Techniques of neutralization

Techniques of neutralization are a theoretical series of methods by which those who commit illegitimate acts temporarily neutralize certain values within themselves which would normally prohibit them from carrying out such acts, such as morality, obligation to abide by the law, and so on. In simpler terms, it is a psychological method for people to turn off "inner protests" when they do, or are about to do something they themselves perceive as wrong.

The theory

The idea of such techniques was first postulated by David Matza (born May 1, 1930) and Gresham Sykes (born 1922) during their work on Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1950s. While Matza and Sykes were at the time working on juvenile delinquency, they theorised that the same techniques could be found throughout society and published their ideas in Delinquency and Drift 1964.[1]

Matza and Sykes' theory states that people are always aware of their moral obligation to abide by the law, and that they have the same moral obligation within themselves to avoid illegitimate acts. Thus, they reasoned, when a person did commit illegitimate acts, they must employ some sort of mechanism to silence the urge to follow these moral obligations.

This theory rejects other theories which suggested that groups containing delinquents have set up their own permanent moral code which completely replaces moral obligations. Thus, Matza and Sykes were able to explain how offenders 'drift' from illegitimate to legitimate lifestyles repeatedly, as they retain the moral code rather than wipe it clean to be replaced by a more illegitimate one as previous theories suggested.

The techniques

The theory was built up upon four observations:

These theories were brought from positivistic criminology which looked at epistemological perspectives of delinquency.

From these, Matza and Sykes created the following methods by which, they believed, delinquents justified their illegitimate actions:

There are five methods of neutralization generally manifest themselves in the form of arguments, such as:


Further research in the theory has produced inconclusive results. Offenders have been found both with a solid belief in their moral obligations, and without. Travis Hirschi, a social bond theorist, also raised the question as to whether the offender develops these techniques to neutralise their qualms regarding offending before or after they actually commit the offence.[4]

Neutralization Theory was introduced by Sykes and Matza in 1957, facing the then prevailing criminological wisdom that offenders engage in crime because they adhere to an oppositional subcultural rule set that values law breaking and violence, they rejected this perspective. Subsequent research revealed that the original formulation of the Sykes and Matza's theory explains only the behavior of "conventionally attached individuals" not those of "nonconventionally oriented individuals" such as "criminally embedded street offenders". Professor Volkan Topalli, at Georgia State University, in his article The Seductive Nature of Autotelic Crime: How Neutralization Theory Serves as a Boundary Condition for Understanding Hardcore Street Offending, explains that for those groups "guilt is not an issue at all because their crimes are not only considered acceptable, but attractive and desirable".[5]

See also

Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Social Deviance


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