In 1957, Gresham Sykes and David Matza developed a theory that explained delinquent behavior through techniques of neutralization. Sykes and Matza developed five different techniques to help them explain their theory. This literature review provides background information on the Techniques of Neutralization and looks at each one specifically. Over time, several studies have been done to better explain and test out these techniques. Also included are critiques of Sykes and Matza’s Theory.
The Techniques of Neutralization were developed to explain juvenile delinquents and why they committed crime (Moyer 2001). It’s believed that they reject the values and goals of society and form goals and values of their own. Delinquents accept the values of being allowed to take the easy way out. Society believes in an individual taking steps to better themselves in non-criminal ways to succeed. The criminal subcultural sees this as a struggle and tends to shy away (Moyer 2001). The criminal believes in low achievement and dropping out.
The control theories is the umbrella which most believe these techniques should fall under, however, theorist believe that this was used to criticize Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory. Other theorists saw this as an extension to Hirschi’s theory. What Sykes and Matza intended to do was to clarify what was meant by “definitions favorable to law”. Their initial plan was not to develop a theory of control (Moyer 2001). Using this as a building block, Matza later developed another theory that we now know as Drift Theory.
Sykes and Matza outlined five different techniques. Each technique provided what theorists believe to be excuses or responses to delinquent behavior. These techniques became important in lessening the effect of control on these individuals and an important part of the criminal behavior.
Denial of Responsibility
This technique allows an individual to deny any right to being involved in an act (Sykes and Matza 1957). Usually they are reacting to an outside source whether it be another person or a situation that has affected them. They will often say that their reaction was beyond their control. (Moyer 2001; Akers and Sellers 2004)
Denial of responsibility can actually be explained through other theories. The theories that formed from the Chicago School could use this and say that where an individual lives or comes from can help explain why he or she has resulted to deviant behavior. (Moyer 2001)
Denial of Injury
An individual in this situation will say that their action yielded no victim, therefore their crime was victimless (Sykes and Matza 1957). Their argument is that no one or nothing was harm in the act of their crime. As a society we view victimless crimes as things like prostitution and drug use. The government tends to constitute morals instead of basing it on the fact that these acts can actually hurt people. Delinquents see this as an opportunity to act out. These individuals may also play a part in other criminal activities such as “tagging” or vandalism and stealing. They feel that no one is harmed by these crimes, so it is alright to commit them.
Denial of the Victim
This technique could be tied the denial of injury, but it’s a bit different in the fact that individuals will argue that the victim had it coming (Sykes and Matza 1957). Usually this act is a result of retaliation against something the “victim” did to egg on the offender. Hate crimes are an example crimes that can be explained by this technique. (Moyer 2001; Akers and Sellers 2004)
Some theorists argue that rape or sexual assault can be used to show denial of victim. On most college campuses, drinking is a huge problem that often results in rape or assault (Piacentini, Chatzidakis, and Banister 2012). College females are seen as weaker individuals to prey on when they are intoxicated. The males in this situation take advantage of this. This criminal act could happen within the party scene or when the individual leaves. The male would argue that she was drunk and was asking for it. (Moyer 2001; Akers and Sellers 2004; Piacentini, Chatzidakis, and Banister 2012)
Another example of this technique would be your average club or bar right. Most individuals who go into bars, go there to drink. Let’s say a couple goes to a bar, they sit down and a man starts to hit of the female companion. He’s obviously drunk, but the boyfriend sees this guy as a threat and nicely asks him to stop. The drunk male begin to mouth off at the boyfriend. The boyfriend becomes heated and punches the drunk male in the face causing an uproar at the bar that results in the cops being called. When the cops arrive, the boyfriend says that the drunk male “had it coming”, as he was the one who started the situation in the first place. However, this is most often the situation in any fight. (Piacentini, Chatzidakis, and Banister 2012)
Appeal to Higher Loyalties
Appeal to high loyalty crimes usually occur when something big is at stake (Sykes and Matza 1957). This is a common technique used by the government. However, as far as delinquents are concerned, this is used to explain crimes committed while involved in a gang. Juveniles see the gang as “their family”. Their goal is to fit in, so they often say that they owed this to the gang to defend their reputation within it. (Moyer 2001; Akers and Sellers 2004)
This technique could also be used to explain a theft of some sort (Shigihara 2013). There is a single mother of three who works at in retail. One of her children suffers from severe allergies, but she doesn’t have enough money to afford the medication. Before this mother leaves work on a certain occasion she sneaks a bottle of medicine into her purse. Consequently, this woman gets caught by the manager who has seen her in the act. When this woman is question, she states her situation and tells the manager that she had to do it for her child. She has then attempted to appeal to higher loyalties (Moyer 2001).
