Until the 1970’s, historians discussing the developments in the area of crime control institutions in Britain tended to take a perspective formulated in the Whigs notion of progress and drawing on the positivist approach to crime and criminals. Crime tended to be seen as an absolute: it was largely understood in terms of theft and, to a lesser extent, violence; it was something perpetrated by ‘criminals’ on the law-abiding majority of the population. Improvements in the control mechanisms had been brought about by progressive humanitarianism and the sensible, rational responses of reformers to abuses and inefficiencies.

Since the 1970’s these perspective and interpretations have been subjected to critical examination by a new generation of social historians. These historians began to work on court records in the hopes of penetrating the lives of the poor and socially disadvantaged; they have tended to concentrate on periods of social and economic upheaval such as the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, or the years of industrialization and urbanization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The initial focus was on property of crime, seen by some as a kind of ‘protest’ offence by the poor during periods of economic upheaval and privation. More recently, partly as a result of social historians growing interests in gender issues, the focus has shifted towards violent offences, with important research addressing domestic violence and child abuse1. All of these historians have sought to relate crime and the control of crime to specific economic, social, and political context; and all have acknowledged that crime is something defined by law, and that the law was changed and shaped by human institutions.

To analyise the question fully I have identified the different areas of thinking throughout the Criminological spectrum. These are the classical school of thinking, the positivist school of thinking, and the labelling perspective – concluding whether criminal’s act on the basis of free will or whether they are propelled in to criminal activity. The first leading theory from criminology that was most popular was known as ‘classical criminology’. Classical criminology grew out of a reaction against the barbaric system of law, justice and punishment that was in existence before 1789.

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This can be seen in Foucault’s work2. It sought an emphasis on free will and human rationality. The Classical School was not interested in studying criminals, but rather law-making and legal processing. Crime, they believed, was activity engaged in, out of total free will and that individuals weighed the consequences of their actions in their minds. Punishment is made in order to deter people from committing crime and it should be greater than the pleasure of criminal gains.

Classical theory emphasized a legal definition of crime rather than what defined criminal behaviour. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution reflect the Classical movement, thus the law of today is classical in nature. Two famous writers during this classical period were Cesare Beccaria3 and Jeremy Bentham4, who both led the movement to human rights and free will. Beccaria thought that crime could be traced to bad laws, not to bad people. A new modern criminal justice system would be needed to guarantee equal treatment of all people before the law.

His famous book, On Crimes and Punishment5 presented a new design for the criminal justice system that served all people. His book dubbed him the “father of modern criminology. ” Bentham’s concern was upon utilitarianism, which assumed the greatest happiness for the greatest number. He believed that individuals weigh the probabilities of present and future pleasures against those of present and future pain. Thus people acted as human calculators, he believed, and that they put all factors into a sort of mathematical equation to decide whether or not to commit an illegal act.

He believed then that punishment should be just a bit in excess of the pleasures derived from an act and not any higher than that. The law exists to create happiness for all, thus since punishment creates unhappiness it can be justified if it prevents greater evil than it produces Early nineteenth century criminology was based of the popular positivist school of thinking. The leading theorist was Lombroso6. The Positivist school of thinking emerged from this and commenced its search for empirical facts to confirm the idea that criminal behaviour is determined by multiple factors.

This is a clear shift from Beccaria and Bentham’s classical thinking that crime resulted from individuals free-will and hedonism. The nineteenth century saw a need for Positivist to identify criminals through features within the individual and placed and emphasis on the mind and body. However this was not a new way of thinking. An example of physical features coinciding with an individual can be seen through Shakespeare’s play “the Tempest”. Here a deformed servant’s morality is as offensive as his appearance.

Even in present day situations, although it may be perceived as sexist, a beautiful woman is not expected to commit crime, it shows physical features and behaviour has a less than scientific connection. Positivist during this period neglected the idea that social factors external to the individual play a part in criminal behaviour. Positivist thinking became popular through the work of Caesar Lombroso who is often associated with Modern Day Criminology. Lombroso was very scientific and disciplined and described himself as a slave to facts.

Between the time Beccaria (classical school) graduation and Lombroso’s from the University of Pavia, secular, rational and scientific thinking and experimentation became more acceptable to analyse reality, instead of more spiritualist ways of thinking. With Lombroso’s degree in medicine he worked as a medical officer in the army. During this time, 1859 – 63, Lombroso held that criminals had a peculiar physical type, distinctly different from non-criminals and from this he derived that criminals had not evolved as quickly.

