Matzas work Delinquency and Drift, published in 1964, is a critique of positive criminology (e.g. Lombroso’s anthropological/anthropogenetic crime theory) as well as of the then prominent explanatory approaches to juvenile delinquency (theory of differential opportunities of Cloward & Ohlin and subculture theory according to Cohen).
At the center of the critique is the behavioural determism inherent in the theoretical approaches. Instead, Matza argues for a naturalistic view of delinquency based on representatives of symbolic interactionism (Blumer, Mead) or Max Weber’s concept of sociological understanding (Verstehen). The drift or the turning to and rejection of delinquent behaviour is thus a conscious decision of the agent in question.
Matza’s remarks are regarded as fundamentals / predecessors of Critical Criminology.
With his book Delinquency and Drift, published in 1964, Matza takes up the article Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency (1957) published a few years earlier [see: Neutralization Thesis (Sykes and Matza)] and renews his criticism of the then popular explanatory approaches to crime. In particular, Matza rejects Cohen’s subcultural theory, according to which subculturally shaped norms and values are adopted and conventional concepts of values are “overwritten”. This would amount to a behavioural determinism: a deviant behaviour of the members of the subculture would be inevitable, since they do not (or no longer) have conventional norms and values.
Matza opposes this with the facts that
- Delinquents sometimes show guilt or remorse regarding their behaviour. This would hardly be the case if the persons had only deviant values.
- Delinquents show respect for rightful citizens. They can respect or even admire celebrities, athletes, clergy, teachers, family members or neighbours, although they stand up for other social values.
- Victims of delinquent actions are not arbitrary. The own group members are just as taboo as members of the own ethnic group, the church community, the own school or neighbourhood. This indicates that the perpetrators are aware that what they are doing is wrong.
- Many delinquents are often involved in their community and perform the same social functions as law-abiding citizens. Shoplifters or drug dealers can be regular churchgoers.
The Delinquent is facing a moral dilemma. On the one hand he knows about the validity of conventional social norms and values, on the other hand he has succumbed to the permissive temptations of the deviant subculture. Matza believes that delinquents (like all other members of society) are subject to the moral obligations of the law. Only when the attachment to laws is perceived as weak and an opportunity for deviant behavior arises does man drift into delinquent behavior. The following consciousness of guilt and bad conscience is compensated by a return to norm-compliant behaviour.
Drift is a “soft determinism”, i.e. delinquency can be partly self-selected and partly determined. The actor can seize an opportunity and consciously decide for a repetition of deviant behaviour if he considers the execution to be feasible and worthwhile or if an act is spurred on by despair over extraordinary circumstances in life that cannot be influenced.
A “drift” into deviant behaviour is always based on a perceived injustice. Here Matza mentions five circumstances that can be the cause of a sense of injustice:
- Cognizance describes to what extent the (juvenile) delinquent understands his committed injustice as such.
- Consistency describes whether the (juvenile) delinquent feels treated in the same way as other offenders.
- Competence related to those who judge the behaviour of the delinquents
- Commensurability describes whether (at all) the punishment is perceived as appropriate.
- Comparison refers to legal provisions aimed at juvenile delinquents which, from the point of view of the juveniles, present themselves as unfair.
- Matza, David (1964): Delinquency And Drift. New York: Wiley.
- Blomberg, Thomas G.; Cullen, Frank; Carlson, Christoffer; Lero Jonson, Cheryl (2017) Delinquency and drift revisited: the criminology of David Matza and beyond. New York: Routledge.