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Criminology Neutralization Theory
by
Heith Copes

Introduction

According to Gresham Sykes and David Matza, acts that violate norms or go against beliefs can carry with them guilt and shame, which dissuades most adolescents from engaging in criminal or delinquent acts. Would-be delinquents, therefore, must find ways to preemptively neutralize the guilt and protect their self-image if they choose to participate in delinquent or deviant behavior. One way to do this is by using techniques of neutralization that provide episodic relief from moral constraint and allow individuals to drift back and forth between delinquent and conventional behavior. Drift is possible because neutralization techniques blunt the moral force of dominant cultural norms and neutralize the guilt of delinquent behavior in specific situations. Through the use of these neutralizations social and internal controls that serve to check or inhibit deviant motivational patterns are blocked; thereby allowing individuals to engage freely in delinquency without serious damage to their self-image. Sykes and Matza outlined five neutralization techniques: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victims, appeal to higher loyalties, and condemnation of condemners. Research on the theory has generally produced mixed results, leading many to conclude that the theory is not powerful enough to serve as a stand-alone explanation for crime. Still, neutralization theory has been incorporated into a variety of other theories, including control theory, learning theory, and labeling theory.

General Overviews

The original statement of the theory can be found in Sykes and Matza 1957. It is here that Sykes and Matza discuss why juveniles experience guilt and negative self concepts from engaging in delinquency, why they need to neutralize this guilt, and the five neutralization techniques that allow them to do so. Matza 1964 further develops neutralization theory by incorporating it into the concept of drift, which is the idea that adolescents become delinquent because the weakening of controls allows them to drift between delinquent and conventional behaviors. Since this original writing, two articles have summarized the state of the theory. Maruna and Copes 2005 provides the most comprehensive summary of the theory to date. This review places the theory in the context of other theories in sociology as well as psychology, reviews empirical evaluations of the theory, and details what is still known and unknown about the theory. Fritsche 2005 articulates clearly many of the misunderstandings and empirical finding of the theory.

  • Fritsche, Immo. 2005. Predicting deviant behavior by neutralization: Myths and findings. Deviant Behavior 26:483–510.

    DOI: 10.1080/016396290968489Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A thorough review of the theory. This review focuses on misunderstandings regarding the theory and the empirical support for it.

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  • Maruna, Shadd, and Heith Copes. 2005. What have we learned from five decades of neutralization research? Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 32:221–320.

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    Provides a comprehensive overview of the theory. Traces the history of the theory, shows how neutralizations are similar to several psychological theories, reviews the available literature, and points to conceptual issues that need to be addressed.

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  • Matza, David. 1964. Delinquency and drift. New York: Wiley.

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    Here Matza further develops the concept of neutralizations with his notion of drift, a temporary period of irresponsibility or an episodic relief from moral constraint. While in a state of drift people may choose to commit crime under circumstances of preparation (or familiarity with the particular offense type) or desperation. The concept of desperation mirrors the denial of responsibility.

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  • Sykes, Gresham, and David Matza. 1957. Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency. American Sociological Review 22:664–670.

    DOI: 10.2307/2089195Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is the original article where neutralization theory is laid out. It is here that Sykes and Matza discuss why juveniles experience guilt and negative self concepts from engaging in delinquency, why they need to neutralize this guilt, and the five neutralization techniques that allow them to do so.

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Origins of the Theory

Neutralization theory is a product of the symbolic interactionist tradition that emerged out of the Chicago School. The theory builds directly on Mills 1940, Sutherland 1947, and Cressey 1953. Mills 1940 argues that the motives people give for their actions are not without their own motivations. As such, the anticipated answers to questions about why we behaved a certain way can become the motivation of crime. Though not cited in the original article on neutralization theory (Sykes and Matza 1957, listed under General Overviews), Mills’s work directly parallels neutralization theory. Sykes and Matza did directly cite Sutherland 1947 and Cressey 1953. Techniques of neutralization can be seen as an elaboration on Sutherland’s differential association theory (Sutherland 1947). Specifically, neutralizations are one component of the definitions that are favorable to crime commission. Perhaps the most direct origin of the theory stems from Cressey’s work on embezzlers (Cressey 1953). In this work Cressey discussed the importance of verbalizations as partial causes of crime. These verbalizations can be seen as the seeds of neutralization theory because he argues that these rationalizations or verbalizations are the motivations for crime. In addition to this sociological work, the theory has roots in the psychoanalytic work of Redl and Wineman 1951. In this study of aggressive boys the authors discuss how adolescents have developed strong defenses against guilt, which include rationalizations and the situational acceptance of violence.

