Criminology Wiki

Seth McDonald


 Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s Neutralization and Drift Theory: Overview

' '  Neutralization theory was developed in 1957 by Dr. Gresham Sykes and his former student, Dr. David Matza.   Their theory presented a different perspective on social control which was first explained by Edwin Surtherland in 1947 through his Learning Theory.   Dr. Matza felt rational choice was being left out and developed the Neutralization and Drift Theory to help explain why delinquents drift in and out of delinquency.   If these other theories - biological, psychological, or sociological - were correct, how would a person be able to explain the fact that most juvenile delinquents move away from crime by the time they hit their early twenties?  Dr. Matza felt, “that if delinquents had established a subculture with norms that differ from those of the larger society, they would not have exhibited shame or guilt when violating the social order.”{C} (Matza D. a., Neutralization Theory: Learning Rationlizations as Motives, 2004){C}.

Neutralization and Drift Theory proposes that juveniles sense an obligation to the law. This obligation to the law remains in place most of the time.  However, when this obligation is strained, juvenile delinquents tend to drift into crime.  This strain is best explained by Sykes and Matza’s example of justified theft.  When an employee sees their wages cut they are able to rationalize stealing from their employer because they are earning less money than before, essentially, the employee feels they “deserve” it.  According to Sykes and Matza, most delinquents have the same values, beliefs and attitudes as those of law-abiding citizens. Some juveniles, however, learn techniques that allow them to “neutralize” such values and attitudes temporarily.  Such a theory proposes that delinquents disregard the controlling influences of rules and use these techniques of neutralization to weaken the hold of society {C}(Matza D. a., 1976){C}.

In the original theory, Sykes and Matza discuss why juveniles experience guilt and negative self-concepts when engaging in delinquency, why there is a need to neutralize guilt, and the five neutralization techniques that allow them to do this. These principals are the basis for how criminals rationalize their actions. The five are:  1. Denial of Responsibility:  This is where the individual who committed the criminal act (or accused of committing a criminal act) views himself as a victim based on circumstance.  2. Denial of Injury:  This is where an individual who commits a criminal act (or is accused of committing one) feels like the actions committed were victimless because no one was physically hurt or the crime committed was committed against another criminal.  3. Denial of Victim:  This goes back to circumstances. Victims in this case are considered outcasts by the general population so they deserved this type of treatment.  4. The Condemnation of the Condemners:  This is when the individual who committed the criminal act (or accused of committing a criminal act) sees the labeler as a deviant in disguise, they are just out to get them, or by attacking them the wrongfulness of their behavior is confused.  5. Appealing to Higher Loyalties:  The requirements of larger society have to be pushed to the side because of affiliation in smaller groups, who directly provide fidelity and protection to the individual, e.g., gangs {C}(Matza D. a., Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Deliquency, 1957){C}.  What a criminal is doing when applying these techniques is not trying to justify their actions as “normal”, but trying to lessen the punishment that goes along with whatever crime they have committed. {C}(Matza D. a., 2009){C}

  Drift proposes that the techniques of neutralization are a way for adolescents to find release from conventional restraints of society.  Findings suggest that when these techniques are present, there is a weak sense of social control.  Dr. Sykes and Dr. Matza developed this theory after observing how inmates and corrections officers learn to rationalize rule breaking. Dr. Matza further developed what he called, soft determinism.  Soft determinism states, “That human actions are not deprived of freedom because they are casually determined.”{C} (Matza D. a., Neutralization Theory: Learning Rationlizations as Motives, 2004){C}.  The most important part of Neutralization is to have an understanding of what Sykes and Matza call, “the subculture of delinquency.”  As it was developed, this subculture is considered separate and in opposition to the norms and values of traditional society.  Sykes and Matza use gang life as a prime example. In gangs, most members are not fully committed to the gang.  Sykes and Matza call then “mundane delinquents.”  These members show a great deal of sorrow when they commit crime and, according to Sykes and Matza, many of the members respect law-abiding citizens.  Another point that Sykes and Matza emphasize is that these gang members pick out their victims. The final factor in determining the free will of gang members is that most of the time members engage in legal activity for most of their day.  These three conditions suggest that criminals are aware and actively engaging in conventional values. {C}(Matza D. a., 2009){C}

Another core principal of Neutralization is what Sykes and Matza called “Subterranean values.”  These values exist along with conventional values.  The example that Sykes and Matza use is thrill-seeking by the individual deviant.  These subterranean values can be found in many social settings.  Sykes and Matza argue that these values are reinforced by potential role models at school, and home by teachers, parents, and in the working environment.  When an adult uses any kind of bias (favoritism, gender, race, or grades) instead of teaching the importance of learning a specific job, they are training the juvenile deviant that what matters most is getting ahead by any means {C}(Matza D. a., Neutralization Theory: Learning Rationlizations as Motives, 2004){C}.  Sykes and Matza argue that it is not necessary for a child to join a gang; they will learn these subterranean values through normal and conventional values taught in traditional environments of modern society.

