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A common phrase that we all hear as we grow up is to never believe anything we see on television. Indeed, that same saying goes for the study of criminology. Markus Felson's Ten Fallacies of Crime outlines the many misconceptions people have criminals; police dramas often portray the criminal offender as cunning, intelligent and evil, potentially even psychologically disturbed, individual who is exceptionally adept at hatching diabolical schemes in the process of committing a crime (Cartwright, 2011). However, the truth of the matter is, that despite what the media would have us think, criminals are no different than the average person on the street. It is certainly disturbing to realize how just anyone could have the potential to commit a crime. Edwin Sutherland, in his differential association theory, and David Matza alongside Gresham Sykes, with their neutralization theory, attempt to provide an explanation for the motivations that lead criminal offenders to commit crimes. While these two theories seem similar and almost intrinsically related to one another, research has shown that differential associations shape whether or not an individual would decide to use techniques of neutralization.
According to one of Marcus Felson's Ten Fallacies of Crime, people often assume that they would never commit a crime. However, the truth is that people have committed one minor offense or another at some point in their lives and that the average criminal does not need to be some sort of ruthless individual (Cartwright, 2011). Seeing as any person could be a criminal offender, it ultimately brings up a question. So what separates the average citizen from an offender? It is often human decency that prevents us from indulging in criminal behavior, the very morals that we are taught from childhood to follow closely (Sacco and Kennedy, 2008, p145). So what happens when such morals are downplayed or skewed? According to criminology theorists, the reason behind criminal behavior is due to the fact that the offender are able to occasionally downplay certain moral standard or bearing skewed values that ultimately aid in convincing themselves to commit crime (Sacco and Kennedy, 2008, p145).
According to Matza and Sykes' neutralization theory, criminal offenders use various excuses and justifications to delude themselves into thinking the crime they are about to commit is justifiable or not as severe as it really is, downplaying the consequences of their actions. These allows the offender to easily "drift back and forth between law-abiding and law-breaking behavior" (as cited in Piquerro, Tibbetts and Blankenship, 2005, p161). In Matza and Syke's studies of juvenile delinquency, the neutralization theory they developed draws upon the criminals' tendency to provide excuses and justifications when they are ultimately called upon to explain their actions (Sacco and Kennedy, 2008, p44). Such excuses and justifications are classified as techniques of neutralization, which come in five different categories, denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemning the condemners and appealing to higher loyalties (Sacco and Kennedy, 145-146, 2008). An example of techniques of neutralization are hate crimes in which many of the convicted offenders claim that their victims deserved to be targeted due to either their sexual orientation, skin color or nationality. Despite Sykes and Matza's original focus on juvenile delinquency when they first developed the neutralization theory as an explanation for criminal behavior, the basic principles behind the techniques of neutralization can still be used to explain other crimes.
Edwin Sutherland, on the other hand, believes that criminal tendencies are actually learned, often from exposures to bad influences from friends and family. Unlike neutralization theory, which assumes individuals follow common conventional norms, Sutherland believes that it is deviant values cause criminal behaviors in individuals. (Piquerro et al., 205, p163). According to his differential association theory, it is how frequent and long a person is exposed to particular associations that instill certain values into them. For instance, a teenager that has been accompanying the wrong crowd, such as gang members, would, according to Sutherland's differential association theory, be drawn into delinquency due to learning the same criminal values and motivations they have. That is to say, they "learn that crime is an acceptable type of behavior" (Sacco and Kennedy, 139, 2008). Additionally, Sutherland acknowledges that while there are times when there are many different associations that conflict with one another depending on setting. In the face of such a dilemma, he posits that the associations appropriate for the setting would be taken up instead (Piquerro et al. 2008, p162). All in all, the differential association theory suggests that the criminal offender has values and motives that are ultimately contrary of the established norms of society, part of an alternative subculture due to exposure to deviant values over time, which makes him predisposed to displaying criminal behavior.
Techniques of neutralization are detailed prominently throughout Scully and Marolla's article, "Convicted Rapists' Vocabulary of Motive: Excuses and Justification", this article is a study regarding rapists in prisons, several of whom admitted while the others have denied their crimes. Of the testimonies given, those that denied their guilt have indicated that the rapists have a chauvinistic perspective of women and a sense of male entitlement. These attitudes are shown to have colored their views of their crime during the interviews, in which they often justify it as the victim wanted to be sexually assaulted or that they deserved to due to their lifestyle habits (Scully & Marolla, 1984, p271). This suggests that differential association, in the form of chauvinistic upbringing, has an influence in developing the techniques of neutralization that the rapists ultimately used to justify their actions. In short, "[the criminals'] value system provided no compelling reason to do so" (Scully & Marolla, 1984, p284). It seems Sutherland's differential theory has some impact in shaping the way an offender neutralizes the severity of his crime.
Similarly, in Piquerro, Tibbetts and Blankenship's article, "Examining the role of differential association and techniques of neutralization in explaining corporate crime", differential association also plays a role in determining the techniques of neutralizations used. Piquerro et al.'s article is a survey conducted among business students about a hypothetical incident where they are in charge of deciding whether to continue producing a drug despite that has side effects. The survey showed that the older students were more likely to make the ethically questionable decision while being fully aware of the side effects the drug (Piquerro et al., 2008, p181). These students were found to be more likely to use techniques of neutralization, utilizing the values they learned among the corporate workforce, in order to justify their decisions while disregarding the opinions of their fellows. For instance saying that profit was all that matters and that the government often over exaggerates risks (Piquerro et al., 2008, p170-181). All in all, similar to Scully and Marolla's article, these techniques of neutralization were used as a result of the negative influences from the individual's associations.
It would seem that Sykes and Matza and Sutherland were correct in their theories regarding criminal motivation, or at least following a very similar line of though. Piquerro et al's and Scully and Marolla's articles were incredibly valuable, their respective studies providing new insight to how criminals justify their actions. While each respective study was not as comprehensive as it could, having only followed a moderate sample of their respective populations, they offer a detailed look in how differential association and neutralization theory apply in a practical setting. It is shown that the subjects in both of the articles are motivated by their own values, obtained from their various associations, in use techniques of neutralization to rationalize a criminal action. Ultimately, despite how justified they may feel or how much they try to downplay the crime, it is still unacceptable in society.