  • Cressey, Donald R. 1953. Other people’s money: A study in the social psychology of embezzlement. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    This classic study of white-collar crime uses differential association theory to explain embezzling. Shows that embezzlers relied on specific verbalizations or “vocabularies of adjustment” to rationalize their crimes and that these rationalizations become the motivations for crime. The verbalizations he discusses are directly related to the five neutralizations described by Sykes and Matza 1957.

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  • Mills, C. Wright. 1940. Situated actions and vocabularies of motive. American Sociological Review 5:904–913.

    DOI: 10.2307/2084524Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this classic article, Mills argues that the words used to explain crimes can be seen as the motivators of crime. That is, motivation can be understood as the anticipated answer to the question about why we behaved as such. Although this idea parallels neutralization theory, Sykes and Matza did not cite Mills in their original formulation of the theory.

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  • Redl, Fritz, and David Wineman. 1951. Children who hate: The disorganization and breakdown of behavior controls. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    This psychoanalytical work focuses on ego psychology. The authors argue that violent children have developed distorted but strong defenses against guilty feelings and the demands of society. These defenses include a series of rationalizations, techniques for finding situational support for their violence, and ways to resist situations that may call for change in their behavior. It is one of the few works that Sykes and Matza cite in their original article.

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  • Sutherland, Edwin. 1947. Principles of criminology. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

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    This is considered the classic statement of differential association theory. Sutherland argues that crime is the result of learning more definitions in favor of law violation than definitions opposed to it. Neutralizations are an attempt to elaborate on some of these favorable definitions.

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Expanding the Theory

Neutralization theory was originally designed to explain adolescents’ (particularly males’) participation in delinquency. Since this time the theory has been expanded to include a variety of behaviors (criminal and deviant). Ferraro and Johnson 1983 uses neutralization theory to explain how victims of domestic violence excuse their decisions to stay with their abusive partners. Topalli 2005 argues that people try to neutralize guilt associated with any violation of behavioral expectations, even those that violate subcultural norms. Thus, Topalli shows how street offenders neutralize their failure to uphold the code of the street. Copes and Williams 2007 shows that some youths are considered deviant for their abstinence of certain behaviors (e.g., drinking, drug use, and promiscuity). These abstainers do not neutralize their actions. Instead, they affirm their beliefs with affirmations that counter neutralizations. Finally, Hazani 1991 argues that neutralization theory has universal applicability and can be applied to any situation where there is an inconsistency between thoughts and actions.

  • Copes, Heith, and Patrick Williams. 2007. Techniques of affirmation: Deviant behavior, moral commitment and subcultural identity. Deviant Behavior 28:247–272.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620701233167Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that many youths are so committed to conventional behavior that neutralizations are ineffective. These youths rely on affirmations to solidify their beliefs about their abstinence.

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  • Ferraro, Kathleen, and John Johnson. 1983. How women experience battering: The process of victimization. Social Problems 30:325–339.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1983.30.3.03a00080Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article was the first to expand neutralization theory beyond offending behavior. The authors use neutralization theory to explain why some women remain in abusive relationships.

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  • Hazani, Moshe. 1991. The universal applicability of the theory of neutralization: German youth coming to terms with the Holocaust. Crime, Law, and Social Change 15:135–149.

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    Argues that neutralization techniques are universal modes of responding to inconsistencies. Thus they can be used to explain any situation where there are inconsistencies between one’s actions and one’s beliefs, including how German youth make sense of the Holocaust.

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  • Topalli, Volkan. 2005. When being good is bad: An expansion of neutralization theory. Criminology 43:797–836.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0011-1348.2005.00024.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Expands neutralization theory to include violations of subcultural behavior. Uses interviews with street offenders to show how these offenders neutralize their violations of the code of the street. That is, persistent street offenders use neutralizations when they snitch or fail to retaliate against wrongs.

