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Criminological theories – Durkheim, Beccaria, Lombroso

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Criminology is a field that has been researched prolong. Most of the information explaining crime and delinquency is based on facts about crime (Vold, Bernard, & Daly 2002, p.1). The aim of this paper is to describe the theories of crime and punishment according to the positivists Emile Durkheim and Cesare Lombroso, and the classical criminologist Marcese de Beccaria. The theories were developed as a response to the industrialisation and the modernisation of the societies in the 18th and 19th centuries and were aiming to create a rational society and re-establish social solidarity (Vold et al 2002, p.101). The criminological perspectives of crime and punishment will be discussed in a form of dialogue between the three theorists exploring the relevance and relationship between the positivist and the classical school of criminology. Finally, a critique of the theories of C. Lombroso and M. de Beccaria will be provided from Durkheim’s point of view.

Comentator: Welcome to the ‘transhistorical’ conference on schools of criminological thought. Today we have three theorists, Emile Durkheim, who has accepted to chair the event, Cesare Lombroso and Marcese de Beccaria, who will discuss their theories on crime and punishment.

Durkheim: Thank you, and welcome. The reason we are here today is that many social changes are currently observed in the today’s society (Dunman 2003). The industrialisation and modernisation of society has the tendency to free people of their restraints (Vold et al 2002, pp.100). Traditional or organic societies directed people to control their desires and ambitions, however as a positivist I believe that modern (mechanic) societies ‘separate people and weaken social bonds as a result of the increased complexity and the division of labour’. This is evident in modern society further divided by beaucracy and specialisation in the workforce (Vold et al 2002, p.102). All these changes of the traditional society expose it to lack of regulation, which I call anomie. Anomie leads to crime and deviance, which is the main topic I would like to discuss today (Bernburg 2002, pp.6-8).

Durkheim: According to my beliefs deviance is of vital importance for the well-being of society as laws act as bond between obedient citizens. When a violation of the laws is recognized by members of society, it is dealt with by legal or social punishment. Therefore, in my opinion crime doesn’t separate society but it creates social solidarity, which forms strong social bonds in it’s efforts to deal with crime (Pratt 1994, p.2). Therefore, I see crime as something functional and necessary for society rather than something pathological and a symptom of diseased society. Furthermore, all societies have experienced crime, thus crime seems to represent a condition of normality (Durkheim 1994, pp.84-87).

Lombroso: As a classical criminologist I have to disagree that social structure is the main reason of crime occurrence. In my opinion ‘criminality has to be discussed on individuals level rather than societal as according to my beliefs and studies I have conducted the individual’s genetics play a main role in criminality (Vold et al 2002, p. 26). The central idea of my theories came to me as I autopsied the body of an italian criminal called Giuseppe Villela. I noted that certain characteristics of Villela’s skull that reminded me of atavistic (primitive) stages of human evolution (Lombroso 1911, pp.22-26). I call these anomalies stigmata and ‘they could be expressed in terms of abnormal forms or dimensions of the skull and jaw and asymmetries in the face, but also of other parts of the body’ (Lombroso 1911, pp.22-26).

I believe there are three types of criminals. The above characteristics belong to the first type which is born criminals (atavists), the second type are insane criminals (individuals who commit crime due to a psychological disorder), and the third one is criminaloids, who I identify as individuals without physical characteristics or mental disorders, but whose mental and emotional make up predisposes them to commit crime. These factors are the basis of my theory that crime should be discussed on individual level rather than social structural (Vold et al 2002, p.28).

Beccaria: I have a different theory regarding crime and delinquency. In my opinion, all individuals possess freewill and rational manner, which means that they make rational choices based on that freewill (Lombroso 2002, pp.272-273). Rational manner is the explanation of the relationship between laws and crime as it means that individuals rationally look out for their own best interest and personal satisfaction. However achieving satisfaction may lead individuals into activities considered as crime by the society. This clashes with the interest of society to preserve the social contract and stop criminal behaviour through punishment (Greek 2005).

Durkheim: Punishment is one of the main aims of the criminal justice system. As crime is an act that is in breach with the collective conscious the punishment of criminals plays a main role in the maintenance of social solidarity. When the state of collective conscience is violated, the response of the society is consisted of ‘repressive sanctions’ that do not aim for retribution or deterrence, but aim to prevent the demoralisation of those who are making sacrifices for the interest of society. The punishment of criminals is required to sustain the commitment of citizens to the society (Pratt 1994, pp.2-3). If punishment is not present members of the community may lose their commitment and their motivation to make the sacrifices necessary for the society. Furthermore, punishment has the function to express the societal inferiority and blameworthiness of criminals. This strengthens the social solidarity, as it reinforces a sense of rightfulness and amongst law-abiding citizens (Vold et al 2002, pp.104-105).

Lombroso: In my view the purpose of punishment is not to deter or to rehabilitate, as I do not believe that criminal’s actions are based on rational choice of individuals but believe that criminal behaviour is predetermined. Given the assumptions of biological positivism, the only reasonable rationale for punishing offenders is to incapacitate them for as long as possible so that they no longer pose a threat to the peace and security of society, all of which is justified by a doctrine of social defense (Lombroso 2002, p.272). I am also in favour of indeterminate sentencing. It embodies good biology and protection for the society as dangerous individuals would receive longer sentences, and their lives are mentored strictly (Gould 1981, p.142).

