There are many ways to define a theory. Akers definition is as follows; theory, if developed properly, is about real situations, feelings, experience, and human behavior. Akers goes on to state that an effective theory helps us make sense of facts that we already know and can be tested against new facts (Akers, Sellers, & Jennings, 2009, p. 1). Lilly goes on to explain that theories are brought forward through life experiences. However, criminologist professionals have obligations to set aside their differences when it comes to analyzing criminal theories. Lilly adds to the end of her discussion on theory that, even though criminologists have a professional manner to follow, their own personal beliefs cannot be ruled out when developing a theory (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2019, p. 3).
Akers and Lilly et al break down the necessary criteria that must be used by scholars to evaluate scientific research in the criminology world. Criminological theories are broken down as scientific theories. The most important of these, is empirical validity, the extent to which a theory can be verified or refuted with carefully gathered evidence (Akers, Sellers, & Jennings, 2009, p. 5). Akers (2009) goes on to explain that there are several other ways that theories can be evaluated by scholars by Internal logical consistency, scope, and testability. It is important to note that the scope of a theory being tested looks to explore range of findings that theory is trying to explain. Finally, it is important to conclude that when testing the theory, there is repeatable evidence to support the theory. If there are no empirical findings to which the theory can be tested against then the theory will have no scientific value.
Reliability and validity are crucial when criminal justice practitioners are conducting research. Reliability is simply defined as the consistency of a measure. This is important for criminal justice practitioners to keep in mind when testing theories. Validity helps analyze the extent to which the scores from a measure represent the variable they are intended to. One reason that criminal justice practitioners should be concerned with reliability and validity is that it measures all our intended research into analyzing a theory. According to Akers et al., (2009) empirical validity is the most important criterion for judging a theory, and it simply means that a theory has been supported by research evidence. Reliability and validity help us analyze research and the data that it produces. If data shows us a consistent flow and close correlation of data, the stronger variable of validity will show.
The classical school of thought was brought to attention during the Enlightenment era. It emphasized the rejection of spiritual or religious explanations of crime in favor of the view that offenders use their reason, the assessment of costs and benefits, in deciding whether a potential criminal act pays and should be pursued (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2019, p. 7). Theorists who followed the classical school of thought, began to look at everyone equally. They thought if they could prove that crime has no reward, that they could deter criminal acts. This theory is closely connected to rational choice and deterrence theory.
The positivist school of thinking differs from the classical school of thought by believing it is caused by the persons mental health state. Crime was not due to a sinful soul or chosen freely but rather was predetermined by a person’s constitutional makeup (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2019, p. 7). The positivist school of thought takes a psychological approach to determining the root causes of why a person takes part in criminal acts. In other words, people are inherently good, but because of their background and environment, they eventually become socially bad. For that reason, the Positivist School discards the perspective of Classical School that all crimes resulted from a choice after careful assessment of the advantages and disadvantages (Criminology, 2018). The positivist school of thinking applied a scientific approach. It is still used by criminal justice scholars to study criminal behavior.