Peretti-Watel, P (2003) 'Neutralisation theory and the denial of risk: some evidence from cannabis use among French adolescents', in British Journal of Sociology, Vol 54, No 1: 21 - 42.
Neutralisation theory derives from the work of Sykes and Matza, but should be seen as relating particularly to juvenile delinquents -- juveniles are still embedded in legitimate society, and therefore need techniques to manage blame or remorse if they engage in delinquent acts. Becker also develops 'a sequential model of deviance' (22) in his work on the marijuana user, which predates Sykes and Matza but which also involves the need to overcome or neutralise the stereotype of the dope fiend. The work is more relevant than that of Sykes and Matza, because smoking cannabis also involves an element of risk, which requires its own specific neutralisation techniques.
Risky behaviours can indeed be seen as deviant ones, but they can also be understood as an element of risk culture as in Giddens [and as in Parker et al.]. Individuals are expected to manage their own fate by developing a calculative attitude to risk management -- hence the campaigns to make tobacco smokers aware of the risks they run. A refusal to develop such calculative attitudes can be a form of deviancy in itself, and can become defined as a social problem, especially as actuarial calculations ('risk factor epidemiology'-- 24 ) inform health policy. This becomes a policy of the 'privatisation of risk' as individuals themselves are seen as the main locus of risk (24). Further, the list of risky behaviours changes frequently and may be increasing as new risks are identified . Psychological explanations are often used to explain excessive risk-taking, and 'risk profiling often rhymes with scapegoating'. All the more reason to avoid or neutralise the label of risk-taker.
Risk-taking can result in classic cognitive dissonance and the usual need to rationalise inconsistency between social values and personal beliefs. Festinger assumes that attempts to rationalise come after the occurrence of risky behaviours, but both can be 'built together... beliefs sway behaviours and reciprocally behaviours effect beliefs' (24). Both Sykes and Matza and Becker note this 'chronological disorder' (24) -- rationalisations can be needed before engaging in dope-smoking, but also during and after the event as well. Juvenile delinquents may use techniques of neutralisation to explain temporary lapses from central values, but delinquents can also develop delinquent subcultures which can attract alternative commitments. Another problem is that techniques of neutralisation can just look like post hoc rationalisation or excuses. In this case, Pareto's view may be correct -- that human beings aren't strictly rational, but tend to use arguments pragmatically, especially to justify irrational behaviours.
Risk denial theory can also support an entire lifestyle [a sub culture], but for most of the time, it is the individual himself who is the 'target of this justification' (25) [I'm not sure this doesn't apply to Sykes and Matza as well]. It is possible to develop a 'risk immune culture' (26, quoting Bellaby), and two groups have been studied -- workers in a pottery and 'hardened bikers' (26). Both groups needed to convince themselves by denying risk. Goffman's work on 'normal appearances' can also be linked here, which suggests that 'routine and placidity' is an adaptation to the fatiguing state of constant alertness: apparently, 'reassuring information' is crucial to this process, if it convinces the actor. Conviction and sincerity are crucial together with working rationality of the kind mentioned by Pareto.
[The techniques of neutralisation are listed on page 27]. Risk denial takes three main forms:
(1) Scapegoating, which enables risk to be turned into blame -- homosexuals can be blamed for AIDS, for example. Sub-groups may scapegoats other sub-groups, as when younger drivers blame older ones and vice-versa.
(2) Self confidence, wherein individual knows about the risks to his group but denies that it can happen to him -- individual drivers believe they are above average in their skills (according to an RAC survey, 78 per cent of English drivers think that they drive better than the average motorist!).
(3) Comparisons between risks, as in the old view that since everything is risky, including crossing the road or drinking, a specific activity becomes normalised.
These three types can overlap and interact with each other. [The interesting example here, 29, is the way in which puritan Protestants managed to convince themselves they would escape damnation!].
When it comes to cannabis use, all the techniques of neutralisation are already limited, since there 'is neither victim or injury to deny' (29). Further, it is potential injury not actual injury that has to be denied. In Becker's study, central values of American society seemed to cause problems for marijuana users -- that people should never lose self-control or become dependent, that ecstatic experiences should not be pursued as a leisure activity, and that unhealthy behaviours should be prevented. The second one seems to have fallen in power, but the others lead to common rationalisations such as insisting that alcohol use is worse, and that straights are being hypocritical (as in 3 above). Most of the rationalisations are devoted to denying the loss of self-control was involved, however -- users insist that they are in control of when they use the drug, and can even cite occasions where they have not consumed, sometimes 'for a whole week'(!) (30). This is a version of 'self confidence', as above. None of Becker's smokers used neutralisation techniques such as denying individual responsibility, or appealing to higher loyalties. Some recent British qualitative studies also emphasise the 'self confidence' technique, including Parker et al.