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Conceptual Issues

Despite over fifty years of research on the neutralization theory many conceptual issues remain. In a detailed review Maruna and Copes 2005 outlines nine issues that still need to be addressed. In reference to the temporal issue problem, the authors propose casting it as a theory of desistance instead of initiation. Hamlin 1988 argues that neutralizations may best be understood as motives that arise after the fact. Hamlin questions the utility of conceptualizing neutralizations as causal determinants of behavior.

  • Hamlin, John E. 1988. The misplaced role of rational choice in neutralization theory. Criminology 26:425–438.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1988.tb00849.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that neutralizations should be seen as arising from “question situations” where actors are asked to explain their untoward behavior. Viewed in this light, neutralizations are simply ways to operationalize vocabularies of motives.

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  • Maruna, Shadd, and Heith Copes. 2005. What have we learned from five decades of neutralization research? Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 32:221–320.

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    This thorough review outlines nine key theoretical areas that are still unresolved. Proposes ways to refine the theory to make it more relevant for contemporary criminologists (i.e., cast it as a theory of desistance instead of initiation).

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Commitment

Neutralization theory implies that offenders must maintain some level of commitment to conventional norms, otherwise they would not experience guilt for norm violations. Several studies have addressed this issue directly. Hindelang 1970 is one of the earliest studies on the level of commitment adolescents have to their misdeeds. It finds that delinquents have little moral inhibitions about committing crime and delinquency, which is in opposition to neutralization theory. Copes 2003 compares neutralizations offered by offenders of varying levels of societal attachment and shows that those with higher attachments were more likely to use neutralizations than those with fewer attachments. Contradicting these claims, Costello 2000 and Thurman 1984 show that youths who had fewer attachments were more likely to accept neutralizing beliefs. They argue that high levels of attachment produce too much guilt to overcome with neutralizations.

  • Copes, Heith. 2003. Societal attachments, offending frequency, and techniques of neutralization. Deviant Behavior 24:101–127.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620390117200Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides one of the few qualitative tests of the theory. Shows that level of commitment to mainstream society influences the frequency and type of neutralization auto thieves rely on.

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  • Costello, Barbara J. 2000. Techniques of neutralization and self-esteem: A critical test of social control and neutralization theory. Deviant Behavior 21:307–330.

    DOI: 10.1080/016396200404113Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the relationship between parental attachments and use of neutralizations and shows that delinquent youths who are strongly attached to their parents are less likely to use neutralizations than others.

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  • Hindelang, Michael J. 1970. The commitment of delinquents to their misdeeds: Do delinquents drift? Social Problems 17:502–509.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1970.17.4.03a00080Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines Matza’s concept of drift and the degree that adolescents need to use neutralizations when committing crime. Findings do not support Matza’s hypotheses and suggest that delinquents may not have moral inhibitions that restrain them from delinquency.

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  • Thurman, Quint C. 1984. Deviance and the neutralization of moral commitment: An empirical analysis. Deviant Behavior 5:291–304.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639625.1984.9967646Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds neutralizations to have the greatest effect on deviance among those who are the least morally committed. Findings suggest that high levels of moral commitment create too much guilt to be overcome by simple neutralization techniques. Therefore, only less committed individuals have the need and ability to use them effectively.

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Temporal Order

The issue of how neutralizations can function as predictors of delinquent behavior has become the major stumbling block of the theory. To date only a handful of studies have addressed temporal order statistically. In the first study Minor 1981 used two waves of data (collected three months apart) from university students and found that early neutralization acceptance predicted some forms of minor deviance. Shields and Whitehall 1994 measured neutralization acceptance for incarcerated youths and used that to predict recidivism. The authors found that initial neutralization scores were higher for those who recidivated than for those who did not. Perhaps the soundest longitudinal study was Agnew 1994. Using data from the National Youth Study it showed that neutralization scores at Wave 2 predicted violent behavior at Wave 3. Minor 1984 argues that neutralizations may be important for early crimes but not later ones. The idea is that the more crime one commits, the less likely the criminal is to experience guilt, so there is no longer a need to use neutralizations. Building from this idea, Maruna 2001 argues that the presence of neutralizations among persistent offenders may suggest a “softening process,” that is, the use of neutralizations among this group may reflect their lack of commitment to crime and facilitate deterrence.

