Some theories in criminology believe that criminality is a function of individual socialization, how individuals have been influenced by their experiences or relationships with family relationships, peer groups, teachers, church, authority figures, and other agents of socialization. These are called learning theories, and specifically social learning theories, because criminology never really embraced the psychological determinism inherent in most learning psychologies(“The Techniques of Neutralization and Violence.” Criminology 32(4): 555-80.).
They are also less concerned for the content of what is learned (like cultural deviance theories) (“The Techniques of Neutralization and Violence.” Criminology 32(4): 555-80.), and more concerned with explaining the social process by which anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender, would have the potential to become a criminal.
Learning is defined as habits and knowledge that develop as a result of experiences with the environment, as opposed to instincts, drives, reflexes, and genetic predispositions. Associationism (developed by Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume) is the oldest learning theory . It is based on the idea that the mind organizes sensory experiences in some way, and is called cognitive psychology today. Behaviorism (developed by Pavlov and Skinner) is the second oldest learning theory. It is based on the idea that the mind requires a physical response by the body in order to organize sensory associations.
There are two types of learning in behavioral psychology: classical conditioning (where stimuli produce a given response without prior training); and operant conditioning (where rewards and punishments are used to reinforce given responses). Examples of operant conditioning include verbal behavior, sexual behavior, driving a car, writing a paper, wearing clothing, or living in a house. Most social behavior is of an operant nature.
Imitation (sometimes called contagion) is the oldest social learning theory, and derives from the work of Tarde (1843-1904), a sociologist who said crime begins as fashion and later becomes a custom. The Social learning theory that has had the most impact on criminology is associated with the work of Bandura (1969) (,Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston), a psychologist who formulated the principles of “stimulus control” (stimulus-to-stimulus reinforcement rather than stimulus-behavior reinforcement), outlined the stages of “modeling” (attend, retain, rehearse, perform), and pioneered the field of “vicarious learning” (media influences, for example).
Of these many contributions, the one about stimulus-to-stimulus chains of learning is the most important since it does away with the need for extrinsic rewards and punishments, arguing that observational learning can take place without them. Bandura’s ideas about role modeling resonated well with criminology because since the 1930s, criminology had a similar theory (differential association) (Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston).
In the 1960s David Matza, and his associate Gresham Sykes(Sykes, G. & D. Matza. (1957). “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review 22:664-70), developed a different perspective on social control which explains why some delinquents drift in and out of delinquency. Neutralisation Theory, or Drift theory as it is often called, proposed that juveniles sense a moral obligation to be bound by the law. Such a bind between a person and the law remains in place most of the time, they argue. When it is not in place, delinquents will drift.
According to Sykes and Matza (Sykes, G. & D. Matza. (1957). “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review 22:664-70), delinquents hold values, beliefs, and attitudes very similar to those of law-abiding citizens. In fact, they feel obligated to be bound by law. Then, if bound by law, how can they justify their delinquent activities?
The answer is that they learn “techniques” which enable them to “neutralise” such values and attitudes temporarily and thus drift back and forth between legitimate and illegitimate behaviors. They maintain that at times delinquents participate in conventional activities and shun such activity while engaging in criminal acts. Such a theory proposes that delinquents disregard controlling influences of rules and values and use these techniques of neutralisation to “weaken” the hold society places over them. In other words, these techniques act as defense mechanisms that release the delinquent from the constraints associated with moral order.
In Delinquency and Drift (1964), David Matza suggested that people live their lives on a continuum somewhere between total freedom and total restraint. The process by which a person moves from one extreme of behavior to another extreme is called drift, and this is the very foundation of his theory.
Along with Sykes, Matza rejected the notion that subcultures of delinquency maintain an independent set of values than the dominant culture (Sykes, G. & D. Matza. (1957). “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review 22:664-70). They hold that delinquents actually do appreciate culturally held goals and expectations of the middle-class, but feel that engaging in such behavior would be frowned upon by their peers. Such beliefs remain almost unconscious, or subterranean, because delinquents fear expressing such beliefs to peers.
Techniques of Neutralisation suggest that delinquents develop a special set of justifications for their behavior when such behavior violates social norms. Such techniques allow delinquents to neutralise and temporarily suspend their commitment to societal values, providing them with the freedom to commit delinquent acts. That being said, let us explore their translation.
Sykes and Matza’s theoretical model is based on the following four observations (Sykes, G. & D. Matza. (1957). “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review 22:664-70):
- Delinquents express guilt over their illegal acts.
- Delinquents frequently respect and admire honest, law-abiding individuals.
- A line is drawn between those whom they can victimize and those they cannot.
