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David Matza & Gresham Sykes

Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency

Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values
Delinquency and Drift
David Matza is an American sociologist. He and Gresham Sykes is most popular for their theory of
Later on, Matza individually research and discuss on juvenile delinquency more intensively.
We can divide their work on delinquency in three (03) parts:
Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency
Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values
Delinquency and Drift
Techniques of neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency
Before more than 50 years they published an article on Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory
of Delinquency in American Sociological Review, in 1957.
The basis of their theory of Neutralization is Sutherlands Differential Association which states
that an individual learns criminal behavior through
a) techniques of committing crimes and
b) motives, drives, rationalizations and attitudes which go against law-abiding actions. (Sykes and
Matza, 1957:664
These techniques reduce the social controls over the delinquent and are also more applicable to
specific juveniles.
Sykes and Matza argue that a significant amount of delinquency and criminality is based on the
offenders justifications of their activities through the techniques of neutralization.
According to them neutralization is a technique, which allows the person to rationalize or justify
a criminal act.
Basis of Neutralization Theory
Matza and Sykes based their theory on four (04) basic facts seen in the society:
1. Many delinquents feel or express remorse and guilt because of the criminal act.
2. Delinquents frequently show respect for those citizens who are law-abiding.
3. There is a limit to whom they victimize, they must distance themselves from their
4. Delinquents can be effected by their surroundings and are susceptible to conformity.
Five Techniques of Neutralization
There are five (05) techniques of neutralization. These are as follows:
1) Denial of Responsibility
2) Denial of Injury
3) Denial of Victim
4) Condemnation of the Condemners
5) The Appeal to Higher Loyalties
Denial of Responsibility
Denial of responsibility is a technique used when the deviant act was caused by an outside force.
This technique goes beyond looking at the criminal act as an accident. The individual feels that
they are drawn into the situation, ultimately becoming helpless.
These juveniles feel that their abusive families, bad neighborhoods and delinquent peers
predispose them to criminal acts.
A common statement used It was not my fault.
Denial of Victim
Denial of victim is used when the crime is viewed as a punishment or revenge towards a
deserving person.
This technique may be used by those who attack homosexuals or minority groups.
She was asking for it, because of the way she was dressed.
They deserve it.
This is also glorified in the stories about the character Robin Hood and his actions involving
stealing from the rich.
Condemnation of the Condemners
The technique called the condemnation of the condemners, also known as rejection of the
rejecters by McCorkle and Korn (1954), places a negative image on those who are opposed to the
criminal behavior.

The juvenile ends up displacing his/her deviant behavior on those they are victimizing and also
viewing the condemners as hypocrites, such as corrupt police and judges.
The Appeal to Higher Loyalties
The appeal to higher loyalties technique is used when the person feels they must break the laws
of the overall community to benefit their small group/family.
This technique comes into play when a juvenile gets into trouble because of trying to help or
protecting a friend or family member.
Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values
Matza and Sykes further develop their views on delinquency as a result of a deviant sub-culture,
which exposes the individual to crime and in turn teaches deviant behavior or subterranean
values, which cause them to deviate from the norms of society.
Sykes and Matza also argue that delinquent acts are not as deviant as society would like to
believe and that normal values are over-simplified.
They observed several values present, which they define as subterranean values.
First, delinquents search for a thrill or an adrenaline rush. This rush they seek is not
easily accomplished through law-abiding means. The excitement may even be a result of
the fact that the behavior is not accepted.
Secondly, they do not view normal occupations as worth the work when they can make
more money doing illegal acts.

Lastly, the deviant becomes aggressive because of their alienation from society. The
purpose of this aggression is to show how tough they are and that they have
achieved manhood

These above acts are very similar to Thorstein Veblens view of the gentleman of
leisure depicted of the elite upper class; focusing on adventure, low views of
menial labor, conspicuous consumption, and respect for masculinity (Matza and
Sykes, 1961:715).

