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Social Constructionism, Positivism and Classicism

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    The role of theory in contemporary youth justice practice is crucial in shaping and conceptualising relationships between youth and crime. It provides a structure for how youth justice is practiced and helps make sense of today’s issues surrounding the topic. Approaches to youth justice have evolved throughout the centuries and it is important for youth justice practitioners to be aware of the evolution of theory in order to be up to date with their knowledge and in their practice.

    Knowledge of current as well as traditional theoretical perspectives helps provide a new direction on current as well as old questions; it helps with the understanding of how the justice system they work in has been shaped and informs new models of work in this field. This essay will attempt to compare and contrast three traditions of theorising on crime, law and order: classicism, positivism and social constructionism. A brief discussion of the relative influence of each perspective on contemporary theory and practice in youth justice will be included.

    In the late 18th century, classical theorists, such as Beccaria and Bentham, proposed a model which would inform the rational actor model (Hopkins-Burke, p. 85-89, 2011). The idea was that individuals are rational beings and have free will with regards to their behaviour. Should someone choose to be involved in criminal activities, they should be held personally responsible for their behaviour and be punished accordingly. Crime, by its nature, is morally wrong and endangers social order, and therefore, should be punished.

    Offenders should be deterred of any potential re-offending and would-be criminals should be deterred from first time offending. This is achieved by having a justice system where punishment is automatic and proportional to the crime committed. The principle in place here is that the consequences of being involved in criminal activities are not worth the benefits of such an activity. The classicist perspective offered a framework for practicing justice however, it also had some flaws: all offenders had to be treated on the basis of the crime committed only, and were all treated as fully rational and responsible beings.

    This raised the issue of children and individuals with diminished intellectual faculties, and saw judges beginning to vary sentences depending on the offender and their circumstances. The emergence of the concept of due process and the consideration given to not only the crime committed, but also to the intention and state of mind of the perpetrator in determining whether the individual can be held responsible as a rational individual led to the need to consider the criminal and their crime in light of surrounding circumstances.

    This led to the emergence of the neo-classical school and the crucial thinking that predisposing factors may have an impact on an individual’s behaviour. The use of experts in courts increased and as a result of the identification of biological, psychological and social differences, sentences became individualised in order to not only take into account predisposing factors, but also the consequences and appropriateness of the punishment in terms of rehabilitation of the individual.

    The limitations of classicism led to the emergence of a new trend in the 19th century which provided a long-lasting tradition (it was the approach of choice in the 20th century until the 1960’s). The positivist school offered a materialistic and scientific approach to crime. The principles were that natural sciences methods should be applied to the social world (Young, 1981). This new trend was in contradiction with classicism.

    Where classicism was about individuals being equal in society and using their free will to engage in criminal activities, the principle of positivism was that the source of crime could be found in the predisposed individual. As Young explains (1981), a genetic or physiological incapacity of the individual, an ineffective family background or a social milieu can all lead to undersocialisation which can itself result in the individual engaging in criminal activities. In that case, punishment is ineffective and treatment and rehabilitation are what is needed.

    The issue with positivism is that an assumption is made that only the undersocialised commit crime. However, crime can be committed by individuals from all areas of society. Positivism does not take into account human agency and the creativity that can be found in human beings; it only reduces the crime problem to a simple predictable, set out from the start, destiny. Despite these flaws, positivism has informed many areas of social policy and dominated the practice of youth justice until the 1960’s/70’s.

    As previously explained, one of the critiques of positivism is the lack of consideration for individuals creativity and free will in how they lead their lives. The meaning human beings create in the world and the interpretation they make of this world needs to be considered in criminal justice, and it is this need that led to a new school of thought emerging in the 60s/70s: social constructionism (or new deviancy). Social constructionist theorists explain that the reality surrounding all human beings is not pre-determined, but rather socially constructed.

    By this they mean that the powerful (the media, the police, the courts, etc. ) create an illusion of social order by ensuring that the majority of citizens adhere to the principle that there is a social order, rather than a variety of values, and that any ‘normal’ individual would naturally adhere to this social order. For the general public, this process of reification means that ideas and concepts become part of a ‘natural’ reality and are therefore no longer questioned. The process of labelling is an important aspect of social constructionism.

    Applied specifically to the area of criminal justice, it involves a particular group or individual labelling the activities and behaviours of another group or individual as criminal or deviant. As Young explains (1981), creativity is extensively used by human beings in their behaviours in order to generate their own system of values, but the powerful are in a position to enforce their own values upon the less powerful through labelling. In terms of criminal justice, classicism focuses on the act itself, the crime, when positivism’s main concern is the individual.

    New deviancy theorists focus on the labelling and its processes. Labelling, by its very nature, limits the prospects and opportunities of the ‘labellee’ as the label applied becomes the truth about the individual’s nature. Labelling, by defining an individual, makes them behave in a certain manner and tends to eradicate their free will. This leads to making assumptions and stereotypical judgements. In terms of policy making, it is crucial to be aware of these stereotypes and the consequences of labelling and reification.

    The flaws of this theory can also be found in its non-interventionist tendency – decriminalisation of many offences such as prostitution, drug use, homosexuality, etc. and the problem of the ubiquity of crime. Major real issues experienced in contemporary UK cannot be solved by the application of social constructionism principles – for example, anti-social behaviour cannot be solved by minimising its reality or by the State not intervening on the basis that free individuals are by nature able to conduct themselves in whichever manner they see fit.

    Theories and research all have consequences and effects on contemporary policy and practice in youth justice, starting with how ‘crime’ is understood. A powerful example of the importance of theory for youth justice practitioners is provided by the issue of normalisation of drugs. Shiner and Newburn (1997) explain that the normalisation thesis is not valid despite a vast number of social scientists claiming that it is. They provide a critique of how the research data has been gathered and used, and attempt to demonstrate that the normalisation thesis does not reflect how youths perceive drug use.

    A social constructionist approach can be observed here – labelling all youths as drug users. But Shiner and Newburn (1997) demonstrate that this is not a reality. Another useful example of how theories influence today’s youth criminal justice practice is provided by Pitts and Kuula (2005). Their Anglo-Finnish comparison on young people incarceration shows that the punitive trend found in England and Wales (classicist influence) does not provide a successful solution to the youth crime question.

    England and Wales have been influenced at various times by theories of justice such as classicism (with principles of punishment, retribution and justice); theories of welfare such as positivism (where the response to crime lies in treatment and rehabilitation), and has also been subjected to the labelling effects of social constructionism – ‘once a thief, always a thief’. Observing and comparing alternative systems influenced by different theories help change and advance approaches.

    Since a reactive, punishment-based system does not achieve positive outcomes in terms of rehabilitation, a new solution must be sought. The current trend in England and Wales is to use restorative justice systems and community based support in youth crime and anti-social behaviour policy. Mackenzie (2008) explains how the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) used for sex offenders could be transposed to the anti-social behaviour question and that early intervention is required.

    Research on the subject, based on positivism (rehabilitation), is also leading to a new school of thought, promoting the need for early intervention and showing that this transition to community based support is needed. This is currently informing policy making – one just has to look at the number of volunteers already used and currently being recruited to work in this field. This essay attempted to compare and contrast three traditions of theorising on crime, law and order: classicism, positivism and social constructionism.

    A brief discussion of the relative influence of each perspective on contemporary theory and practice in youth justice was included and showed how classicism, with its punitive characteristics gave way to positivism and its rehabilitation trend. The example of new initiatives and schemes such as COSA, also showed how policy making evolves, taking into account new developments and research, and in turns, possibly leading to new theorising.

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