Techniques of Neutralization, also called Neutralization theory is an independent theory of deviant and crime. It is firstly introduced by Gresham.M.Sykes and David Matza in 1957. They attempted to clarify Surthland’s theory of differential association. They stated that when people participate in deviant behaviors, we will definitely find ways to rationalize our acts or neutralize their guilt associated with it. In this essay, we will do a critically review on Sykes and Matza’s work “Techniques of Neutralization : A Theory of Delinquency”.
For the first part of the argument, they attempted to clarify surtherland’s idea about subculture and they claimed that the delinquents are most likely conformed with the dominant social values and norms it is important to noticed that their work was especially focus on “Juvenile delinquents”. For Sykes and Matza (1957) they believes all people know how to distinguish right and wrong, especially juvenile delinquents, they are able to avoid or aware to do something wrong. They further explain why people know they need to commit to the dominant social order and they still do something which is opposed the order. (Maruna and Copes, 2005)
With the concept of “neutralization”, Sykes and Matza(1957) claims that justification is also a kind of rationalization as to make deviant behavior possible. “It is our argument that much delinquency is based on what is essentially an unrecognized extension of defenses to crimes, in the form of justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent but not by the legal system or society at large.” ( Sykes & Matza, 1957, p. 666) Criminals will uses these to neutralize their wrongdoings and protecting themselves from self-blame and the blame of others after the acts.
Now we will briefly talk about Sykes and Matza’s (1957) clarifications made for Surtherland’s (1966) theory of differential association. First, they believe delinquents have the sense of guilt and shame. Second, “juvenile delinquent frequently accords admiration and respect to law-abiding persons.” (Sykes & Matza,1957, p.665). Third, delinquent make clear distinction between who can be victimized and who cannot. Forth, according to Sykes and Matza(1957), delinquent have the demands for conformity but they will internalize the demands or to alienate the social values and norms
Sykes and Matza(1957) strongly emphasized everyone has the demands for conformity. When young offenders face their conforming figures, they have the sense of guilt and shame. For the reason why people have the demands for conformity but they still choose to commit crime, it’s the matter of degree, as different people will have different degree of commitment to the usages of conformity (Sykes & Matza, 1957).
About the second part of argument, Sykes and Matza(1957) proposed 5 major types of deviant behavior techniques of neutralization. The first one is “denial of responsibility”, deviants will claim that their deviant behaviors are out of control or it is an accident. They are “lacking responsibility for their deviant actions”(Sykes & Matza, 1957, p.667) Deviants usually have personal problem and feel helpless, then they see themselves as victims and these makes or even force them to engage in deviant acts. The most common excuse they use to denial is “It’s not my fault.”
The second technique is “denial of injury”. The way of criminal law distinct an act is crime or not, it focus on “injury and harms caused by the deviant acts”. This technique is commonly use by auto thefts, they will claim that no one is hurt by their acts and they are just “borrowing”.
The third technique is “denial of victims”, criminals use this techniques are willing to admit their acts involve injuries, but they deny the victim. They views their acts as forms of “rightful retaliation or punishment” (Sykes & Matza, 1957, p. 668) and the people deserve it.
The forth one is called “the condemnation of the condemners”, that’s what McCorkle and Kron (1954) called “a rejection of the rejectors”. Delinquents shift the focus of attention to the motivations or behaviors of the people expressing disapproval (Maruna and Copes,2005, p13), they victimize themselves and view those condemners as “hypocrites, deviants in disguise, or impelled by personal spite”(Sykes & Matza, 1957, p.668)
The last one is “the appeal to higher loyalties”, it is used when “the internal and external social controls may be neutralized by sacrificing the demands of the larger society for the demands of the smaller social groups to which the delinquent belongs. (Sykes & Matza, 1957, p.669) Delinquent feel their law-breaking acts is worth as to benefit their group.
