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Positivism: environmental influences


The positivist perspective in criminology looks to internal or external influences on individuals as the primary cause of criminal behaviour. Most attempts to explain crime over the last century have examined social factors as causes. The assumption of these efforts is that changing underlying social conditions will reduce or prevent criminal behaviour (Akers, Sellers, Jennings, 2016; Matthew and Dulisse, 2014; Williams III and McShane, 2017).

This explanation, based on opportunity structures, posits that crime results from a lack of access to legitimate means (i.e., "blocked opportunity") for achieving social goals (e.g., having a good job, or generally achieving economic success) (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960). Therefore, some neighbourhoods at the poorer ends of social and economic conditions provide greater opportunity for illicit activity than others.

Three types of criminal subcultures develop when young people withdraw legitimacy from accepted social goals because they lack the means to achieve them (e.g., unequal employment opportunities or the inability to obtain advanced education or training). The three subcultures are: criminal, conflict, and retreatist. The criminal subculture occurs when these young people associate and become accepted as adult criminals. The conflict subculture involves violent gangs in which status is obtained through intimidation and battles over territory. The retreatist subculture is comprised of those who lack either the opportunity or the abilities to gain acceptance in the criminal or conflict subcultures; these individuals may become drop-outs or drug addicts.

The criminal subculture has the clearest connection to organized crime. In these situations, a young person becomes an apprentice criminal who develops relationships with career criminals and members of organized criminal groups. According to this theory, participation in an organized criminal group is thus prompted by blocked opportunities for success in legitimate society.

Blocked opportunity and crime

Blocked opportunity does not lead directly to a life of crime, because there must also exist opportunities to form relationships with the criminal subculture, as well as the personal ability to gain status in this milieu. Therefore, a merging of age groups and common values that accept and encourage the commission of crimes is necessary for young people to become part of the adult criminal subculture (Albanese, 2015).

There are sociological theories of crime to explain how a young person becomes an adult criminal. Each focuses on different social factors that affect the person. These theories focus on "delinquent traditions" found in some neighbourhoods, "learning" through others that crime is acceptable, or "neutralizing" the guilt felt about their criminal conduct by rationalizing it (Matza, 1964; Shaw and McKay, 1960; Sutherland, 1939).

Of course, other factors can increase opportunities for organized crime. For instance, globalized trade, the ease of movement around the world as well as technological advancement also create new opportunities for exploitation (an example is the online sexual exploitation of children) and the diversification of activities (e.g. new routes to smuggle migrants, novel ways to traffic and sell cultural property or wildlife specimen, and launder money as well as innovative methods to falsify medical products or produce counterfeit products and technologies). The opportunity theory described above attempts to provide specific reasons why and explain how individuals go about exploiting these opportunities when they are presented.

A shortcoming of positivist explanations of organized crime is that they focus on external (or psychological) influences on behaviour. Despite all influences in a person's life, and opportunities to commit a crime, the individual still has to make the ultimate decision to violate the law. Bad neighbourhoods, poor family support and the presence of organized criminal groups make it difficult to become a law-abiding adult, yet many people who grow up in these contexts are. There are many factors influencing the choice of people to commit crimes, but these influences do not determine the decision to exploit opportunities in criminal ways. In conclusion, the positivist explanations illustrate which conditions make a criminal lifestyle an easy choice, but they do not explain why many people succeed against the odds and their environment.


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