The fact that these views are similar reinstates Sykes and Matzas theory that
society over-simplifies criminal behavior. It obviously matters who is partaking in
the behavior, not the behavior itself.
Matza and Sykes concluded that their study on the effect of subterranean values and leisure time
did not explain several aspects of juvenile delinquency.
First, they cannot explain why certain juveniles convert subterranean values into serious
criminal behavior and others do not.
Secondly, they admit that their needs to further, in-depth studies done on the effects of
the juveniles value systems as a result of leisure time.
Delinquency and Drift

Matza also expressed additional thoughts on juvenile delinquency. He believed that individuals
go from one extreme to another in their behavior, known as drift.
Matza believes that juveniles drift between conventional and criminal behavior. Drift is
explained as a gradual process, which results in molding the individuals behavior.
Once the crime is committed the delinquent feels guilt and must balance their behavior by
returning to act in a law-abiding manner.
Drift can be described as soft determinism, which views criminality as partly chosen and partly
The will to commit a crime occurs when one of these conditions is present; preparation and
desperation. These allow the individual to form the decision to commit a crime.
Preparation occurs when a criminal act is repeated once the person realizes that the
criminal act can be achieved and is feasible.
Desperation activates the will to initially commit a crime because of an extraordinary
occasion; or fatalism, which is the feeling of lacking control over ones surroundings
(Matza, 1964).
Matza also believes that there is a subculture of delinquency, but it is not a delinquent
subculture (Matza, 1964:33).
He also suggests that there are several ways in which a delinquent senses injustice (an underlying
condition of drift);
The ways are as follows : cognizance, consistency, competence, commensurability and
Matza believes that the juveniles connection to law-abiding behavior diminishes when they feel
that an injustice has occurred.
Cognizance is defined as to whether or not the juvenile is aware that he/she committed a wrongful
act. Even when they are caught in the act or confess their crime they still may not actually own-
up to the criminal act in their mind.
Consistency represents whether or not the juvenile feels that they are receiving the same treatment
as everyone else who has been involved in the same criminal behavior.
Competence is an issue revolving around those who are in judgment of the juvenile.
Commensurability refers to the relation between infraction and sanction (Matza, 1964:159). In
other words, does the juvenile believe that their act should even result in a punishment and if so
the punishment should fit the crime.
Comparison results when juveniles evaluate the legal system and notice that there are laws, which
only pertain to them and not adults. Some juveniles do not want to accept that they are any
different from adults.
Albert K. Cohen
Theory of Delinquent Subculture
Delinquent Subculture
Delinquent subculture is a way of life that has somehow become traditional among certain groups
in American society.
These groups are the boys gang that flourish most conspicuously in the delinquency
neighborhoods of larger American cities.
Characteristics of Delinquents
Delinquent subculture is non-utilitarian
Delinquent subculture is malicious
Delinquent subculture is negativistic
Other characteristics are:
Delinquent subculture is for versatility.
Delinquent subculture is for short-run hedonism.
Delinquent subculture exhibit group autonomy.
Becoming Delinquent
According to Cohen delinquency is an urban, male, lower-class phenomenon. He also explains how
such traits are acquired by a juvenile.

Middle-class measuring Rod

MCMR is a set of values used by middle class parents, teachers and social workers to judge the
behavior of children.
These values are as follows:
The possession of ambition
Individual responsibility
The cultivation and possession of skills
The rational cultivation of manners, courtesy and personality
The control of physical aggression and violence
wholesome recreation and
The respect for property.
Reaction Formation
A complete change the youths will actually gain status in the eyes of their peers.
But once they adopt their new code, they lose any respect they had in the wider society.
And once delinquent, they cannot turn back.
Cohen sees delinquency as a male, lower class, sub-cultural phenomenon produced by status
frustration and the inability to live up to middle class standards.
Frustration are expressed as hostility toward middle-class norms and institutions.
Problems of Adjustment
The working class children can not be adjusted when meeting the middle-class criteria by two
First, the working-class children are surrounded by cultural settings that do not exemplify
the middle-class norms.
The working-class children are unfavorable in terms of training ground.
So, when working-class children attempt to assimilate middle-class norms, Cohen said, they feel
inferiority, resentment and hostility.
Despite the idea of Democracy as a goal of school, the school encourages middle-class norms
and evaluate students by middle-class standards. For examples-
First, the teacher is hired to teach the middle-class personalities, characteristics by the
middle-class board of education and the middle-class parents.
Second, the teacher himself almost comes from the middle-class.
Third, since the teacher is much burdened by rigorous works, he prefers good children
who are well-behaved, docile and studious.
So the working-class children are regarded as problematic children because they have not been
trained to conform the requirements of the school.
Failure in the school results in a loss of self respect, and the working-class children suffer
problem of adjustment.

