Criminology Neutralization Theory
Heith Copes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0140


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: 10.1080/016396290968489

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

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/2089195

    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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