Critique of Biological Positivism
The fact that the theories have not proven to be the perfect solution to criminology does not mean that they are without value. Afterall, "[t]he suggestion that there is any possibility of one single explanation of criminal behaviour has to be totally rejected because not only is behaviour complex, crime is a social construct which changes over time and across cultures." A holistic look at the various social sciences that comprise criminology shows that each area of discipline has its flaws - but that each contributes in a valuable way to the overall discourse. Biological positivism is no exception, and in fact may be limited only by our present scientific knowledge.
illustrate this point I shall:
The Positivist Revolution, and the flaws of the positivist method.
Enrico Ferri envisaged a systematic removal of the free will metaphysics of classical criminology, which he intended to replace with a "science of society" aimed at the elimination of crime. This would be "an approach geared only to practical ends and not cluttered with irrelevant, philosophical, retributory and ethicoreligious beliefs."
provided this similar mission statement:
new approach was thus intended to discover "the determined, law-governed
nature of human action" via the scientific method (be it biological,
social or statistical). Consequently it would suffer from the assumptions
imbedded in the scientific method itself, namely belief in:
The quantification of behaviour.
This was a faith in the scientific measurement of phenomena - but it became rapidly difficult for positivists to quantify 'criminal behaviour', especially as a contrast to 'normal' behaviour. Positivists turned to criminal statistics, and a search for the 'moral yardstick'.
Both sought to illustrate some community consensus by which 'normal' and 'criminal' behaviour could be defined. Liberal positivists believed that "[i]n democratic countries there [would be] little scope for large differences between the definitions of the majority of the people and the encoded definitions." In other words, positivists needed only to look at the law for a realistic codification of criminality. This, of course, is an error that positivists had already condemned in the classicists
Meanwhile, radical positivists such as Raffaele Garofalo believed that a community consensus would exist regardless of codification. However this appeal to the "injury to so much of the moral sense" was no more than an invocation of moral sensibilities. Garofalo, condemns Gabriel Tarde, attempted to "cast [his] anchor in what is the most fluid and evasive thing in the world feeling."
was the assumption that science would provide an objective, non-biased
vantage point from which to assess society. However, it appears to be
no more than an assumption. It should be obvious that even professed
'objectivists' are capable of rendering value judgments; and moreover,
it a well-known modern principle of science that there is no longer
such thing as the purely objective 'observer' because:
described by Young:
This was the belief that deviancy must be subject to discoverable causal laws. It has been criticised for defusing deviancy as a lack of choice, and of reifying human endeavour, with no recognition of moral choice or creativity.
In general terms there are problems with the postulates of positivism. For example, the idea of the consensus worldview denies the role of ethics, and the 'neutral' language of science allows political and commercial exploiters to "use the social sciences as a front which helps them control public opinions and responses."
This misguided belief in the perceived 'purity' of empirical research must be considered in any look at the work of biological positivists.
Biological Positivism, and theories.
Cesare Lombroso and Atavism.
Cesare Lombroso's groundbreaking work was a direct reversal of the statistical method employed by Quetelet and Guerry. His atavistic theory effectively argued that the nature of the criminal determines the character of the institution, and not vice-versa.
theory of criminal anthropology was also very popular during its inception,
since "L'Uomo Delinquente (Criminal Man)" (1876) was published
short after Darwin's "Origin of the Species" (1859). Lindesmith
then, first suggested atavism, when he wrote:
One could further determine the people in this category of evolutionary 'throwbacks' by their "enormous jaws, high cheek bones insensibility to pain" and even behavioural traits, such as "tattooing, excessive idleness [and] love of orgies", all of which led to "the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake."
