Positivism was founded upon the belief that society (civilisation) is progressing ever forward, and that the social scientist can study society, provide a more accurate understanding of how society works, and ultimately provide a rational means of overcoming existing social problems and ills by using scientific methods. Social scientists were interested in promoting a positive view of the social order, and in providing positive interventions in social life to make things better. This required systematic study of existing social problems, and the development of a wide range of techniques and strategies to deal with issues relating to schooling, poverty and family life.Under the rubric of positive reform, a wide variety of "experts" - medical, doctors, psychiatrists, health workers, teachers, criminal justice officials and social workers - began to devise "scientific" ways to raise children better, to professionalise parenting, to deal with personal troubles and individual deficiencies, to deal with young offenders and generally to engineer wide scale social reform. The development of positivism was related to efforts to adopt natural science methods and concepts in the study of society. Positivism is based on the idea of a scientific understanding of crime and criminality. It assumes that there is a distinction between the "normal" and the "deviant" and attempts to study the specific factors that give rise to deviant or criminal behaviour. Behaviour is a reflection of certain influences on a person, whether biological, psychological, or social in nature.
It is believed that offenders vary: individual differences exist between offenders and these in turn can be measured and classified in some way. The focus of analysis therefore is on the nature and characteristics of the offender, rather than on the criminal act. The positivist approach is directed towards the treatment of offenders. Offending behaviour is analysed in terms of factors or forces beyond the conscious control of the individual. Since each individual offender is different from all others, treatment must be individualised. One strand of scientific research attempted to provide biological explanations for criminal behaviour; the other focused on psychological factors associated with criminality.
Biological positivism was first popularised through the work of Lombroso. Borrowing heavily from evolutionary theories, Lombroso attempted to distinguish different types of human individuals, and to classify them on the basis of racial and biological difference. In a form of "criminal anthropology", the argument here was that a general theory of crime can be developed on the basis of measurable physical differences between the criminal and the no criminal. For Lombroso, the criminal was born, not made. The idea of a "born criminal" reflected the notion that crime is the result of something essential to the nature of the individual criminal.
The emphasis on biological factors in explanations of crime was reflected in a number of subsequent studies. The study conducted on 355 male inmates of Pentridge