READING GUIDE TO: Matza D  (1964) Delinquency and Drift, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc 

Chapter one. Positivist theories assume there are definite causes for human actions, and try to separate deviant and non-deviant acts by pointing to objective differences. The concept of subculture seem to operate at about the right level as a causal factor  [there is, of course an infinite chain of causes and effects which is usually limited by common-sense]. This was partly because subcultural ethical codes were seen as a source of deviancy, and this seemed to be no need to go to more specific levels or to more general ones  [of course, other theories do this -- labelling operates at a more specific level while social disorganisation theories or marxist theories turn to the more general level]. In fact, sub cultural theory overpredicts the amounts of juvenile delinquency, because it is so deterministic, but juvenile delinquents do grow out of it in real life [NB critics have said the same thing about marxist approaches to youth subcultures as a response to 'alienation']. Perhaps additional causal factors are at work, but again this threatens to produce an endless list. 

In fact, many aspects of juvenile delinquency show a certain contingency. They also show an absence of commitment or dedication to delinquency. There seems to be no binding force from a subculture. Instead, deviancy appears to be intermittent, to show drift, to show the effects of  'soft' determinism -- delinquency is neither compelled nor is it the result of free choice. Juveniles seem committed both to deviant action and conventional action. They appear to have been loosened from social control, not entirely liberated from it: these drifters seem to be more typical of actual delinquents than those who are fully committed members of binding subcultures. 

Chapter two. There are youth subcultures where juvenile delinquency is common and public, but these are not delinquent subcultures per se, as in, say, the work of Albert Cohen. Cohen's work also displays some of the ambiguities or complexities in terms of the relation between subcultural and mainstream cultural values [see file]. Miller argues that class cultures are responsible for delinquency, but assumes these are virtually autonomous and virtually  'automatic' in their effects on behaviour. Cloward and Ohlin do see connections with parental subcultures, but in terms of opposition or alienation.

All these theorists over-emphasise the opposition or nature of the delinquent option. As a result, conventional culture is seen as moralistic and monolithic. The positivist legacy is responsible for this emphasis on subcultural causes. It is sometimes admitted that there can be expulsion from subcultures [so that  'retreatists' are doubly rejected from both conventional and criminal subcultures], but there seems to be little attention paid to gradations of commitment within subcultures. 

Participation can be at the cultural level only [this sort of argument often appears in those seeking youthful  'resistance' to school cultures, but it needs to be applied to delinquents' subcultures too]. It is important to check the posture of delinquents -- they can feel guilt, they can adopt defensive strategies to explain their actions, perhaps tactically, perhaps as a result of genuine ambivalence. 

It is possible to begin to examine delinquents values in a number of ways: 

  1. We can examine how they react if they are teased ('sounded') about delinquency -- what makes them angry, what insults them. They seem to react badly to false accusations, for example, and once or uphold the reputation of significant others. 
  2. We could look at whom juvenile delinquents select as victims, and whom they exempt -- these choices often reflect very conventional values of who deserves what treatment. 
It is important to remember that these people are juveniles, with many affiliations, including legitimate ones, and are not insulated entirely from legitimate society -- there are no  'parental Fagins'. Detailed investigations, even of convicted delinquents, show their conventional values -- for example, they themselves disapproved of mugging. [This is based on Matza's own interviews -- he is convinced that he has not been misled]. Delinquents are capable of performing many roles, including inconsistent ones, and the codes of delinquency are unclear and poorly articulated. Few actual delinquents feel total and open hostility towards society, although 'each thinks the others are committed'. [similarly, their activities appear to be more unified to sociologists than to the participants]. It is difficult to get to the explicit values of delinquents: it is just not manly to speculate about them, and dread and anticipation of others is more common than reflection upon one's own misdeeds. 

Lots of the anxiety that juveniles feel about themselves and their actions seem to be reduced when they become adults, and form alternative memberships -- in other words, they drift out of delinquency as well action. However, juvenile often seem to need  'neutralisation': Matza insists that this arises from genuine dilemmas about social norms which can appear to be all conditional, and is not just a deliberate strategy to avoid punishment. 

Neutralisation techniques involve agreeing that society needs law, but denying its applicability --  see another file on this.  They often feature a form of 'subterranean convergence', for example, masculine values are celebrated in straight culture as well as in delinquent ones, and straight culture often seems unclear and pluralist. These are the important connections with the wider culture for Matza. There is one subterranean value which is especially important -- the pursuit of fun, flirting, romance and seeking thrills. 

Chapter three The negation of the offence. Delinquency is actually rather rare, and it requires release from conventional morality, a state of anomie, or some process of drift. Drifting is understood, and sometimes actually permitted -- in the USA, 'episodic drift' is even a legal category. It is a neutralisation category too: since much is placed on the legal notion of guilty intent or will, it becomes important to attempt to deny intent. Arguments include: 

  1. Self-defence, which can often be more lenient than in the legal definition, of course, and can take on even a symbolic aspect. Combat might be justified to defend one's honour, for example: laws against personal violence might be neutralised in this manner, leading to drift. 
  2. Insanity, again in a sense which is broader than the legal one  (although the law is confused over this matter too). Delinquents claim to have temporarily lost control, for example. 
  3. Accident, sometimes expanded to permit reckless behaviour, the intervention of bad luck, or fatalism --'man experiences himself as both cause and effect'. Again some of these categories are supported by the law, of course. 
Chapter four. The sense of injustice. This can be an additional motive later, once early constraints are loosened. It is often directed against the activities of officials rather than the law itself. A subculture can amplify and consolidate normal feelings of injustice and lead to specialist demands -- that people be treated with cognizance  (accuracy), consistency with principles, competence,  (especially of judges), commensurability  (of crime and punishment) and comparability. The sense of injustice can be exaggerated on encountering the obviously subjective views of officials, and over reacting to a certain inevitable level of ineffectiveness -- this leads only to further mockery and rejection. 

Chapter five spells out in more detail issues of commensurability and comparability -- I have no notes on it. 

Chapter six. Drifting into delinquency. Processes of drift facilitate rather than compel delinquency. Individual will is still needed to provide a positive thrust, mostly directed criticising laws rather than committing actual delinquent action. There is, of course, a long history of philosophical and legal problems with the concept of  'will', but it is being used here to refer to positive action once one is freed from restraint. There are two kinds of willed action: 

  1. Preparation involves a process of repetition once one sees that an act is technically possible, and once one achieves a reasonable level of competence in it. Some delinquent acts aren't prepared, of course -- such as those prompted by accusations of being  'chicken'. A subculture can provide technical help here, perhaps even in calculating the chances of not being caught. 
  2. Desperation arises as a result of juvenile fatalism, especially where it places stress on developing control, as in the cult of manliness. It becomes the final assertion of humanism over determinism. In this sense, crime can even be an attempt to rejoin the moral order!  (page 190). We engage in thrilling and bold acts to ease our self doubt and assure ourselves of our potency. Of course, crime is not a very good way to do this, since it often leads to failure and gloom again -- but so do straight activities, like athleticism. Crime is an exciting happening, rather like the conquest of females. 
The discussion of will again raises the point that delinquency is an option, it is not a tightly determined activity, it may be encouraged or discouraged, and so it is dangerous to make definitive statements about it.

back to list of reading guides