Welcome to Criminology!
Welcome to Criminology! This course of study aims to promote a more complete understanding of crime and how it is enmeshed in human social life. To do this, we will set out to explore the foundational theories and research that help explain how crime is measured and understood. After we establish some basic level understanding, we’ll move on to consider how the study of crime evolved over time. This includes how early theorists described and documented the characteristics of criminals. We’ll see how later, as science evolved, sociobiology theories were advanced to explain crime as both a function of genetics and environment – the classic “nature vs. nurture” paradigm. This will give way to a study of psychology and sexual crimes. Lastly, we’ll look at white-collar crime, organized crime, and war crimes and terrorism.
How Do We Investigate Crime & Criminals?
Many students who wander into the field of study may find themselves asking: how exactly do researchers investigate crime and criminals? What makes a crime a crime? As you will learn later, in most cases an act is considered a crime because the person committing it intended to do something that the legal scholars and governments have determined is wrong. This is what is known as “criminal intent” – or the mental state generally referred to as “mens rea,” Latin for “guilty mind.”
To this end, we will examine the social science research methods that underlie the scientific research testing that informs public policymaking. Students will learn about sources of information that provide data that essential to the study of criminal behavior. Developing an understanding of the critical frameworks researchers use (particularly those that focus on demographic variables like age, gender, race, and ethnicity) will, likewise, be emphasized. Let’s get started!
Who Is a Criminal? What Makes a Crime a Crime?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. The aim of the course is to discover both the long and short answers. As for the short, it depends. Crime and criminality vary considerably over time and space. Once condemned as a criminal, the same person might now be admired. To investigate, we have to go all the way back to the Age of Enlightenment.
What Was the Enlightenment?
The Age of Enlightenment refers to a time period as well as an elite 18th-century cultural movement that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. Some people like to think of the Enlightenment as the beginning of modern philosophy. It was important because the ideas that came from this movement influenced future democratic governments.
The Enlightenment period in the history of western thought and culture stretches roughly from the mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century; it was characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society, and politics. These revolutions swept away the dark medieval world-view and ushered in the light that is thought to typify our modern western world.
Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution, in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were violently destroyed and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, ostensibly, upon principles of human reason.
The Enlightenment begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rise of the “new science” progressively worked to undermine not only the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos and with it the entire set of presuppositions that served to constrain as well as guide philosophical inquiry. The dramatic success of the new science in explaining the natural world, in accounting for a wide variety of phenomena by appeal to a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae, promotes philosophy (in the broad sense of the time, which includes natural science) from a handmaiden of theology, constrained by its purposes and methods, to an independent force with the power and authority to challenge the old and construct the new, in the realms both of theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles. D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence,” because of the tremendous intellectual progress of the age, the advance of the sciences, and the enthusiasm for that progress, but also because of the characteristic expectation of the age that philosophy and science (in this broad sense) would dramatically improve human life.
Who Are the Great Thinkers of the Enlightenment?
The Enlightenment is associated with the French thinkers of the mid-decades of the eighteenth century, the so-called “philosophes”- Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert, Montesquieu, et cetera. The philosophes constitute an informal society of men of letters who collaborate on a loosely defined project of Enlightenment centered around the project of the Encyclopedia. But the Enlightenment has broader boundaries, both geographical and temporal, than this suggests. Other thinkers, who turned out to be influential in shaping the early study of crime and criminals, included John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jeremy Bentham.
John Locke, for example, was concerned about the relationship between civil society, human behavior, and punishment. He theorized that when humans lived in a pre-societal state of nature, they had no formal constraints on their behavior.
Man and the State of Nature
According to Locke, the term “state of nature” refers to the way human beings lived before they came together to form societies. In the state of nature, human beings have absolute freedom to pursue their desires, and because there are no laws, they can steal or kill without the fear of institutionalized punishment. However, everyone also has absolute freedom to protect themselves and attack others for perceived slights. Since individuals alone decide on how and when to seek retribution, Locke doubted whether any actions enacted by these individuals could actually constitute punishment.
Punishment in Society
Locke argued that the idea of punishment is one of the principle reasons why humans come together to form a society. According to Locke, in a state of nature, each person acts as a judge in his own case, but this unchecked power puts all humans in a potential state of danger, particularly when they are living in more complex societies. In exchange for living and benefitting from the rewards of a cooperative society (for more on these see “Social Contract theory”) humans consent to turn their power to seek individual retribution and punish over to the government. They relinquish absolute freedom in order to acquire the benefits of living in society. As such, other external authorities, such as kings or elected officials, were given the power to formalize ideas of punishment.
