A brief History of Criminology

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Criminology can be defined as the scientific method of studying crime and criminal behavior.  It falls into the category of social science and includes a variety of disciplines such as anthropology, economics, psychology, and law.  Since its humble beginnings, the field of criminology has greatly expanded and witnessed many changes in thought about why people commit crimes.

Crime in the Middle Ages

Crime in the Middle Ages was associated with religion and demonic manipulation. In short, the best way to explain crime was the influence the devil had on society or an individual.  Besides crime, natural disasters were born of demonic influences. The bubonic plague which swept through England in the 1600’s leaving countless dead bodies in its wake was an example of demonic influences at work. During this era, deviant acts were considered to be a sin requiring harsh punishment or death. One popular form of punishment was trial by ordeal. For example, if a woman was accused of being a witch, her feet and hands were bound and she was tossed into a body of water. If she survived the ordeal, she was innocent. Likewise, if she drowned, she was guilty.

Classical Criminology

The first academic approach to the study of crime was referred to as the Classical Criminology. This school of thought occurred in the latter part of the 18th century during the Enlightenment. According to classical criminology, humans are rational beings whose behavior is the result of free will and rational choice. The motivation for deviant behavior is the pursuit of pleasure while avoiding pain. This led to the belief that in order to deter crime, the pain of punishment must outweigh any pleasure that may be gained. The downside to this philosophy was that it failed to consider how personal circumstances influence criminal behavior.

Prominent figures included Cesare Beccarria and Jeremy Betham who were concerned about the criminal justice system and its shortcomings. They studied the current legal and political systems and concluded that people are rational and choose to commit crimes. This went against the former belief that deviant behavior was attributed to heredity or demonic possession. Beccarria and Bentham aslo advocated for less cruel forms of punishment.

Positivist Criminology

The positivist school of thought represents a shift in thought from the notion of free will to that of determinism. The prominent thinker in this school of thought was Cesare Lombroso whose work earned him the title of “father” of criminology. Lombroso is best associated with atavism, which he used to describe the physical defects that distinguished criminals from non- criminals. According to Lombroso, criminals were a throwback to more primitive times and could be identified using certain physical characteristics. In his later works, he realized the role environmental factors play in criminal behavior.

Criminological theories have been debated and expanded upon for centuries. However, in the last several decades, technology has led to many advances in the field of criminology. Criminologists can now use different methods including surveys to gain a better understanding of both criminals and their victims. Also thanks to technology, this information can be gathered more quickly than in previous eras. As society continues to grow and evolve, so too will the field of criminology.


 Intellectual History - The Middle Ages

Criminology Today 5th Edition

More about this author: Suzette Baker

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