Beccaria: My view in relation to punishment is different than Lombroso’s. According to my theory the main aim of the criminal justice system is to prevent the violation of laws that individuals possessing free will, might commit in order achieve their goals and pursuit personal satisfaction (3 – p.8-11). As human actions are predictable and possible to control, if the right punishment is inflicted the criminal justice system can control the rational and free willed individual. The problem the criminal justice system has, is finding the right punishment (Garland 1990, pp.8-11).

Beccaria: My theory of punishment is built on the idea of “social contract” used by state of nature theorists such as Hobbes and Rousseau. Punishments must be proportional to the interests violated by the crime. It must not be in excess or be used for reformation, as this would be in conflict with the rights of the individual and the social contract (Beccaria 1994, p.284). I am very much against cruel and arbitrary punishments, but I do feel that the government has the right and duty to punish those individuals that threaten the society. However, the government has the right to inflict only punishments that are necessary for the crime as:

‘for a punishment to attain its end, the evil which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantage derivable from the crime; in this excess of evil one should include the certainly of punishment and the loss of the good which the crime might have produced. All beyond this is superfluous and for that reason tyrannical’ (Beccaria 1994, pp.282,283).

So while the government could punish it could not go over that what is necessary for the security of the society (Beccaria 1994, pp.282,283). The punishment must also be certain which means that all wrongdoing is punished. Promptness of punishment is also critical for a well organised criminal justice system as if there is a long delay between the commitment of crime and the punishment, the deterrent effect on future crime occurrence would be diminished. (Greek 2005).

Durkheim: After hearing the theories of both of you I need to make a few comments. Beccaria’s idea of rational economic actors discusses human behaviour only on individual basis and fails to consider the impact of society and social institutions on members of society (Vold at al 2002, pp.28-29). Second, due to lack of evidence it can not be concluded that hypotheses are to be considered accurate. Finally, Lombroso’s theory focuses mainly on the biological aspects and analyses criminality only on individual level ignoring the influence of society on its’ members (Vold at al 2002, pp.28-29).

Durkheim: And to conclude, after discussing crime in punishment I noticed that there are many differences between classical criminology and positivism. I view positivism as opposed to the classical concept of free will. It does not consider that social irregularities determine crime levels and that these factors determine individual offenders. In positivism, free will and rational choice exist at the individual level and are constrained by society and the environment (Vold et al 2002, pp.8-10). However positivism ignores choice and creativity and denies individual activity as meaningful. Furthermore, positivism is deterministic in nature or in other words it considers that crime is outside of individual’s control. It views crime as abnormal not a protest or arising from different value systems (Vold et al 2002, pp.8-10).

Durkheim: In contrast with positivism, a view held by classical criminologists in relation to punishment is that it has effect on individual’s behaviour but the effect of other variables is not considered. On the other side, positivism argues that biological and psychological factors affect human behaviour but the aspect of certainty and severity of punishment is not considered (Vold et al 2002, pp.28-29). However, I can conclude that notwithstanding the many differences between the classical criminology school and the positivist school, they are part of the same enterprise as both aim to identify the main factors that have effect on criminal behaviour. ‘The main problems are to identify which of these factors have more influence on human behaviour’ (Vold et al 2002, pp. 28-29).


1. Beccaria, Cesare (orig. 1767; reprint 1994) selection from On Crimes and Punishments. Reprinted in Joseph E. Jacoby (ed.) Classics of Criminology.Prospect Hills, IL: Waveland Press, pp.277-86.

2. Bernburg, Jon (2002), ‘Anomie, Social Change and Crime’, The British Journal of Criminology, vol.46, 729-742. Retrieved from Expanded Academic Asap database.

3. Dunman, Joe (2003), Emile Durkheim: The Emile Durkheim Archive. Retrieved March 27, 2006, from: http://durkheim.itgo.com/biography.html

4. Durkheim, Emile (orig.1895; reprint 1994) selection from The Rules of the Sociological Method. Reprinted in Joseph E. Jacoby (ed.) Classics of Criminology. Prospect Hills, IL: Waveland Press, pp.84-88.

5. Garland, David (1990), Frameworks of Inquiry in the Sociology of Punishment, The British Journal of Sociology, vol.41, 1-15. Retrieved from the Expanded Academic Asap database.

6. Gould, Stephen Jay (1981), selection from The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Nortion Company, pp.122-43.

7. Greek, Cecil (2005), The Classical School. Retrieved March 29, 2006 from: http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/week3.htm

8. Lombroso, Cesare (1911), Introduction to Criminal Man, reworked by Gina Lombroso-Ferrero. Reprinted 1972, NJ: Patterson Smith, pp. xxi-xxx.

9. Lombroso, Cesare (2002), ‘Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology, The Criminology Journal, vol.12, 272-275. Retrieved from the Expanded Academic Asap database.

10. Pratt, John (1994), ‘Understanding Punishment: Beyond Aims and Objectives’, The Criminology Journal, vol.5, 2-8. Retrieved from Expanded Academic Asap database.

11. Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, Jeffrey (2002), Theoretical Criminology, Oxford University Press, New York.

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