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Neutralization and Drift Theory

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Megan Salaz SYP3520f 7/31/07 Bachmann

                                     Techniques of Neutralization and Drift

The theory of Neutralization and Drift was first introduced by Gresham Sykes and David Matza. Sykes and Matza got together and first theorized about Neutralization during their time working on Differential Association by Sutherland in the 1960’s. (p. 1 crimdfftheory/matza.html) While working on juvenile delinquency, they thought the same ideas could be used in society and published their theories in “Delinquency and Drift” in 1964. (Wikipedia) Neutralization theory is the idea that people who violate the law learn to neutralize the orthodox attitudes and values of society, allowing them to drift between outlaw and orthodox behavior. Drift is the motion in and out of delinquency, moving from orthodox and criminal values. Neutralization techniques allow the person to occasionally ‘drift’ out of orthodox behavior and get into criminal behaviors, such as stealing or shooting someone. (Wikipedia). The theory was based off four observations. (p. 2 crimtheory/matza.html)

  1. Delinquents sometimes express quilt and remorse over their act. If they were truly of a criminal mind and really embodied criminal values they would not express guilt or remorse unless just over the fact that they got caught.
  2. Delinquents usually show respect to lawful citizens. People they admire will include celebrities, sports figures, clergymen, teachers, family members, or neighbors.
  3. There is a line they don’t cross on who they victimize. Members of their own class or ethnicity are off limits. Maybe even people from their neighborhood or school. Members of their church can also be off limits. This suggests that they are aware that what they are doing is wrong.
  4. Delinquents are affected by their environment and are prone to conformity.Interestingly enough, many delinquents are often involved in their community and attend the same social functions as law abiding citizens. For example, many will still attend church even though they rob drug stores or deal drugs.

Sykes and Matza believed that people have a set of justifications they use to explain and justify their criminal behavior. They realized that delinquents must neutralize contemporary social values if they want to be free to commit their crimes. They do this by learning the techniques that offset the moral predicaments introduced with criminal behavior. They were able to create these methods from the four observations.

  1. Denial of responsibility: Many delinquents try to argue that their illegal actions are not their fault. Maybe they had a rough childhood, they were framed, or that it was an accident.
  2. Denial of Injury: Delinquents try to neutralize their behavior by downplaying the injuries inflicted on the victim. They might try and say that they weren’t stealing, they were merely ‘borrowing’. Often family and friends will agree with their denials. By saying that their child was merely joking around when another child got hurt, they are enabling the criminal behavior to continue.
  3. Denial of Victim: Many delinquents try to downplay their crimes by insisting that their victim ‘had it coming’. Most common crime that this is used under is rape. By claiming the girl was dressed too provocatively or getting drunk at a party, they feel she had it coming for putting herself in that position.
  4. Condemnation of Condemners: Many criminals see the world as a dog eat dog place. Because many judges and policemen are all on the take and many parents show favoritism between children or vent their frustrations on those children, they feel these people have no room to point any fingers at them. By placing blame elsewhere, delinquents can neutralize their feelings that their actions were wrong.
  5. Appeal to higher loyalties: Young delinquents often feel the strain of who to place their loyalties to. They are often torn between social groups and abiding the law. The group loyalties most often win out because their demands are immediate. The five methods of neutralization can manifest themselves in the form of arguments. (p 2 Wikipedia) Some arguments can be: “It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t a big deal, they had it coming, you were just as bad in your day, and my friends needed me, what was I going to do?” (p 2 Wikipedia).
           Sykes and Matza blame a lot of the delinquency on a deviant sub culture. By being exposed to deviant behavior at a young age, in peer group and such, they learn to neutralize contemporary behavior and drift away from society norms. There are several observed values that they call subterranean values. (p.2 crimtheory/matza.html).
First, criminals seek an adrenaline rush. This kind of rush they can’t seem to find doing law abiding activities. Second, would rather do illegal activities to earn money than legal. They view the legal jobs as not worth their time. The illegal jobs may not even be just for money, but for status and respect from other criminals. Finally, the criminal feels alienated and lashes out at society. This seems to be the reason why there is violence in gangs rivalries. They have to show how tough they are by beating up or killing anyone who comes into their ‘turf’. (p.2