was faced with some criticism of this blanket description, and later
developed other types of criminal. Alongside the minority born killer
/ atavist, he added:
the modern eye, however, several flaws present themselves. Lombroso's
theories were found to be statistically unsound, with no recognition
of environmental factors on the individual's physical development. Charles
Gorring wrote criticisms of the lack of an absolute distinction between
criminals, and non-criminals. Meanwhile, the evolutionary 'throwback'
concept has since proved to be actually impossible; and Lombroso also
ignored the stigmatising effect of physical differences, whereby criminal
offending is encouraged through exposure to negative social interaction:
Most dangerously though, this type of theory has been used to support arguments favouring eugenics - for example, the Nazi Party used to demonstrate that biological devolution was present in the skulls of Jewish people. This of course justified their execution. (One mustn't forget that this was also the ultimate conclusion of Garofalo's work - that criminal eugenics should be employed in the artificial removal of offenders.)
Simply put, and this is a recurring flaw amongst biological positivists, biology alone cannot explain crime rates. Nonetheless, this was a popular field of research, lead by the studies of John Casper Lavater (facial features) and Franz Joseph Gall (head-shapes, or phrenology).
Kretschmer / Sheldon, and Body Typing.
theory proposes that disposition (including criminality) is relative
to body types, of which there are three:
Conrad's contribution to this theory was to point out that mesomorphs are on a lower level of "ontogenetic development" than the others. In other words, their makeup is similar to that of children, therefore they must suffer from psychological immaturity.
This theory fails to recognise a couple of major factors. It doesn't discuss the environmental effect on physical development (such as the effect of a lower-class diet), and ignores the fact that delinquent subcultures recruit new members selectively (gangs prefer to recruit physically fit members, thus mesomorphs). Like Lombroso's theory it also ignores the stigmatic effect of body type on social interaction.
XXY Chromosome theory.
The chromosome pairing of an ordinary female is XX, and for a male, XY. However, there are naturally occurring variations on the standard, for example the 'pairing' XXY, known as Klinefelter's Syndrome. There seem to be certain physical characteristics that flow from an unusual chromosome 'pairing'; people with Klinefelter's Syndrome, for example, often display lower intelligence. Inevitably, biological theorists began to look for a chromosome arrangement to explain criminal behaviour - they came up with the XXY arrangement (though some disagreed; most notably Price, who believed an extra Y to be more relevant).
surveys of convicted offenders it was decided that criminals with an
XXY pair were:
However, the usual criticisms can be made with regard to these findings. For example, an XXY pair also leads to pronounced physical development, and the same stigmatising effects discussed previously. The research also only accounts for a small portion of overall offenders; and is, at any rate, "manifestly a very crude theory."
The dilemma faced by biological positivists is this: no single biological theory seems sufficient to explain all criminal offending. Furthermore, the instruments of science are not always precise - historically, science often corrects itself (for example, the subsequent disproving of the 'throwback' theory as an impossibility). As a consequence, even those who recognise the potential value of this discipline (or are "scholars friendly to the idea of biological causation") must tread carefully, lest they embrace a theory that is incomplete or scientifically inaccurate.
are also more general aversions to theories of determinism - Taylor
claims that "total determinism palpably contradicts the 'feel'
of human existence," and that it is inconsistent with our democratic
ideology. While there may be substance in determinist theory, it is
perhaps dangerous from the social control point of view - in that it
removes moral choice, and discourages individuals from striving for
'good'. In other words, it can arm people with an excuse for their actions,
just as it arms the policy makers:
seems to me, and this is a point I strived to emphasise in my introduction,
that there is indeed value in a "practical inquiry into the criminal
manifestations of individual and social life" . It must, however,
strive to be more than absurd reduction of the whole question of criminal
offending into descriptions of brain activity, or genetic predisposition.
Biological positivism must stand alongside psychological, social, and
structural theories of crime if it is to be of any realistic use.
J. Harrower Applying Psychology to Crime (1998).
Taylor The New Criminology (1973).
J. Harrower Applying Psychology to Crime (1998).
W. Shakespeare Richard III 1.i.
Enrico Ferri, Criminal Sociology.