- Delinquents are not immune to the demands of conformity.
Thus, Sykes and Matza propose the five Techniques of Neutralisation (Sykes, G. & D. Matza. (1957). “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review 22:664-70:)
- Denial of responsibility. Delinquent will propose that he/she is a victim of circumstance and that he/she is pushed or pulled into situations beyond his/her control. (“It wasn’t my fault!”)
- Denial of injury. Delinquent supposes that his/her acts really do not cause any harm, or that the victim can afford the loss or damage. (“Why is everyone making a big deal about it; they have money!”)
- Denial of the victim. Delinquent views the act as not being wrong, that the victim deserves the injury, or that there is no real victim. (“They had it coming to them!”)
- Condemnation of the condemners. Condemners are seen as hypocrites, or are reacting out of personal spite, thus they shift the blame to others, being able to repress the feeling that their acts are wrong. (“They probably did worse things in their day!”)
- Appeal to higher loyalties. The rules of society often take a back seat to the demands and loyalty to important others. (“My friends depended on me, what was I going to do?!”)
Sykes and Matza further argued that these neutralisations are available not just to delinquents but they can be found throughout society.
Attempts have been made over the years to verify the assumptions made by Neutralization Theory, and the results have, thus far, been inconclusive. Studies have indicated that delinquents approve of social values, while others do not. Other studies indicate that delinquents approve of criminal behavior, while others seem to oppose it. Neutralization Theory, however, remains an important contribution to the field of crime and delinquency. Social bond theorist, Travis Hirschi, asked an important question: do delinquents neutralise law-violating behavior before or after they commit an act?
Neutralisation theory loses its credibility as a theory which explains the cause of delinquency if juveniles use techniques of neutralisation before the commission of a delinquent deed and therefore becomes a theory which simply describes reactions that juveniles incur due to their misdeeds. The theory does fail on the account that it doesn’t clearly distinguish why some youths drift into delinquency and others do not. The theory remains too abstract and vague to be of any practical use unless we understand why drift occurs, critics have argued.
In any case, the theory of Neutralisation demands further inquiry as we apply it to the various social classes. Theories of social control focus on the strategies and techniques which help regulate human behavior and thus lead to conformity and compliance of the rules of society, including the influences of family, school, morals, values, beliefs, etc. I seek to apply the Neutralisation theory to various social classes. I am seeking to find out the mores of each group and determine if those mores were reached through Neutralisation.
I would like to find out the following as applied to adults because I believe that there is much more knowledge to be gained: Does existence of rules guarantee peaceful existence of the group? Who is to ensure compliance with such rules? Social control theorists are out to study such questions. They are interested in learning why people conform to norms, they ask why people conform in the face of so much temptation, peer pressure, and inducement. Juveniles and adults conform to the law in response to certain controlling forces which are present in their lives. Thus, they are likely to become criminal when the controlling forces in their lives are defective or absent.
Social control theorists argue that the more involved and committed a person is to conventional activities, the greater the attachment to others (such as family and friends), the less likely that a person is to violate the rules of society. How does this fare wit social class neutralization?
Social control has its roots in the early part of this century in the work of sociologist E.A. Ross. Ross believed that belief systems, not specific laws, guide what individuals do and this serves to control behavior, no matter the forms that beliefs may take.
Social control is often seen as all-encompassing, practically representing any phenomenon leading to conformity, which leads to norms. Others see social control as a broad representation of regulated mechanisms placed upon society’s members. In other words, social control regards what is to be considered deviant, violations of the law, right or wrong. Social control mechanisms can be adopted as laws, norms, mores, ethics, etiquette, and customs, which all control and thus define behavior.
Why should this be studied? Cultural Explanations – Consider the cultural acceptance of violence (e.g., glorifying violence). Also, consider social structural factors (e.g., unequal distribution of opportunities). I am seeking to apply neutralization to Social control from both perspectives and to the social classes. I am starting with the lowest socio-economic background. I suspect that since it is a gang rich culture, this is where I will find neutralization at its height.
The idea that there are persons out there who cannot only conceive of such malicious acts, but who can also act out on them with complete disregard for morality and consequence, has always bewildered me. I do want to know what can possibly drive someone to such drastic measures, to go as far as killing another, to murder more than once, and sometimes to murder enough to fashion skills for the task with passion and ease.
I have long known that it would be dismissive to call a serial killer crazy with evidence based only upon the act of murdering itself, so there must be something deeper. I want to find out what those deeper reasons are, maybe just so that I can relate myself in some way to the criminals.