Ethics of Punishment
Locke viewed punishment as a means of repairing the social order. If somebody steals something, the government selects an appropriate punishment, and enacts it in order to return order to that society. Locke’s theory on the severity of this punishment relates to restitution, and he claimed that an appropriate amount of punishment is whatever provides restitution for the injured and deters other people from committing a similar crime. According to the University of Stanford, critics believe that this view of punishment is no different than his conception of punishment in the state of nature, since both views center around the notion of preservation. In the state of nature, the individual is punishing others in the interest of self-preservation, while in society an individual or individuals create laws and enact them, but they still create these laws in the interest of preserving the state or even humanity.
Locke’s theory of punishment influenced — and continues to influence — governments and individuals all over the world. Several countries have built laws on the ideas espoused by Locke, and some countries, such as the United States, have built the ideas into their constitutions. The U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea that the government derives its power from the people, who turn some of their freedoms over to the government when they consent to be governed. This, as well as many other aspects of the Constitution, comes directly from Locke.
The David Hume statue on its pedestal outside of St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland.
In addition to the English and French movements/thinkers represented here, there was a significant Scottish Enlightenment. Key figures were Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid as well as a similarly influential German Enlightenment (die Aufklärung) including Christian Wolff, Moses Mendelssohn, G.E. Lessing and Immanuel Kant. All of these different Enlightenments and thought leaders might be thought of as particular nodes or centers of thought in a far-flung and varied intellectual development. Given the variation depicted here, Enlightenment philosophy is perhaps better understood in terms of general tendencies of thinking; not in terms of specific doctrines or theories.
Pre-classical Perspectives & Punishments
Prior to the Enlightenment, religious and spiritual perspectives were cited as a basis for organizing society and punishing individuals. Religious worldviews eventually gave way to “rational” science-informed perspectives.
Notwithstanding the influence of the Enlightenment, religion remained an important feature of crime and punishment. We see this perhaps nowhere more so than in colonial America. Religious dissenters, who migrated from England (i.e. the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania) were particularly keen to enforce religious norms among the colonists. Many colonies made little distinction between sin and crime. These influences constitute a strong undercurrent in U.S. society, even in our current political moment, as research has documented that many Americans favor using the law to enforce a religious worldview. But this too is changing, as the same research documents that young Americans increasingly do not advocate this kind of thinking.
Salem witch trials
The Inquisitional chairs
This instrument of torture comes in different versions. We are first going to examine their common features and, then, their differences. All of them have common features, in that they are covered with spikes on the back, on the arm-rests, on the seat, on the leg-rests and on the foot-rests. The chair exhibited at the museum of San Gimignano has 1300 spikes, a real “carpet” of spikes. One version has a bar screwed on the lower portion of the chair, by the victim’s feet, which by a screw mechanism forced the back of the legs against the spikes, thus penetrating the flesh of the victim. Another version had two bars immobilizing the victim’s wrists forcing his forearms against the arm-rests resulting in the flesh being penetrated by the spikes.
Another version had a bar at chest height, to immobilize the victim’s bust, while the spiked seat had holes to allow the victim’s bottom to be ‘heated” by hot coals placed under the seat, causing painful burns, but still keeping the victim conscious.
The strength of this instrument lies mainly in the psychological terror it causes and the threat that the torture will get increasingly worse, conforming to a model where the pain starts off easy and then gets progressively worse. The idea is that the Inquisitors can interrupt it at any stage, upon visual inspection of the damages that have been inflicted.
This instrument was used in Germany up to the 1800s, in Italy and in Spain up to the end of the 1700s, in France, in Great Britain, and in the other central European countries, according to certain sources, up until the end of 1800s.
“Torture is a sure means to absolve robust villains and condemn weak innocent men”
“The law makes you suffer because you are guilty, you could be guilty, it wants you to be guilty” – Cesare Beccaria
The Classical School of Criminology
As we move forward in our course of study together, we’ll be investigating different approaches theorizing crime and punishment. The Classical School of theories remains important to our current understanding of these issues, even though they have fallen out of favor to some extent. What distinguishes them is their emphasis on individual “free will” as well as rational decisionmaking – aspects of crime that are not always emphasized by contemporary theories. The Enlightenment helped to provide Classical theory with a framework for thinking through decisionmaking and rationality. The work of Cesare Beccaria here proved to be highly influential and he is considered to be the father of the Classical School of Criminal Justice.