Though this thinking Lombroso developed four categories: 1. Born Criminals – atavistic characteristics. 2. Insane Criminals – idiots, imbeciles, paranoiacs, epileptics and alcoholics. 3. Criminaloids – opportunistic criminals, and 4. Criminals of Passion – where a crime is committed through love, hate or any emotion, Yet his studies concluded that physical features could define criminals. After further scientific study these theories were dismissed. There are several problems with this theory, namely the policy making involved could lead to fascist policing.

However, Lombroso never gave up on the idea that criminals are born, which was not an unusual assumption at that time. Even before Lombroso this was a thought that have been evolving. Johann Kasper Lavater7 claimed the shape of one’s head had a factor in explaining an individual’s personal characteristics. This explanation was called phrenology, and was greatly respected over in the USA. This study expanded and in nearly half a century dozen of scholars had put forward Lombroso ideas. Yet only Lombroso expanded it to a multifactor explanation that included not only heredity but social, cultural and economic variables.

This multifactor explanation is commonly used in today’s study of crime. As civilisation evolved through the years so did the criminological theories progressed. In the 1960’s a new theory emerged as the next leading theory. It was called the labelling theory and is basis of criminological thinking today. The labelling theory of crime has been attributed to the writings of Howard S. Becker, Lemert, Goffman and others. Influential as it has been, the theory has not been without its critics, and recently some re-assessment has taken place.

Howard Becker pointed out that it was never intended to put forward labelling as a theory but more as a perspective or a particular way of looking at a general area of human activity. Becker wanted to expand the study of deviant phenomena by including it in activities of others than the allegedly deviant actor. His writings certainly did and as a result it has been healthy even though misunderstandings have occurred so that one has sometimes lost sight of the fact, which Becker stresses, that the act of labelling ‘cannot possibly be conceived as the sole explanation of what alleged deviants do’.

The important consequence of this approach has been that we can no longer be content with a study of isolated acts of deviance. The approach of labelling is part of a larger move in criminology and sociology against the legacy of positivistic or absolutist notions of crime, deviance and social problems. The approach rejects those genetic, psychological or multi-factoral accounts of crime and deviance, which stress the absolute nature of the causes of criminality or deviance.

It usually, but not necessarily rejects the standard sociological structure-functional approach to such questions, and in its examination of the social processes giving rise to deviation it ask ‘deviant from whom or from what’. Their emphasis is on the nature of social rules and the labels aimed at individuals who contravene such rules. These sociological relativists insist that what is deviant for one person may not be deemed deviant to another person, and more importantly what may be deviant at one time and in one context may not necessarily always be treated as deviant.

The suggestion is that the attempt to deter, punish and prevent deviation can actually create deviation in itself. The problem with the labelling theory, and any of these theories within criminology, is that they are only subjected to one area of crime and are insufficient when considering crime on a whole. Therefore when considering the question whether people have a choice or whether it is someway propelled, either by genetics or labelling techniques, we must coincide all the theories and take an overview of all the studies.

I conclude from my studies that criminals do have a choice before they commit a criminal act, yet the decision made is based on years of learning and evolving to the environment around the person. Therefore when children are brought up in the slums of their society, broken homes (single parent families), poor education and abusive parents there is a greater likelihood that the child may participate in criminal activity later on in life. Whereas children who are brought up in wealthy families, tend to receive better education and generally better standards of living, and in turn will usually not resort to criminal activity.

There are many criticisms that can be made with the theories. Many of them are said to reduce or even deny the role of free will and choice in guiding human action. Crime is generally over predicted, in that only a relatively small number of people who are exposed to criminogenic influences or pressures go on to become persistent offenders. The question then arises as to whether a theory is shown not to have general applicability is automatically invalid.

In fact given the wide range of behaviour that is considered anti-social or criminal, it is hardly surprising that the search for the overall answer to whether an individual chooses to commit a crime or are they propelled in to criminal activity is proving elusive. It is important to bear in mind that these theories are not useless because they are not all embracing when considering the diversity of crime. They explore avenues that are interesting for discussion and provide a fascinating insight in to reasons behind criminal activity.


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