It is not a matter of peer pressure, but rather peer influence which is important here, and this is an important issue in analysing the statistical relations between cannabis use and the number of friends who also used the drug. Peers not only supply the drug but help the development of rationalisations, especially in enforcing the appearance of self control and rejecting the stereotype of the drug addict. Peers help represent cannabis consumption as 'recreational and convivial' (31). Heroin users are also scapegoated to maintain this solidarity and 'keep the stereotype of the drug addict at a distance' (31). A French statistical analysis confirms this importance of denials -- cannabis users 'spontaneously stood up for cannabis use', and made comments distinguishing themselves from heroin users, denying addiction, denying the gateway theory, and rejecting the stereotype of the drug addict. Further, 'they emphasize their own ability to control the use of cannabis... ... and compared cannabis to alcohol and tobacco, considering that both licit drugs were more dangerous than cannabis' (31).
The survey was a large one and measured actual drug use, opinions about people using drugs, and perceptions of risk. Generally, respondents seem to be 'prepared cognitively for illicit substance use' (32), and their ability to manage risk seemed closely linked to actual use. In order to use the data as a test, we might proceed by testing whether there is 'a strong correlation between disapproval of use for all illicit drugs, cannabis included... but also an opposition between risk perceptions of cannabis and "hard drugs"' (33). [more technical details are supplied on page 33].
The results did show 'a general tendency to disapprove of illicit drug use among respondents, whatever drug is concerned' (35), but a difference between the perceptions of risk in consuming hard drugs and cannabis. Overall,
The more a respondent used cannabis:
The less he [sic] disapproved of illicit drugs users, whatever drug was concerned;
the more he emphasised the risk induced by illicit drugs, except for cannabis, and the less he disapproved of people using cannabis;
the less he emphasised the risk induced by cannabis use, and the more he disapproved of people trying "hard drugs" once or twice (35)
Thus 'the more teenagers use cannabis, the less they condemn this behaviour or considerate as risky... cannabis users were emancipated from the moral standards condemning drug-use' [a sign of 'normalisation' for Parker et al] (36). On the other hand, cannabis users saw hard drugs as more risky than non-users, confirming the tactical use of stereotyping of drug addicts. Similarly, 'the more they consumed cannabis, the more they emphasised the risk induced by drinking alcohol' (37). Cigarettes were not usually compared to cannabis use. There was a minority -- 10 per cent -- of heavy cannabis users who did agree that there were considerable risks: these may have rationalised their behaviour by using the other technique of 'self confidence', perhaps because 'they trusted their own ability to master their consumption' (38).
Risk denial is needed to deal with risky behaviours, and is focused on convincing the actor him/herself. Neutralising risk is also important in a society that increasingly privatises it. Denial techniques can therefore be added to neutralisation theory, in order to update it. Studies are quoted, on page 39, to illustrate 'similar risk denial among Ecstasy and amphetamines users'. It is quite possible that future studies could also include 'road driving, sexual activity or the work place'. In all these cases risk has to be neutralised for good reasons. Risk denial skills should be considered as learnt, and may be affected by 'gender, socio-economic status or socialisation among peers' (39). Not everyone may be able to deploy them. It is also likely that 'this soliloquy is deeply shaped by scientists, moral entrepreneurs and legislators'discourses on "risky behaviour"... [and so we should study]... the social construction of the "risky" label, just as... with the "deviant" one' (39).
[My only problem with this is whether risk denial is being seen as always a rationalization or an accurate perception of risk. It is clear that those drivers who consider themselves 'above average' were simply misinformed, and therefore engaging in rationalization. On the other hand, some risk-takers might be quite right in assuming that they do not share the average risks of undertaking activity, perhaps because they are 'special' in some so far unmeasured way? Perhaps they are even right to realise that averages, such as those deployed in health policy warnings about risk, actually condense quite wide ranges of behaviour?]
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