Biological Theories of Crime

III. The Scientific Method

The scientific method is important to positivism and to biological theories of crime because it provides a systematic way to examine a particular problem or issue, rather than relying on spiritual or mystical explanations or haphazard guesswork. The development of the modern scientific method is credited primarily to Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039), an Iraqi-born scientist who wrote The Book of Optics between 1011 and 1021. It consists of the following seven steps:

  1. Observation: Visual examination of a problem or issue, noticing characteristics and patterns.
  2. Statement of the problem: A verbal description of the problem or issue, noting how it impacts and relates to other events or factors. An explanation of why and how the issue or problem is a problem.
  3. Formulation of hypotheses: Development of potential explanations or solutions, educated and informed statements about the expected nature of the problem and relationships among the various components of the problem, specification of variables involved in the problem so that the potential explanation can be tested.
  4. Testing of the hypotheses using controlled experimentation: controlled manipulation of the variables to determine whether the hypotheses are supported.
  5. Analyses of experimental results; this usually involves examination of statistics.
  6. Interpretation of data obtained from the testing and analyses and the formulation of a conclusion: Taking into account all the factors, the researcher makes a conclusion about the nature of the problem or issue.
  7. Publication or dissemination of findings to inform interested populations and future research: providing information to the scientific community about your findings to help future researchers or to inform policy and practice.

Although some variation of the scientific method has been used since ancient times to evaluate and solve many problems, its use to explain social problems, such as crime and criminality, developed more recently. Early types of biological theories of crime were among the first efforts. Given the use of the scientific method in the “hard” or “natural” sciences, early researchers of the causes of crime attempted to explain criminal behaviors by applying the scientific method. The most obvious place to look for differences between criminals and other individuals was on the outside, by studying physical traits.