Cesare Beccaria was a prominent Italian economist and criminologist. He wrote during a time when authoritarian governments wielded a heavy hand against citizens. The justice system during his time was often decidedly unjust. Beccaria’s reforms focused on free-will and the individual’s ability to make a rational choice about committing a crime, after giving consideration to the chance they might be caught and punished.
Enlightenment philosophy is readily apparent in the works and thinking of Beccaria, who emphasized the social contract among other important ideas. That is to say, he believed that citizens must give up rights in exchange for protection from the government or state.
Beccaria advocated swift punishment as the best form of deterrent to crime. His best-known work was his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which condemned torture and the death penalty. This work still stands as a pioneering study in the field of criminology. Here, he argued that capital punishment was neither useful as a deterrent, nor was it necessary or ethically appropriate for the state to take the life of any of its citizens. The book tackled criminal reform and suggested that criminal justice should conform to rational principles.
Beccaria’s work greatly influenced the Neo-Classical theorist and architect, Jeremy Bentham, in his development of his doctrine of Utilitarianism.
Beccaria’s Understanding of Punishment – 3 Characteristics
- Punishment must be swift
- Punishment must be certain
- Punishment must be severe
Beccaria & Deterrence Theory – Specific vs General
Beccaria emphasized that for punishment to be truly effective, it must have a deterrent effect on people who might decide to commit a crime. He developed two different concepts to elaborate the concept of deterrence: specific deterrence and general deterrence (he did not coin the terms; he merely emphasized they are important to distinguish).
Specific deterrence refers to punishments given to an individual that are meant to prevent/deter the individual from committing the crime again in the future.
General deterrence refers to punishments given to an individual that are meant to prevent/deter other potential offenders in the society at large from committing the crime in the future.
While the two of these categories overlap to some degree they, nonetheless, continue to form the basis of modern day sentencing strategies.
Beccaria’s Ideas About the Death Penalty
Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments marked the high point of the Milan Enlightenment. In what was a major contribution, Beccaria put forth the first arguments ever made against the death penalty. Beccaria claimed first and foremost that the use of capital punishment violated the social contract. Secondly, he thought that reflected negatively on the government, as it not only set a poor example for the rest of society, it failed to deter crime for reasons that it effectively endorsed barbarism (researchers have referred to this as the Brutalization effect).
Why should we care about the theories of old Cesare Beccaria? Well, for one, they had a major impact on the governing of the United States. Beccaria’s propositions and theoretical model of deterrence was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. His emphasis on due process rights, right to a speedy trial, right to a trial by jury, right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, and the requirement that all trials be public and the public be informed of all decisions regarding the justice system – we owe our rights to all of these things to Cesare Beccaria.
One of the more notable theorists inspired by Beccaria’s work was the English philosopher and political radical, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham is primarily known today for his moral philosophy, and especially his principle of utilitarianism, which evaluates actions based upon their consequences. According to him, the most relevant consequences are the overall happiness created for everyone affected by the action.
Like Beccaria before him, Bentham was influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, especially empiricists such as John Locke and David Hume. Bentham developed an ethical theory grounded in a largely empiricist account of human nature. He famously held a hedonistic account of both motivation and value according to which what is fundamentally valuable and what ultimately motivates us is pleasure and pain. Happiness, according to Bentham, is thus a matter of experiencing pleasure and lack of pain. One of his most important contributions was the “hedonistic calculus” – the weighing of pleasure vs. pain that individuals potentially undertake when they think about committing a crime.
Bentham also became known for his design of a prison structure, known as the Panopticon (the model incorporates a wagon wheel design so that a post in the center of the structure can conduct a 360-degree visual observation of prisoners – the spokes/corridors contain inmate cells). One famous model can still be visited in the state of Pennsylvania at the Eastern Penitentiary, located in Philadelphia.
Penn State Criminal Justice students (2017) look at a model of Eastern Penitentiary, which is based on Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon
Okay, Now What?
In the next section, we’ll take a look at the policy implications of how the Classical School and its theories eventually led to the Neoclassical perspective. Despite its influence having been diminished, classical theories have nonetheless been reinterpreted for the modern era – echoes from the past remain with us.
The prison watchtower at Eastern Pententiary
What are the three characteristics that define Beccaria’s understanding of punishment?
How did Enlightenment philosophy influence Beccaria?
How did Beccaria influence the U.S. criminal justice system?