  • Agnew, Robert. 1994. The techniques of neutralization and violence. Criminology 32:555–580.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1994.tb01165.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Perhaps the soundest longitudinal test of neutralization theory. Uses two waves of the National Youth Survey to explore the relation between violence and prior neutralizations. Finds support for the theory.

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  • Maruna, Shadd. 2001. Making good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

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    Argues that instead of neutralizations leading to a hardening process, they may lead to a softening process. That is, the use of neutralizations may reflect weak attachment to crime and lead to desistance.

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  • Minor, W. William. 1981. Techniques of neutralization: A reconceptualization and empirical examination. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 18:295–318.

    DOI: 10.1177/002242788101800206Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Represents the first longitudinal test of neutralization theory. Uses survey data from undergraduates asking about neutralizing beliefs and self-reported delinquency at two points, three months apart. Found support for the theory for several minor forms of deviance.

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  • Minor, W. William. 1984. Neutralization as a hardening process: Considerations in the modeling of change. Social Forces 62:995–1019.

    DOI: 10.2307/2578559Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that neutralizations may be important for initial crimes; but as delinquents engage in further crimes, they become less likely to experience guilt and are therefore less likely to use neutralization.

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  • Shields, Ian W., and Georgia C. Whitehall. 1994. Neutralization and delinquency among teenagers. Criminal Justice and Behavior 21:223–235.

    DOI: 10.1177/0093854894021002003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study did not support the claim that the type of offense determines the neutralization. Shield and Whitehall found that shoplifters and non-shoplifters use similar neutralization techniques.

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Offender Type

Neutralizations are learned patterns of thought, and, as such, one’s background will determine which patterns are learned. Hazani 1991 shows that the way auto thieves accounted for their crimes was largely based on their ethnic and class background. Shover and Hochstetler 2006 argues that class upbringing is largely responsible for the greater use of neutralizations among the upper classes. Similarly, Willott, et al. 2001 compares the excuses of professional and working-class offenders and finds linguistic differences in the nature of their excuses. Mitchell, et al. 1990 examines the role of neutralizations in explaining crime among white and Hispanic males. It found small differences in the importance of neutralizations between the two groups.

  • Hazani, Moshe. 1991. Aligning vocabulary, symbols banks, and sociocultural structure. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 20:179–203.

    DOI: 10.1177/089124191020002003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the neutralizations used by two groups of Israeli boys who engaged in car theft. Shows that the two groups draw on different “symbol banks” when accounting for their crimes.

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  • Mitchell, Jim, Richard A. Dodder, and Terry D. Norris. 1990. Neutralization and delinquency: A comparison by sex and ethnicity. Adolescence 25:487–497.

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    Examines neutralization differences among white and Hispanic males. The authors found small differences in the importance of neutralizations for explaining delinquency between the groups.

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  • Shover, Neal, and Andy Hochstetler. 2006. Choosing white collar crime. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Argues that class differences in cultural capital lead upper-class and middle-class children to gain acuity with a larger and more diverse array of neutralizing justifications than those from less privileged backgrounds. This may explain why white-collar offenders draw on more neutralization techniques than do street offenders.

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  • Willott, Sara, Christine Griffin, and Mark Torrance. 2001. Snakes and ladders: Upper-middle class male offenders talk about economic crime. Criminology 39:441–467.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2001.tb00929.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares the way male professional and working class inmates justify their crimes. While both groups justify their crimes by emphasizing the breadwinner role (i.e., appeal to higher loyalties), they do so in differing ways. Working-class inmates focus primarily on their immediate family, whereas the more socially privileged offenders expand the reach of their responsibilities.

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Offense Type

Research has shown that certain techniques may be better adapted for specific types of delinquency. Using interviews with convicted white-collar offenders, Benson 1985 shows that the specific neutralizations used vary by type of offense. Also using white-collar offenders, Hollinger 1991 shows that although people who commit production deviance and those who steal from their employers both use neutralizations, they rely on different techniques. Finally, Mitchell and Dodder 1983 measures three types of delinquency (predatory, minor, and aggressive) and neutralizations and finds different neutralizations correlated with different types of delinquent acts.