Delinquent Solution
Cohen said that the delinquent subculture signaled a solution to the problems of adjustment by
providing the working-class children with new status criteria that they could meet, but could not
meet the middle -class criteria.
This kind of status problem is influenced by the status universe.
The status problems also depends on status source.
Cohen presented three (03) alternatives to respond of the working-class children to the status problem
First, they can desert the corner boy way of life for the college boy way of life.
Second alternative is stable corner boy response. The working-class children could
accept the corner boy way of life and make the best of the situation.
Third and the final alternative is the delinquent response. It represents a rejection of
middle-class standards and standing on the opposite side.
Overview of Cohens Theory
1. Most lower-class youths do poorly in school.
2. Academic performance is linked to delinquent behavior.
3. Poor school performance results from the childs inability or unwillingness to fare well on the
middle-class measuring rod.
4. Lower-class male delinquency is synonymous with gang delinquency.
5. Gang delinquent reject middle-class values.
Sykes and Matza:
They criticized Cohens view the juvenile delinquency was a form of competing and countervailing
values to respectful social norms.
They contended that many delinquents experienced a sense of guilt or shame in opposition to Cohens
Wilensky and Lebeaux:
They said that there was not one delinquent subculture but a variety of delinquent subculture.

Responding to their criticism, Cohen developed various types of delinquent subcultures in the
article Research in Delinquent Subcultures (1958). They are as follows:
Parent male subculture
Conflict-oriented subculture
Drug-addict subculture
Semi-professional theft
Middle-class delinquent subculture
Female delinquent subculture
Mapping Delinquency theory: Albert Cohen
Social disorganization
Disruption or breakdown of the structure of social relations and values resulting in the loss of
social controls over individual and group behavior, the development of social isolation and
conflict, and a sense of estrangement or alienation from the mainstream of one's culture; the
condition or state of anomie.

Social disorganization is defined as an inability of community members to achieve shared values or to

solve jointly experienced problems (Bursik, 1988)

In the 1942, two criminology researchers from the Chicago School of criminology, Clifford
Shaw and Henry D. McKay developed social disorganization theory through their research.

The theory of social disorganization states a persons physical and social environments are
primarily responsible for the behavioral choices that a person makes. At the core of social
disorganization theory, is that location matters when it comes to predicting illegal activity. Shaw
and McKay noted that neighborhoods with the highest crime rates have at least three common
problems, physical dilapidation, poverty, and higher level of ethnic and culture mixing. Shaw
and McKay claimed that delinquency was not caused at the individual level, but is a normal
response by normal individuals to abnormal conditions. Social disorganization theory is widely
used as an important predictor of youth violence and crime.

Social Disorganization Theory and Delinquency

Poverty is the mother of crime.Marcus Aurelius

Shaw and McKay discovered that there were four (4) specific assumption as an explanation of

1. The first assumption is the collapse of community based-based controls and people living
in these disadvantaged neighborhoods are responding naturally to environmental
2. The second is the rapid growth of immigration in urban disadvantage neighborhoods.
3. The third is business located closely to the disadvantaged neighborhoods that are
influenced by the ecological approach of competition and dominance.
4. The fourth and last assumption is disadvantaged urban neighborhoods lead to the
development of criminal values that replace normal society values.

Social disorganization theory suggest that a persons residential location is more significant than
the persons characteristics when predicting criminal activity and the juveniles living in this
areas acquire criminality by the cultures approval within the disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.
Therefore, location matters when it comes to criminality according to social disorganization
Social Disorganization Theory

The Future of the Theory

Social disorganization theory has received a lot of attention within criminology discipline since
the theory was first introduced in 1942. Many studies in U.S. large cities have duplicated the
findings of Shaw and McKay orginal study.

Social disorganization theory studies can help government and law enforcement policy-makers
make informed decisions from the evidence to form strategies that help prevent criminal activity
in disadvantaged communities to make it safer for all.