Because, if I know why the murders are committed, I can gain a better understanding of the world in which these deviants live. And, for the rest of society, incite into the mind of a killer can bare great sociological significance. If we as society know what causes the murders and why they occur, then our chances of nabbing the criminal much ahead of the game will surely increase. For, not only would it be possible to stop the killer before the demise of many victims, but maybe, just maybe, these empty, aimless murders could even be prevented altogether.
James Coleman helped explain how those involved in white-collar crime justified their criminal acts utilizing techniques of neutralization. Coleman (Conger, R. (1976). “Social Control and Social Learning: A Synthesis.” Criminology 14:17-40) stated that the “most common technique is the use of denial of harm.” Those involved in white-collar crime believe that their actions did not hurt anyone.
The denial of responsibility is used when those involved in the criminal behavior states that their employer expects them to. The employee also may justify his or her criminal behavior by saying ‘everybody else is doing it’; which in-turn reinforces the fact that not just one person will be punished unless everyone else is also. With all of these examples of neutralization, Coleman (Conger, R. (1976). “Social Control and Social Learning: A Synthesis.” Criminology 14:17-40) also notes that the theory “presents a convincing account of the motivations of white-collar offenders and the ways in which they neutralize the symbolic constraints on their behavior, however it fails to explain the origins of the motivations it describes”.
Further studies, which looked at neutralization techniques, focused not on juvenile delinquency, but on adult criminality. William Brennan used Sykes’ and Matza’s techniques of neutralization to help explain how women, and even doctors and nurses, justify an abortion. Brennan (1974:358) wanted to “extend the techniques of neutralization beyond the boundaries of delinquent behavior to encompass involvement in abortion both before and after legalization by the Supreme Court”. Using the denial of responsibility, blame is transferred away from the pregnant woman to the lack of available birth control or the cost of raising an unwanted child.
The doctor and nurse may also use this technique to justify performing the abortion illegally. Scientific advances have helped to develop the denial of victim rationalization by depersonalizing the unborn fetus, stating that it is not a viable human life. With the use of less evasive methods, such as the “vacuum”, for performing the abortion the patient, nurse and doctor only view the fetus as a mass of tissue. Using the denial of injury rationalization the fetus is said not to posses the ability of consciousness, that consciousness only occurs after birth.
Condemnation of the Condemners is used to state that those who are opposed to abortion, known as ‘pro-lifers’, are against the freedom of a woman have come together to choose what to do to her own body. With the onset of woman’s rights groups, women came together to support the right to abortion, which allows them to utilize the justification known as the appeal to higher loyalties (Brennan, 1974).
The macro-social perspective of my work will explore formal control systems for the control of groups, including the legal system such as laws, law enforcement, powerful groups in society (who can help influence laws and norms) and economic and social directives of government or private organizations. Such controls can serve to be either positive or negative. On the other hand, the micro-social perspective focuses on informal control systems, which help to explain why individuals conform. It also considers the source of control to be external, that is, outside of the person.
- Agnew, R. (1994). “The Techniques of Neutralization and Violence.” Criminology 32(4): 555-80.
- Akers, R., M. Krohn, L. Lanze-Kaduce & M. Radosevich. (1979). “Social Learning and Deviant Behavior: A Test of General Theory.” ASR 44: 636-55.
- Akers, R. (1985). Deviant Behavior: A Social Learning Approach. Belmont: Wadsworth.
- Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Burgess, R. & R. Akers. (1968). “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of
- Criminal Behavior.” Social Problems 14:128-47.
- Conger, R. (1976). “Social Control and Social Learning: A Synthesis.” Criminology 14:17-40.
- Hale, R. (1998). “The Application of Learning Theory to Serial Murder or You, Too, Can Learn to be a Serial Killer,” Pp. 75-84 in R. Holmes & S. Holmes (Eds.) Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Jeffery, C. (1965). “Criminal Behavior and Learning Theory.” J. Crim Law, Crim, Political Science 56:294-00.
- Jensen, G. (1972). “Parents, Peers, and Delinquency.” American Journal of Sociology 78:63-72.
- Matsueda, R. (1988). “The Current State of Differential Association Theory.” Crime & Delinquency 34:277-06.
- Minor, K. (1980). “The Neutralization of Criminal Offense.” Criminology 18(1): 103-20.
- Short, J. (1957). “Differential Association & Delinquency.” Social Problems 4:233-90.
- Siegel, L. (2004). Criminology: Theories, Patterns, & Typologies, 8e. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
- Sutherland, E., D. Cressey & D. Luckenbill. (1992). Principles of Criminology. NY: General Hall.
- Sykes, G. & D. Matza. (1957). “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review 22:664-70.
- Warr, M. (1993). “Age, Peers, and Delinquency” Criminology 31:17-40.