaviours.

Biochemistry and Neurology

Though not an independent discipline, modern research has pointed to a variety of biochemical and neurological factors which may contribute in some way to criminal behaviour. Conditions such s allergies or environmental objects as well as neurological disturbances, diet and hypoglycaemia have been suggested as factors which may affect the functioning of the brain, which may in turn contribute to antisocial behaviour.




Related Stories
  • Criminology and Criminal Justice - February 2006 issue
  • November 2005 British Journal Of Criminology Available


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