Techniques of neutralization explain how offenders rationalized or justified their behaviour.
A special case within the learning approaches is Sykes’ and Matza’s thesis of techniques of neutralization. The focus here is on the learned justifications of the criminal for his already committed offence. Deviators therefore look for loopholes and explanations to justify or neutralize their own deviant action. Sykes and Matza distinguish between five types:
- Denial of responsibility: The perpetrator perceives himself as a victim of unfavourable social conditions or circumstances. Not he himself, but others are responsible for his actions.
- Denial of injury: The offender trivializes or plays down his actions; does not recognize it as immoral.
- Denial of the victim: The offender believes that the victim deserved the crime committed against him (e.g. because of ethnic background or sexual orientation).
- Condemnation of the condemners: The perpetrator accuses the police and other state controls of being corrupt, flawed, selfish and unjust.
- Appeal to higher loyalties: The offender claims to have acted in the interest of others or on the basis of orders or peer pressure, but not according to his own will.
The techniques of neutralization therefore do not represent an actual theory of crime, but rather describe the rationalizing behaviour of the offender after the crime has been committed.
Contrary to subcultural theories, the Sykes and Matza assume an internalization of common social norms. These are merely changed, weakened or distorted in the course of the techniques of neutralisation that follow the deed.
The cause of deviant behaviour is therefore not a gradual deviation in the acceptance of norms (as subcultural theories argue), but the high flexibility of the system of norms, which paradoxically allows the prevailing norms to be internalised but at the same time to be violated.
Implications for Criminal Policy
The neutralization thesis does not include any concrete political demands by the authors. However, each of the five techniques implies different criminal policy thought-provoking impulses.
Thus, the denial of responsibility can be understood as a call for better social policy, since the perpetrator, in an environment no longer perceived negatively and unfairly, can only hold himself responsible for his own misconduct.
The denial of injury implies too weak or, at least in certain areas, insufficient internalisation of norms, which can lead to a demand for more moral and value education by parents or school institutions. In certain cases, there is also a need for adequate clarification of the applicable law in cases of unawareness or too vague a conception of the law.
The denial of the victim, however, reveals a connection to meanwhile established concepts such as victim-offender mediation or restorative justice. In these concepts, the victim’s suffering is obviously brought closer to the perpetrator, thus making it more difficult to reject the victim and to embellish the crime.
A condemnation of the condemners is to be fought by open and comprehensible procedural justice. In addition, the demand for a paradigm shift, which was later substantiated by the labelling approach, is already recognizable here: Not only the perpetrator, but also the judging instances should be the subject of scientific research, since they too can be criminal or at least flawed.
Finally, the appeal to higher instances conceals a general criticism of hierarchical structures in which ordered behaviour is carried out uncritically and thus criminal behaviour can also occur without the perpetrator’s own motive. Particularly within the military and in states of war, individuals are often forced to choose between orders that may deviate from peace-oriented norms and refusals of orders, which can, however, have legal consequences.
Critical Appraisal & Relevance
The neutralization thesis has a unique status in criminology, often difficult among crime theories. On the surface, it only describes the behaviour of the perpetrator following a criminal act. Thus it seems doubtful whether it really addresses the causes of crime. An explanation of criminal behaviour is certainly less to be found in the neutralisation techniques themselves than in the implicit assumption of a flexible interpretation of norms. If one assumes that one or more of the justifications were formed before the crime and thus functioned as a kind of motive, the neutralization thesis could be presented as an etiological theory of crime in which cognitive overcoming of inner inhibitions and internalized moral concepts are causes of crime.
Empirically, it was never possible to determine exactly when the rationalizations came into being. Thus it cannot be ruled out that the techniques of neutralization will only be developed after the crime has been committed. However, a certain etiological explanation of deviating behaviour is retained to the extent that the successful rejection of one’s own guilt can reinforce future criminal action.
Sykes and Matza, however, have little concrete explanation as to when and how exactly which neutralization technique is applied and how strong or how weak the internalization of the existing norms must be, so that the perpetrator still accepts them per se, but is at the same time in a position to violate them.
In some cases, such as political extremists, it is also extremely questionable whether any society-wide norms have been internalised. If this is not the case, deviating behaviour does not have to be neutralised.
Despite all these objections, the neutralization thesis is regularly received. The five techniques mentioned appear as an almost placeless and timeless concept, the justifications can still be applied to a whole range of crimes (war crimes, white-collar crime, lower class crime, sexual violence, murder, etc.). In addition, various studies show that changing or eliminating such justification techniques actually leads to a reduction in crime. It can thus be said that the Sykes and Matzas thesis is almost uniquely topical and important.
- Gresham M. Sykes and David Matza: (1958): Techniques of Neutralization: A theory of Delinquency. In: American Sociological Review, 22, S.664-670.