**Goods of techniques of neutralization ( 400 – 500 )
It is no doubt that neutralization theory had great influence power as it affects the development of criminology from the sociological perspectives for more than 50 years, and its effect is sustainable till this century. Sykes and Matza made a long and deep research, it can be seen as an extension and refinement of Surtherland’s differential association theory.(Maruna and Copes, 2005, p.17) They concerned about the part that Surtherland’s neglected and their works built up a foundation for future research.
“Neutralization theory is one of the earliest, fully articulated sociocognitive or narrative accounts of deviant behavior.” (Maruna and Copes,2005, p.5) It gave a new perspective to explain deviance and crime. They clearly proposed five techniques and made clear explanations and examples, this makes the theory easier to understand and remember. Moreover, we can use these techniques to explain and understand both the serious criminal behaviors, like murder, and less serious crime like shop lifting. These techniques are not limited to apply to certain kind of crimes, but it can apply to most crime generally.
Different from the tradition, Sykes and Matza’s research (1957) was aimed to focus on Juvenile delinquents. This raised the public attention at that moment and thus opened a new direction for future research. Also, as Sykes and Matza (1957) mentioned most criminals felt regret after their acts, because of these regrets, they will justify their wrongdoing with internalizing their original norms and values. This explanation also stated the changing psychological conditions of deviants which it can help us to understand deviants in a different aspect.
Apart from the field of criminology, Sykes and Matza also had important contribution to the field of social science. Refer to the Social Science Citation Index, the article “Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency” ( Sykes and Matza, 1957) is one of the most frequently cited original article, from 1957 to 2003, it has been cited over 700 times. (Maruna and Copes, 2005, p.3) Although the work was done over 50 years , we can see that Sykes and Matza’s work still had great influence power on social science researches.
It is easy to find researches about “techniques of neutralization”. Many researches attempt to verify and give support for the neutralization theory. Alexander Holsinger (1999) did a research which support Sykes and Matza’s ideas, and it helps to make the theory of neutralization techniques valid. Also, Volkan Topalli (2005 & 2006) further studied about the techniques of neutralization with the cases of street violence and street hardcore offending. We can see that neutralization theory is widely accepted and many researches are started based on the concept of neutralization theory.
Over times, neutralization theory is about to grow as an independent theory. Although many theorists used to link it to different theories, such as social learning theory or rational choice theory, etc. It also gave an explanation for the “secondary deviant”, when they were trying to neutralize and justify their wrongdoings, they may use the techniques to give excuses and make denial of their faults. It is no doubt that its explanatory power of neutralization theory has become greater and widely accepted in many aspects.
**Limits of techniques of neutralization ( 400 – 500 )
However, there are numbers of criticisms have been made of the argument over the years and we are going to talk about them in the following part.
Although Sykes and Matza aimed to focus on the aspects of juvenile delinquents, Numerous criminologists argued that it is meaningless for them to just focus on juvenile as they just mentioned little at the first part of the article about the lower class young males and they didn’t further explore, they didn’t concern much about the relationship between neutralization theory and social structure.
Travis Hirschi (1969) raised an important criticism against neutralization theory. It is about “whether deviants use the techniques to neutralize their acts BEFORE or AFTER they do it” Probably this is the problem of “chicken-or-egg”, Sykes and Matza didn’t mention about this in their works, and over years, many criminologists have made their opinion about this, but no one could make a representative answer. Some theorists claimed this question is very important to neutralization theory as its answer decide it belong to the categories of control theory or learning theory. It will be a control theory if the excuses appear after they commit such behaviors, we see it as post-hoc rationalizations. If they exist with their original thought, it will be a learning theory.” (O’Connor. T , 2006) With this vague distinction, Diane (1999) stated that neutralization theory loses its credibility as a theory if the delinquents neutralize before their acts, it is only to ” describes reactions that juveniles incur due to their misdeeds.”
With the usage of those five techniques, neutralization theory still fails to explain “primary deviant”. Sykes and Matza also realized one of this limitation in their perspectives. “There is a need for more knowledge concerning the differential distribution of techniques of neutralization, as operative patterns of thought, by age, sex, social class, ethnic group, etc.” ( Sykes and Matza, 1957 , p. 669). They made a suggestion for future research as to further analysis the relationship between neutralization and offenders backgrounds, like the age, sex and so on. The background and environment causes of deviant behaviors are also very important to the cause of delinquency, also the causes of primary deviants.
