Neutralization Theory in Criminology: Definition & Challenges

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  • 0:00 What Is Neutralization Theory?
  • 1:17 Observations of the…
  • 2:34 Neutralization Techniques
  • 5:25 Challenges to the…
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we'll discuss neutralization theory and its origins in criminology. We'll also explore how neutralization theory is used to explain criminal behavior as well as challenges to the theory itself.

What Is Neutralization Theory?

Have you ever tried to justify your actions by retorting, 'I didn't actually hurt anyone,' or even (if you're over 21), 'I was intoxicated.' If so, whether or not you realized it, you were using neutralization to defend yourself.

Neutralization theory was developed as means for explaining how criminal offenders engage in rule-breaking activity while negating their culpability, or blame. The theory was first introduced in 1957 by criminologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza, who contended that juvenile delinquents actually drift between law-abiding and law-breaking behavior. What this means is that there is an assumption in place that juvenile delinquents know the difference between law-abiding and law-breaking behavior, and that they understand that law-breaking behavior is wrong. Regardless, these juveniles' actions and behavior drift between the two. Since Sykes and Matza first introduced the theory, it has expanded beyond juvenile delinquents to include all criminals.

This contrasts other theories regarding criminal behavior. Some criminologists believe that certain people are predisposed to law-breaking behavior, while others believe that people who break the law do so exclusively, without ever obeying the law.

Observations of the Neutralization Theory

Sykes and Matza developed their theory of neutralization according to four observations of juvenile delinquent behavior. These four observations are:

  1. Despite previous indicators that offenders were part of a subculture that has zero remorse upon committing a deviant act, the juvenile offenders experienced notable guilt or shame after committing the act.
  2. The juvenile offenders were observed to respect and admire law-abiding people, indicating that they understand and somewhat adhere to conventional, law-abiding norms within society.
  3. There appear to be certain groups that the offender will not victimize or harm, such as relatives, friends, or churches of their own faith. This indicates that there is some value structure to what defines a valid victim of a particular offense.
  4. It's highly unlikely that these juvenile offenders are completely immune to the dominant influences of society regarding conventional social norms. This is true even if most people immediately surrounding them are law-breakers. As such, even though the family and/or friends surrounding them may be criminals, the juveniles still agree with the broad social expectations that encourage individuals to conform to law-abiding behavior.

Neutralization Techniques

As a result of these observations, Sykes and Matza argued that there are five ways offenders neutralize, or shift blame from themselves. These five are discussed below:

Denial of injury contends that no one was hurt by the offender's actions, despite the fact that they were illegal or violated some rule. An example would be a drug dealer who was caught selling drugs. The customer purchasing the drugs was a willing participant in the interaction and the drug dealer was merely supplying their need. Under denial of injury, the juvenile would argue that, though the action was illegal, no one was hurt or injured by the offense.

Denial of responsibility is frequently associated with an offender who was under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of a law-breaking incident. The chemical effects of the drugs and/or alcohol impeded the offender's judgment and ability to fully understand the consequences of his or her actions, so the offender cannot be held responsible for them. Alternatively, an offender may argue that, due to extreme emotional stress, he or she was unable to think clearly and cannot be held accountable for the offense. For instance, consider a woman who came home to find her husband having sex with a neighbor. She immediately reaches in the top dresser drawer, grabs his loaded handgun and shoots him and the woman. She might argue that she was not in a clear state of mind and cannot be held responsible for her actions.

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