New Techniques

There have been many recent additions to neutralization theory. Klockars 1974 introduced the metaphor of ledger. Offenders who use this technique claim that their indiscretions should be overlooked because of positive things they have done. Coleman 2006 argues that white-collar offenders are especially prone to using neutralization techniques and describes three new techniques: denial of necessity of the law, claim of normality, and claim of entitlement. Minor 1981 introduces the defense of necessity (offenders claim they had to engage in crime to survive) as a neutralization technique.

  • Coleman, James W. 2006. The criminal elite: The sociology of white-collar crime. 6th ed. New York: Worth.

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    In this textbook treatment of white-collar crime, Coleman reviews the neutralizations used by white-collar offenders. He offers three new techniques: denial of necessity of the law, claim of normality, and claim of entitlement.

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  • Klockars, Carl B. 1974. The professional fence. New York: Free Press.

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    This case study of a professional fence introduces the neutralization technique known as the metaphor of the ledger. Offenders who use this technique claim that their indiscretions should be overlooked because the amount of positive things they have done in their lives outweighs the bad.

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  • Minor, W. William. 1981. Techniques of neutralization: A reconceptualization and empirical examination. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 18:295–318.

    DOI: 10.1177/002242788101800206Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the earliest theoretical reconceptualizations of the theory. Introduces the technique defense of necessity. Here offenders claim that they had to commit the act in order to survive.

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Measurement Issues

There have been numerous attempts to operationalize people’s acceptance of neutralization. Ball 1966 developed the first and most commonly used neutralization scale. This scale presents a series of scenarios (e.g., gang fighting, shoplifting, and robbery) and asks participants the degree to which they agree with excuses for these crimes. Though popular, this scale is not without criticisms. Rogers and Buffalo 1974 argues that measures of neutralizations should be specific to the crimes people commit. Thus, these authors developed crime-specific neutralizations. Norris and Dodder 1979 developed a scale based on the idea that neutralizations are a form of moral relativism, arguing that people fall on a continuum from moral absolutes, situational ethics, and neutralizations to rebellious absolutes. Norris and Dodder developed statements to measure where individuals fall on this continuum. Austin 1977 criticizes measurements of neutralizations for failing to differentiate between neutralization acceptance and generalized acceptance of subcultural values.

  • Austin, Roy. 1977. Commitment, neutralization, and delinquency. In Juvenile delinquency: Little brother grows up. Edited by Theodore Ferdinand, 121–137. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    Criticizes measurements of neutralizations for failing to differentiate between neutralization acceptance and generalized acceptance of subcultural values. Thus when juveniles agree to excuses for fighting it may be because they think this was a good excuse or that it is always acceptable to fight.

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  • Ball, Richard A. 1966. An empirical exploration of neutralization theory. Criminology 4:22–32.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1966.tb00147.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents the first empirical test of neutralization theory. Compared a sample of known delinquents with a sample of nondelinquents to determine if delinquents are more accepting of neutralizations. The scale used to measure neutralizations, or versions of it, became the standard for measuring neutralizing beliefs.

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  • Norris, Terry, and Richard Dodder. 1979. A behavioral continuum synthesizing neutralization theory, situational ethics, and juvenile delinquency. Adolescence 55:545–555.

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    Introduces a scale based on the idea that neutralizations are a form of moral relativism. They argue that people fall on a continuum from moral absolutes, situational ethics, and neutralizations to rebellious absolutes. They developed statements to measure where individuals fall on this continuum.

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  • Rogers, Joseph W., and M. D. Buffalo. 1974. Neutralization techniques: Toward a simplified measurement scale. Pacific Sociological Review 17:313–331.

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    Presents a scale to measure the neutralizing beliefs for the specific offenses for which delinquents were convicted. Argues that neutralizations are not generalized and therefore must be crime and offender specific.

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Quantitative Evaluations

Research evaluating neutralization theory has produced mixed to weak support. In addition to those previously described, several studies have provided quantitative support for the theory. Agnew and Peters 1986 shows that many of the mixed results of previous evaluations may be because of the failure to consider the importance of situational factors. When controlling for situational factors the explanatory power of the theory is increased. McCarthy and Stewart 1998 shows that neutralizations lead to a gradual desensitization in which offenders no longer need to use them. Piquero, et al. 2005 shows that neutralization acceptance is a good predictor of willingness to commit crime (in this case corporate crimes). Froggio, et al. 2009 explores the link between strain and neutralization acceptance. Even though an additive effect of the two was not found, each predicts deviant behavior on their own.

