Criminology, the study of why people violate social norms and one another's rights by committing crimes, is the branch of sociology that provides a theoretical basis for law enforcement and correctional policy. Both classical and neoclassical criminology are attempts to deal with crime in a logical way instead of resorting to outright vengeance. Neoclassical theory is not an attempt to disprove or debate classical theory but an expansion of the theory.
Classical criminology was founded in the mid-19th century by two utilitarian philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. They argued that crime was a matter of free will and rational self-interest and could be defined precisely by law; they also insisted that proportionate, swift punishment would deter crime. Classical criminology assumes that people who commit crimes make a rational choice to do so based on the pleasure they hope will result and will choose not to commit crimes if they know there is a strong chance they will experience pain instead.
Neoclassical criminology defines crime more broadly as actions that offend against a shared understanding of morality. It added an analysis of environmental factors beyond rational self-interest. In neoclassical thinking, it is possible to do more to deter crime than just to catch and punish criminals; the environment can be changed in ways that make crime less likely to occur. Neoclassical criminologists sought to explain crime as a result of problems such as poverty, low intelligence or family structure.
- Rich Legg/iStock/Getty Images