Criminology Positivist Criminology
Brandon Dulisse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0324


The influence of positive criminology on modern criminology can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. This period experienced intellectual challenges to the prevailing classical thinking that criminal behavior was a product of free will and rational calculation, instead suggesting that patterns and causal mechanisms for crime could be found through a deeper scientific study of observable phenomena. In addition to offering a different explanation for crime, positivists explored a completely different conception of crime, one that emerged from the biological, social, and economic conditions of the time. Originally termed “moral statisticians,” early positivist thinkers attempted to measure every trait, attribute, behavior, and trend associated with criminal behavior in an effort to statistically predict the causal nature of crime. In doing so, many suggested that criminal behavior was driven by factors beyond the control of the individual, leading to deterministic views of segments of society possessing these characteristics or traits. While some of the conclusions made during this era were heralded as foundational within the field of criminology—such as correlations of age, sex, and poverty with crime—other less valid and more harmful assertions were made as well. By the mid-twentieth century, pure positivist criminology was shunned for its atheoretical approach and dubious former acolytes. This article attempts to capture the historical, philosophical, and empirical importance of positive criminology by being divided into the following sections: Defining Positivism; Early Positivist Philosophy; Reviews and Canonical Texts; Moral Statistics; Historical and Biographical Accounts of Positivists; and Modern Critiques of Positivism.

Defining Positivism

Since the early nineteenth century, the scientific study of criminals and the causes of crime has led to various theories, methodological approaches, and philosophies on human nature, as well as policy recommendations and social remedies. Entries in this section attempt to define some of these terms and shed light on what positive criminology really is. Some works, like Bryant 1985, help define terms like “positivist sociology” and provide a definition of what positivism meant to early positivist thinkers, while others like Canals 1960 take a more historical approach at explaining the era and the primary thinkers that influenced policy and thought during this time. Adding to this, Mooney 2000 provides a definition for positivist theory in a book chapter that analyzes how positive criminology explains violent behavior. Within the positive era of criminology, no scientist is more well-known than Cesare Lombroso. Gibson 2002 chronicles the history of Lombroso while giving a detailed background on determinism and evolutionary concepts within the field of positivism during this era. Whereas most research has focused on defining positivism as it relates to criminological theory, works like Cohen 1949 and Frampton 2013 discuss the legal ramifications of a positivist approach to the entrapment doctrine and 20th-century jurisprudence. Finally, some encyclopedia entries provide readers with a cursory understanding of particular topics related to positive criminology without the required “deeper dive” of many textbooks and articles. Logan and Dulisse 2014 provides a succinct definition of positive criminology, while Fox 2008 defines the post-positivism era in social sciences. Lastly, Marmor 2002 offers the definition of exclusive legal positivism, with an equally expedient definition of inclusive legal positivism within conventionally identified sources of law.

  • Bryant, Christopher G. A. 1985. Positivism in social theory and research. New York: St. Martin’s.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-17759-2

    This book provides a detailed history on the early positivist thinkers while also detailing how the positivist movement has influenced theory and research in the social sciences in the early twenty-first century. One strong suit of this book over its contemporaries is that it takes time to explain terms like “positivist sociology” and others that are used interchangeably in the social sciences but rarely defined.

  • Canals, José M. 1960. Classicism, positivism and social defense. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 50.6: 541–550.

    DOI: 10.2307/1141438

    This article explains early biological positivism in Europe with a particular focus on Enrico Ferri and Cesare Lombroso’s work and influence during the early twentieth century. In addition, this piece explains the previous classical movement and later social defense movements that bookended positivism during this era.

  • Cohen, Morris R. 1949. Reason and law. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    This book supplements Cohen’s earlier work, Law and the Social Order, and provides a rationalist approach to 20th-century jurisprudence. Cohen’s expertise in modern science and logical method suggest a positivist approach to legal philosophy and the moral aspects of law.

  • Fox, Nick J. 2008. Post-positivism. In The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods. Edited by L. M. Given, 659–664. London: SAGE.

    This encyclopedia entry focuses on the post-positivist movement by some social science scholars primarily in the twentieth century and beyond. While this entry does not explicitly focus on positivism, it does provide a detailed critique of positivism while discussing the historical roots of anti-positivism within the scientific community.

  • Frampton, T. W. 2013. Predisposition and positivism: The forgotten foundations of the entrapment doctrine. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 103.1: 111–146.

    This article discusses the impact of 20th-century positivist criminology on the legal shaping of the entrapment doctrine through a legal perspective. The author pays particular attention to the legal definition of “criminal predisposition” and the previous positivist research into this foray.

  • Gibson, Mary. 2002. Born to crime: Cesare Lombroso and the origins of biological criminology. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    This book chronicles the history of Cesare Lombroso while also providing a historical account of the evolution of biological criminology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Explaining the development of determinist and positivist philosophies during these time periods, the author gives a detailed background that provides a well-rounded history of how biological determinism evolved during this period.

  • Logan, Matthew, and Brandon Dulisse. 2014. Positive criminology. In The encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. Edited by Jay S. Albanese, 1–3. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118517383.wbeccj023

    This encyclopedia entry offers a brief historical overview of positive criminology while also citing modern examples within sociology, psychology, and biology.

  • Marmor, Andrei. 2002. Exclusive legal positivism. In The Oxford handbook of jurisprudence and philosophy of law. Edited by Jules L. Coleman, Kenneth Einar Himma, and Scott J. Shapiro, 104–124. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This encyclopedia entry considers some of the relations between the idea of legal validity and the more conventional identified sources of law. Particular attention is paid to explaining the meaning of inclusive legal positivism as well as its flaws within modern jurisprudence and source-based law.

  • Mooney, Jayne. 2000. Positivism: Scientific explanations of violence. In Gender, violence and the social order. By Jayne Mooney, 35–65. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230597396_3

    This book chapter provides a detailed description of positivism as a theory that attempted to explain violence in the nineteenth century. Particular attention is paid to where positivism fits as a paradigm in early criminology.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.