  • Agnew, Robert, and Ardith A. R. Peters. 1986. The techniques of neutralization: An analysis of predisposing and situational factors. Criminal Justice and Behavior 13:81–97.

    DOI: 10.1177/0093854886013001005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that for neutralizations to lead to deviance (cheating and shoplifting) actors must accept the neutralization and be in a situation where the neutralization applies. Suggests that taking into account the situation will boost the explanatory power of the theory.

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  • Froggio, Giacinto, Nereo Zamaro, and Massimo Lori. 2009. Exploring the relationship between strain and some neutralization techniques. European Journal of Criminology 6:73–88.

    DOI: 10.1177/1477370808098106Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the link between strains and neutralizations as causal determinants of delinquency. Finds that both strains and neutralization acceptance lead to delinquency. However, the strains and neutralizations do not interact as predicted.

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  • McCarthy, Jennifer, and Anna Stewart. 1998. Neutralisation as a process of graduated desensitisation: Moral values of offenders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 42:278–290.

    DOI: 10.1177/0306624X9804200402Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that neutralization acceptance is correlated with level of criminal involvement. That is, low-frequency property offenders accept more neutralizations than high-frequency ones. Suggests that continued involvement in crime reduces the need for neutralizations.

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  • Piquero, Nicole, Stephen Tibbetts, and Michael Blankenship. 2005. Examining the role of differential association and techniques of neutralization in explaining corporate crime. Deviant Behavior 26:159–188.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620590881930Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A survey of MBA students shows that those who accept various neutralizations were more likely to admit the possibility of committing corporate crimes than those who do not accept these neutralizations.

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Qualitative Applications

Qualitative methods have been frequently used to investigate the importance of neutralizations for criminal and delinquent behavior. This literature shows that offenders of all types use neutralizations to allay guilt. Copes and Vieraitis 2009 and Jesilow, et al. 1993 focus on the neutralizations that white-collar offenders use to excuse their actions. Jesilow, et al. 1993 suggests that the prevalence of these neutralizing beliefs indicates the existence of a subculture that promotes these beliefs among doctors. Levi 1981 and Scully and Marolla 1984 focus on the neutralizing behavior of violent offenders. Levi shows that even extremely violent offenders (such as professional hit men) rely on neutralizations to facilitate their crimes. Rosenfeld, et al. 2003 reports that many criminal offenders use neutralization techniques to reduce the stigma attached to “snitching”—that is, trading information for lenient treatment by the police. Scully and Marolla 1984 suggests that the neutralizing beliefs of rapists stem from cultural assumptions about women and sex. Interviews in Eliason and Dodder 1999 include both poachers and wardens and find that both groups have similar understandings about the reasons people hunt deer illegally.

  • Copes, Heith, and Lynne Vieraitis. 2009. Bounded rationality of identity thieves: Using offender-based research to inform policy. Criminology and Public Policy 8:237–262.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2009.00553.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using interviews with fifty-nine federally convicted identity thieves Copes and Vieraitis show how the use of neutralizations allows these offenders to continue committing crimes. They propose several ways to reduce identity theft based on the neutralizing beliefs of fraudsters.

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  • Eliason, Stephen, and Richard Dodder. 1999. Techniques of neutralization used by deer poachers in the Western United States. Deviant Behavior 20:233–252.

    DOI: 10.1080/016396299266489Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Has interviews with deer poachers and game wardens about the motives and neutralizations of those who hunt deer illegally. Finds that poachers and wardens have similar understandings of why people poach deer.

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  • Jesilow, Paul, Henry Pontell, and Gilbert Geis. 1993. Prescription for profit: How doctors defraud Medicaid. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Using interviews with doctors who engaged in Medicaid fraud, they elaborate on the ways these doctors neutralized their actions. Suggest that a subculture of fraud likely exists that promotes these neutralizations among doctors.