Sykes and Matza further argue that U.S. Legal Code is full of contradictions that give the deviant rationalized outs for their deviant acts. This double standard in the law allows people to use various circumstances of why the law is not relevant to their actions. A term like self-defense in our legal code loosens the control of society and allows the deviant the ability to freely drift back and forth between legal and illegal activity.  Neutralization, according to the law in Sykes and Matza terms, is the deviant using legal concepts in different ways; this freedom from the law allows the delinquent to choose to commit crime. {C}(Matza D. a., 2009){C}.

Most of the empirical research suggests that delinquents do not follow the traditional values of society.  Michael Hindelang (1970, 1974) and Ball and Lilly (1971), “found that delinquents are committed to different values than those in of non-delinquents in mainstream society.”  As of 1994, Agnew found that in reviewing research that, “delinquents were more likely to accept techniques of neutralization then non-delinquents”{C} (Matza D. a., Neutralization Theory: Learning Rationlizations as Motives, 2004){C}.   Another study by Landsheer, Hart, and Kox (1994) found that delinquents knew what they were doing was wrong but did it anyway, this finding supports neutralization; because the delinquents were doing something that they felt was morally wrong but did it anyway.

 When looking at the Neutralization theory and its application to criminal justice there are many concerns that have been presented, including causality.  When does neutralization occur, before or after a criminal act? {C}(Matza D. a., Neutralization Theory: Learning Rationlizations as Motives, 2004){C}.  There are also methodological issues because no one has been able to develop an effective operational definition which has limited research.  These issues have also led to policy implications.  As Matza and Sykes explained, “neutralization and drift suggests that contradictions in the dominant culture, injustice, and double standards need to be eliminated to lessen the possibility of people being able to neutralize.”  {C}(Matza D. a., Neutralization Theory: Learning Rationlizations as Motives, 2004){C}.  Donald Cressey also discussed the policy implications of neutralization and drift theory at the institutional level of control.  Cressey’s employee/employer example explains some of the policy implications that the criminal justice area must resolve.  Cressey wrote,

“That to reduce the probability of verbalizations allowing embezzlement, employers should adopt educational programs that allow employees to discuss emerging financial problems from losses and that phrases used to excuse and justify such behavior should be repeatedly corrected to reveal their harm and crime. Some retail stores have begun to implement this suggestion through weekly meetings with sales staff, pointing out to them the precise losses from internal theft and how the company suffers. The aim is to undermine any neutralizing use of “denial of injury” by employees tempted to steal from the store.”{C} (Cressey, 1987){C}

 This example demonstrates what others scholars have proven; that in addition to observing statements, one must also monitor the conditions that led to them.  A prime example of Cressey’s thoughts was developed by Richard Hollinger and John Clark in 1983.  They found that when employee job satisfaction is low, theft levels were at their highest level.  Adversely when employees have the highest level of job satisfaction, there is a marked reduction in employee theft {C}(Hollinger, 1983){C}.  Another research study conducted by Dr. Jerald Greenberg in 1990 shows that theft rates among employees peak when wages are cut.  However, Dr.Greenberg found that employers can reduce these levels by using proper explanations of why the cuts were necessary for the company to make, along with involving the employees in the decision.  These approaches will effectively stop the employees from using the neutralizing effect of “denial of victim” and will stop the employee from justifying the theft.  The effectiveness of this type of action or policy however is dependent on whether the theory is correct {C}(Greenberg, 1990){C}. 

More recently, Natti Ronel and Ety Elisha are making the argument for developing “positive criminology.”  They suggest that a theory should focus on how successful people have been able to achieve their goals, within the standards of socially allowed norms.  By changing the focus, Ronel and Elisha also suggest that sociology as a discipline will be better suited to structure a framework that will be able to provide policies that will benefit a larger segment of society and further diminish the usefulness of neutralization of criminal acts by delinquents {C}(Ronel, 2011){C}.  

=Works Cited =

{C}Cressey, D. (1987). The Respectable Criminal. In L. E. Anderson, Social Problems: A Criticl Thinking Approach. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Greenberg, J. (1990). Employee Theft as a Reaction to Underpayment Inequity: The Hidden Cost of Pay Cuts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 561-568.

Hollinger, R. C. (1983). Theft by Employees. Lexington: D.C. Health.

Matza, D. a. (1957). Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Deliquency. In V. Fox, Introduction to Criminology (pp. 138-139). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Matza, D. a. (1976). Neutralization. In V. Fox, Introduction to Criminology (pp. 138-141). Engelwood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall International.

Matza, D. a. (2004). Neutralization Theory: Learning Rationlizations as Motives. In M. M. Lanier, Essential Criminology (pp. 169-176). Boulder: Westview Press.

Matza, D. a. (2009). Social Learning Theories. In C. E. Kubrin, Researching Theories of Crime and Deviance (pp. 144-145). New York: Oxford University Press.

Matza, D. a. (2009). Techniques of Neutralization. In C. E. Kubrin, Researching Theories of Crime and Deviance (pp. 145-166). Oxford: Oxford University Press Inc.

Ronel, N. a. (2011). A Different Perspective: Introducing Positive Criminology. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 305-325.