Matza himself even developed his theory even more when he studied juveniles and how they become delinquent. He thought that people change from one extreme to the next. He also theorized that juveniles drift from orthodox and delinquent behavior. Drift molds a person personality and is a gradual process. Drift has also been considered soft determinism, and sees delinquency as sometimes picked and other times resolute. When either desperation or preparation are present, the will to commit crimes can occur. Preparation happens when a crime is repeated once the individual understands that the crime can happen and is possible. Desperation jumpstarts the will to first commit the crime due to certain extraordinary circumstance. (p.3 crimtheory/matza.html). Matza also went on to describe the underlying condition of drift. He insisted that there were several ways that a delinquent can sense injustice. They use competence, comparison, commensurability, consistency, and cognizance. Competence depends on the condemners of the criminals. Comparison occurs when juveniles look at the judicial system, observe the laws, and see that the laws are for them and not adults. Many don’t want to think that they are different from adults and resent the system that separates them. “Commensurability refers to the relation between infraction and sanction.” (Matza, 1964: 159). Basically, juveniles believe that when they commit a crime they should be punished, but the punishment should fit the crime. Consistency relates to whether the criminal feels like he’s getting the same treatment as anyone else who committed the same crime. Cognizance relies an whether of not the delinquent realized that he committed a crime. Even when they are caught or confess, they still may not think they have done anything wrong. (p.3 crimtheory/matza.html). There have been some studies that have branched off from Sykes and Matza’s Neutralization Theory. Glen Elder provided specific terms such as trajectories and transitions that helped the study on the concept of Drift. (p.5 crimtheory/matza.html). By comparing and contrasting the transitions (sequence of events based on age) of juveniles with trajectories (pathways of life), he thought that specific juvenile subcultures reflect transitional cultural experiences that effect long term trajectories for drifting juveniles. (p.5 Dick Hebdige work on British delinquency was influenced by Matza’s ideas on subcultures. He studied a group of juveniles completely obsessed with a British rock star. He thought that delinquents are torn between criminal behavior and conventional behavior and that most of their beliefs are that of law abiding citizens. (p.2 This theory does have some credence to it and can be applied in certain situations to explain certain behaviors. Neutralization theory is one of the best theories to explain white color crime. When people in the corporate world have the opportunity to commit a white collar crime, whether it’s fraud, embezzlement, or tax evasion, they have to neutralize their conventional values that would stop them. They were raised with the orthodox view of no stealing or cheating etc. They have to neutralize these values so they can drift toward a criminal frame of mind. Even though there have been many studies made on this theory, empirical testing results have proven inconclusive. There have been several criticisms made also. Travis Herschi didn’t believe that neutralization techniques have anything to do with explaining juvenile delinquency. Herschi believed that deviant behavior was a result of conformity towards societal norms. (p.5 Michael Hindelang found no support for neutralization and concluded that juveniles who have committed a crime were more likely to accept the behavior as opposed to those not involved in delinquency. (p.5 Also, considering this theory is pretty much a learning theory, it has some of the same criticisms as Sutherland’s Differential Association theory. Basically that drift is difficult to test and measure. (p.5 Also, even though the theory explains the drift, it doesn’t explain why some offenders drift into a criminal life while others remain there permanently. (Wikipedia). Finally, like every other learning theory, the question of who did the first criminal learn his deviant behavior from? (p.5 crimtheory/matza.html). One study that was performed using the Neutralization theory was done by Henry Mannle from Florida State University. His study was based on neutralization techniques and how they were relevant to Florida juveniles. His samples were girls from the McPherson School for girls in Ocala and boys from the Dozier School of Boys in Marianna. His study examined techniques of neutralization as they apply to boys and girls and delinquency (p.5 crimtheory/matza.html). His hypothesis was that boys would use the techniques less than the girls. He found there was a definite relevancy between neutralization and socialization for delinquents. He also realized that females and males used the same amount of neutralization. However, females scored lower on the deviance scale. Finally, he found that white males and females used these techniques less than black males and females. . (p.5 crimtheory/matza.html). I found this theory to be very interesting. While I thought it did a pretty good job of explaining white color crime, I do agree with some of the theorists when they claim it doesn’t explain why some people drift back and forth and some stay in a criminal lifestyle permanently. Even though there isn’t any proven empirical evidence, it has been a basis for which other theorists have branched off of. The fact it is still around today, being taught in classrooms, says a lot for its relevency and longevity.

Bibliography "Gresham Sykes and David Matza Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency." FSU. Matza, David (1964). Delinquency and Drift. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. “Techniques of Neutralization” Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia.

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