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  • Levi, Ken. 1981. Becoming a hit man: Neutralization in a very deviant career. Urban Life 10:47–63.

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    This case study of a professional hit man shows that even those who commit violent crimes for money over long periods use neutralizations to ease their conscience and make their acts more palatable.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, Bruce Jacobs, and Richard Wright. 2003. Snitching and the code of the street. British Journal of Criminology 43:291–309.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/43.2.291Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Indicates that many street criminals use neutralization techniques to reduce the stigma associated with snitching to the police about others’ misdeeds.

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  • Scully, Diane, and Joseph Marolla. 1984. Convicted rapists’ vocabulary of motive: Excuses and justifications. Social Problems 31:530–544.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1984.31.5.03a00050Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Show that many of the excuses and justifications used by rapists stem from cultural assumptions about women and sex.

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Policy Implications

For much of neutralization theory’s history few scholars offered policy implications based on it. In fact, Cressey 1953 argued that verbalizations (what later became known as neutralizations) have few if any practical policy implications. Despite this early claim, policy has been developed based on the theory. Braithwaite 1999 focuses on the social psychological process behind neutralization acceptance. Braithwaite argues that by engaging in restorative justice (e.g., offender-victim conferences), offenders will be unable to hold on to neutralizations, which may help in deterrence. Maruna and Mann 2006 takes many offender-based treatments to task for focusing too strongly on forcing offenders to take responsibility for the past by not allowing them to excuse their wrongdoings. Maruna and Mann argue that excuse making is not pathogenic, and that the emphasis on these programs should be on encouraging offenders to take responsibility for the future. Clarke 1997 has adapted the removal of excuses into sixteen opportunity-reducing strategies of situational crime prevention. Along these lines, Thurman, et al. 1984 suggests that campaigns designed to stop people from using neutralizations and instill guilt would be effective at reducing tax evasion. These authors argue that by removing excuses at the scene of the crime much crime can be prevented. Copes, et al. 2007 shows the link between neutralizations and themes developed to induce confessions in interrogations. Copes, et al. 2007 argues that interrogators could use research on neutralization to aid in their interrogations.

  • Braithwaite, John. 1999. Restorative justice: Assessing optimistic and pessimistic accounts. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 25. Edited by Michael Tonry, 1–127. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Uses neutralization theory to explain the social psychological process behind restorative justice. Argues that neutralizations are hard to hold on to when confronted directly by the victims.

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  • Clarke, Ronald V., ed. 1997. Situational crime prevention: Successful case studies. Guilderland, NY: Harrow and Heston.

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    Incorporates neutralizations into the sixteen opportunity-reducing strategies for situational crime prevention. Argues that removing excuses at the scene of the crime can help deter individuals.

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  • Copes, Heith, Lynne Vieraitis, and Jen Jochum. 2007. Bridging the gap between research and practice: How neutralization theory can inform Reid interrogations of identity thieves. Journal of Criminal Justice Education 18:444–459.

    DOI: 10.1080/10511250701705404Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that neutralization theory can help inform police interrogations. When using the Reid technique, police interrogators offer “themes” to suspects to gain a confession. These themes are equivalent to neutralization techniques.

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  • Cressey, Donald R. 1953. Other people’s money: A study in the social psychology of embezzlement. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    In this classic criminological monograph Cressey describes the precursor to neutralization theory. He argues that verbalizations (what later became known as neutralizations) have few practical implications for policy.

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  • Maruna, Shadd, and R. Mann. 2006. Fundamental attribution errors? Re-thinking cognitive distortions. Legal and Criminological Psychology 11:155–177.

    DOI: 10.1348/135532506X114608Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that many offender-based treatment programs focus too much on removing excuses and forcing offenders to take responsibility for their crimes. They suggest that treatment programs should shift focus from post-hoc excuse making to supportive attitudes that help offenders take responsibility for their future, which has been shown to reduce reoffending.

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  • Thurman, Quint C., Craig St. John, and Lisa Riggs. 1984. Neutralizations and tax evasion: How effective would a moral appeal be in improving compliance to tax laws? Law and Policy 6:309–328.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9930.1984.tb00329.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that a “remove the excuses” campaign would be effective at reducing tax evasion.

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LAST MODIFIED: 11/01/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0140

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