Condemnation of Condemners
This technique is one of the most complicated, but more cleaver. It allows the delinquent to shift the attention from themselves to the individual who is convicting them (Sykes and Matza 1957). They usually tend to focus of the acts or behaviors of others so that there is a shift in action and attention. (Moyer 2001; Akers and Sellers 2004)
Condemnation of condemners can be used in court cases a lot. The offender could be allowed to shift focus on the wrongdoings of the police or any other individual who played a part in their behavior. Racial profiling would make for an example. Law enforcement officials have a target that they have their mind set on. Anyone who so slightly resembles that individual is usually targeted by officers. Maybe an individual is in the wrong place at the wrong time. If this individual is taken in, they could argue that the police officials were profiling him or there was no evidence that could or would link him to anything.
Review of Literature and Studies
According to Costello, Sykes and Matza created that the notion of an oppositional subculture was unlikely because delinquents seem to display guilt or shame (2000). They typically have some ties to what we know as conformist society. Sykes and Matza believe that these neutralizations are extensions of legal defenses to crimes (Costello 2000). These techniques allow the delinquent to see them as valid, but they tend to be denied by the society around them.
The studies and empirical research that has been done to study this theory was provided mixed results (Schafer and Knudten 1977). Most studies show that those who use neutralization techniques tend to have weak bonds and are more likely to be deviant (Costello 2000). Agnew’s longitudinal analysis of violent behavior show that neutralization has more effect on violence among those who condemn the behavior, thus supporting Sykes’s and Matza’s argument that states neutralization is a result of internalized constraints to behavior that require these neutralization techniques (Costello 2000).
As far as current research goes, there are several arguments. One is although there is research that show a relationship between neutralization and deviance, the relationship is usually weak (Costello 2000). Another argument is that an individual uses the techniques as a way to protect his or her self-esteem because of the ties they have to the society (Costello 2000). None of the evidence found for any of these presents clear and strong support.
There was a study done that looked at men in a Tennessee prison. Most of these individuals came from poor background. They were all grouped into different categories based or the attachment to the society in which they came from. Several crimes were looked at and then each individual was asked if they had been involved in any of those particular crimes. At the end of the study, they found that each individual used at least one technique of neutralization to defend their act. (Copes 2003)
One of the main arguments against this theory is the fact that it doesn’t explain how society tolerates the use of the techniques (Moyer 2001). Sykes and Matza explained how to use the techniques, but they failed to explain whether certain individuals would be more accepting (Moyer 2001). There may be some members of a society or group that will be either more lenient or harsher as a result of the use of these techniques. However, we are unaware of these individuals because this theory has failed to mention it (Rankin 2011).
The biggest criticism of this theory is that it is not a theory at all (Moyer 2001). Sykes and Matza said themselves that the research and evidence to support this “theory” was rare (Sykes and Matza 1957). They actually admitted to the fact that this was more of an addition to a larger more general theory. This is how Matza’s Drift Theory came about (Akers and Sellers 2004).
The actual goal of this research was to explain how individuals who commit crimes still see themselves as “law-abiding” citizens (Sykes and Matza 1957). As we now look at the techniques as a whole, theorists believe that this is best categorized not as a theory but as steps to creating a control theory (Moyer 2001).
The techniques of neutralization has been turned into what is believed to be building blocks to a greater theory. They have taken a look at the ways that criminals, delinquents especially, explain or rationalize their behavior. Even in today’s world, we see evidence of these techniques being used. Sykes and Matza have developed these techniques that will not only be used by criminals, but also by those who may represent these criminals as justifications for committing these crimes.
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