Reading Guide to: Sykes, G., and Matza , D.  (1957)  'Techniques of Neutralisation: A Theory of Delinquency', in American Sociological Review, Vol 22: 664 - 70.

Delinquent behaviour is learned from social interaction. Sutherland was one of the first to point this out. Subculture theory argues that delinquent subcultures offer members a system of values which happened to be the inverse of respectable ones, as in Cohen. The subcultural values can be seen  'as a viable solution to the lower class, male child's problems in the area of social status' (664). However, there are problems:

(1) Delinquents do still feel guilt and shame or rather than  'indignation or a sense of martyrdom' (664). Nor is this just an excuse.
(2) Juvenile delinquents often admire and respect law-abiding persons, whether  'a humble, pious mother or a forgiving, upright priest' (665), and this is more than just sentimentality. Sporting heroes are also admired.
(3) Certain social groups are deliberately not seen as  'fair game', and it is common to find agreement not to steal from friends or from similar ethnic groups.
(4) Juvenile delinquents face pressures towards conformity from the families:  'the  "Fagin"  pattern of socialization into delinquency is probably rare' (665). It is likely that at least some of these normal values have been internalized.

As a result,  'the demands for conformity must be met and answered; they cannot be ignored as part of an alien system of values and norms' (666). Delinquents have to manage these demands for conformity if they are to commit deviant acts. Often, social values and norms are themselves qualified -- e.g. killing people is wrong except in times of war. Even the criminal law allows certain defences to crimes --'nonage, necessity, insanity, drunkenness, compulsion, self defence, and so on' (666). Criminal intent is often crucial.

Delinquents often have to provide rationalisations for what they do in order to protect themselves from self blame. Such rationalisations may even  'make deviant behaviour possible 'in the first place  (666) [hints of Matza on  'drift'  here]. These rationalisations permit both commitment to official values and the view that violations are acceptable in particular cases -- a delinquent becomes  'like an apologetic failure, often more sinned against than sinning in his own eyes' (667). In other words, delinquents have to learn techniques of neutralisation in order to become delinquent. There are five major types:

(1) The Denial of Responsibility, a major way to restrict disapproval of delinquent actions by claiming they are largely unintentional, an accident,  'due to forces outside of the individual and beyond his control such as unloving parents, bad companions, or a slum neighbourhood' (667). The individual claims to be  'helplessly propelled into new situations' (667). These rationalisations are socially supported, often drawing support from sociological explanations or 'a "humane" jurisprudence' (667).

(2) The Denial of Injury, again a version of a legal argument that some acts are illegal but not immoral. Much turns on whether anyone has actually been hurt by activity that can be described as  'mischief', or 'borrowing' (667). This rationalization breaks the link between the actors and their consequences, and is a common practice in normal society too.

(3) The Denial of the Victim, where circumstances suggest that the delinquent act is a form of  'rightful retaliation or punishment' (668), as in the case of attacks on homosexuals, revenge on unfair officials, thefts from a thieving store owner. Sometimes, the victim is 'physically absent, unknown, or a vague abstraction' (668)  [a bank, a chain store, the government and so on]. This 'diminished awareness of the victim plays an important part in determining whether or not [norms affecting conduct are] set in motion' (668).

(4) The Condemnation of the Condemners, where those who disapprove of violations are themselves attacked as  'hypocrites, deviants in disguise, or impelled by personal spite' (668)  [a very common technique used to manage whistleblowers in my view]. This may be generalised so that all the enforcers of straight values are 'corrupt, stupid or brutal' (668). Success in straight society becomes a matter of luck or contacts. By attacking others, delinquents can repress the wrongfullness of their own behaviour.

(5) The Appeal to Higher Loyalties, where particular groups take on a higher priority than the law. Again, this can express a common dilemma, where you have to choose between particular and universal norms, or the claims of friendship and the responsibilities of law.

All these techniques can  'prepare the juvenile for delinquent acts', as  '"definitions of the situation"' (669). They stop short of creating a fully oppositional ideology, and they simply extend arguments found in normal society. They may not work in avoiding all the feelings of guilt and shame, but they seem to be 'critical in lessening the effectiveness of social controls' (669). More research is needed to gain supporting evidence, however. Different techniques of neutralisation may apply according to different ages, sexes, social classes and ethnic groups. Juveniles may learn them originally in their own families [by  watching bourgeois kids wriggle round the rules at school, in my case]. They may be related to different types of delinquent behaviour, 'better adapted to particular deviant acts than to others' (670)  [so version 3 is good to justify offences against property].

[For some recent examples, used to explain how people manage to reconcile their views of themselves with participation in risky activities, click here].

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