Moreover, some researchers argued that those techniques do not have clear distinction, even “denial of victims” and “denial of injury” are similar (Landsheer, t’Hart, and Kox, 1994).Also, with the measurement of the degree of attachment and commitment to social norms, it’s difficult to measure it accurately. In these cases, these make future research more difficult as the categories is too vague for them to further study about and it cannot help to do much about crime prevention.
In Topalli’s (2006) research, it did an analysis about the hardcore offenders and the usage of the neutralization techniques. Hardcore offenders with nonconventional values, Topalli(2005) termed these people “guilt-free offenders”, these people are not forced to commit crime, but they feel more sensible to do it at all. ( Topalli, 2006)It is found that the techniques are only useful for them at the first stage, over a period of time, the sense of guilt will be disappeared and changed to “enjoyment”. The techniques are no longer useful for these hardcore offenders at the later stage of their criminal lives.( Topalli, 2006) Using this research, we can see the limitation of Sykes and Matza”s (1957) work, its perspective explanatory ability is a bit narrow as it can only apply to those deviants who are attached to conventional norms and values, it cannot explain the criminals who have no sense of guilt. For those who are not attach, their behaviors probably will not affected by the dominant values but only their own desires and motivations, such as enjoyments and money. (Topalli, 2006)
Although neutralization theory is widely known and respected both the fields of criminology and sociology, we cannot deny that there are numerous limitations when applying to crime. I have shown numerous critiques from the above section. And now I am going to discuss about John E. Hamlin’s reading as it tried to give a different explanation for neutralization theory.
With the Rational choice theory, people will calculate the cost and benefits of an act.
People are rational to make choice and this is also one of the reason why most people do not commit crime. To find out why some people still choose to commit crime, we can probably find out the answer of John E. Hamlin’s “The Misplaced Role of Rational Choice in Neutralization Theory” (1988). “Motive is the real cause (means) of action (goals) for the individuals. (Hamlin, 1988, p.430) It is understandable that people commit crime is the “mean” to meet their goal, that’s the “end”, they have their own motives for their action. Hamlin (1988) claimed that “motives” is “techniques” that Sykes and Matza proposed. They are both used to justify an action. He tried to answer the question of “whether the neutralization appear before or after the delinquent acts”, and he claimed that “motives were expressed after the act” (Hamlin, 1988, p.426). Hamlin (1988) made a very strong argument that most likely delinquents defined their acts with motives only when others force them, like under the “question situation”. Moreover, they will feel the sense of guilt only after others told them they are wrong.
One more important expansion of Hamlin’s work about neutralization is that he tried to expand the idea of “categories of techniques”. He didn’t reject the idea of Sykes and Matza (1957), but he stated that the categories of techniques are the kinds of “vocabularies of motives” which is related to different social aspects, like economics, religious or political, etc. Sykes and Matza (1957) suggested that different people will choose different neutralization techniques, and it can be a more specific one. What Hamlin (1988, p.38) mentioned is that during the neutralization process, people are just trying to find out and make sense of their vocabularies of motives, also, he was trying to link these techniques/vocabularies to the social structure.
We can see that Hamlin (1988) attempted to clarify and expand Sykes and Matza’s (1957) ideas, and it is no doubt that it made a contribution on it as exploited a new aspect for us to understand neutralization theory.
Over fifty years, Sykes and Matza’s work about techniques of neutralization still placed an important role in criminology. They made two main arguments in their works, one is an expansion of Surtherland’s theory of differential association and the other is the proposition of five neutralization techniques, these opened a new road for us to study about deviant behaviors. They made a clarification for Surtherland’s work, however, numerous critiques also raised against their arguments. Recent criminologists have tried to verify and support their works, but it only received little support due to its own limits. Because of this, I do believe there are still rooms for us to do more about neutralization theory in the future research.