Sykes and Matza Neutralization

Sykes and Matza 1957 "Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency," ASR 22:664-670.

An early theory of delinquency was the idea that delinquents have a whole set of deviant norms. One can imagine the temptation to say that it is — delinquents certainly do things that I wouldn't do, and yet they do seem to work according to some norms and rules. Sykes and Matza argue that delinquents operate with pretty much the same norms as the rest of us but that they have ways of re-defining behaviors so that they aren't thought of as violating these norms.

“our argument is that much delinquency is based on what is essentially an unrecognized extension of defenses to crimes, in the form of justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the deviant but not by the legal system or society at large” [666]

So the delinquent has available a vocabulary of rationalizations for his own actions. But these don't only work in retrospect (or from perspective of others — see C. W. Mills); they can also make deviance possible/conceivable. If internalized norms are a form of social control, here is a way that they can fail. The deviant can remain committed to the dominant value system because he can qualify its demands sufficiently to permit his deviant behavior.

Their techniques are:

  1. denial of responsibility
    1. unintentional
    2. due to causes beyond one's control
    3. allows one to deviate without making a frontal assault on norms
  2. denial of injury
    1. mala per se vs. mala prohibita
    2. no one is hurt by action or victim can well afford it
  3. denial of victim
    1. victim transformed into wrongdoer, into deserving it, etc.
    2. perpetrator thinks of self as avenger
    3. Robin Hood syndrome
  4. condemnation of the condemners
    1. see condemners as hypocrites, etc.
  5. appeal to higher loyalties
    1. conflict of loyalties solved at the expense of victim or loyalty to law and society in favor of smaller group to which perpetrator owes some kind of allegiance. Psychologically we sometimes see people trying to take credit for their being faithful to the smaller group.

These techniques are extensions of patterns of thought already expressed in society, they are, in other words, a part of our collectively held cultural tool boxes. What do they accomplish? They sever the link between behaviors as texts in the world and the actor as author of those texts. They prevent us from reading back from the act to the actor's "soul." They undermine the existential idea that "I am my acts" allowing, in its place, an explicit bad faith: "that wasn't really me" or "that wasn't really bad." In either case, it leaves the act and its consequences "out there" creating a sort of moral rupture that somebody has to deal with.

In a certain sense this all sounds inspired by Sartre's "Bad Faith," doesn't it? See Being and Nothingness, pp. 86-118.

Several other questions came up as I was reading this:

Perhaps the error is in thinking that law abiding behavior is "based on" a set of norms. Is it not more likely that norms are based on law abiding behavior? What does it mean for behavior to be based on something, anyway?

Questions of embeddedness — how are subcultures embedded in the dominant culture? How is any individual's culture/world embedded in the social world/culture? What form does moral or normative embeddedness take?