Matza and Sykes: identification of juvenile delinquency factors

In 1957, David Matza and Gresham Sykes introduced a groundbreaking theory of delinquency that emphasized the role of individual choice and the concept of “drift” in the commission of juvenile crimes. While initially a collaborative effort, the theory has largely been attributed to Matza in later developments. The emergence of Matza and Sykes’ theory marked a pivotal moment in criminology, as it signaled a shift away from the deterministic perspectives of positivism towards a re-appreciation of free will, reminiscent of classical criminology.

The concept of drift

David Matza’s concept of “drift” represents a significant departure from deterministic theories of criminal behavior, suggesting a more fluid approach to understanding delinquency. Drift posits that individuals navigate between law-abiding and criminal behaviors, influenced by situational factors, personal judgment, and opportunities for deviation. This notion implies that delinquency is not a fixed identity but a state into which individuals can enter and exit based on circumstances and choices. The state of drift allows for the exercise of free will, placing individuals in a liminal space where neither criminal nor conformist labels fully apply. This perspective underlines the complexity of criminal behavior, recognizing it as a product of both social context and individual agency.

Mechanisms of neutralization

Neutralization mechanisms are strategies that individuals employ to rationalize or justify criminal acts, enabling them to engage in criminal behaviors without feeling guilt or shame. These mechanisms allow individuals to drift into delinquency by temporarily suspending moral obligations or social norms. By neutralizing the moral ties that would normally deter deviation, individuals can commit criminal acts while maintaining a self-image that is not fundamentally criminal. Matza’s introduction of neutralization into his drift theory highlights the cognitive processes that facilitate the transition between conforming and criminal behavior, emphasizing the role of personal justification in the enactment of criminal acts.

Five techniques of neutralization

Matza and Sykes outline five specific neutralization techniques that individuals use to excuse their criminal behavior, either prospectively (before the act) or retrospectively (after the act):

  • Denial of Responsibility: Individuals claim that their actions were due to factors beyond their control (e.g., poverty, peer pressure, or extenuating circumstances), absolving themselves of personal responsibility.
  • Denial of Injury: The perpetrator argues that their actions did not cause real harm, either because the victim was insured or because the damage was insignificant, minimizing the moral weight of their actions.
  • Denial of the Victim: The offender justifies their actions by suggesting that the victim deserved the outcome, either due to their behavior, status, or perceived moral failings.
  • Condemnation of the Accusers: This technique involves shifting blame to the accusers, suggesting they are hypocrites, corrupt, or equally guilty of wrongdoing, thereby deflecting criticism.
  • Appeal to Higher Loyalties: The perpetrator prioritizes loyalty to a group or cause over social norms, arguing that their actions were in service of a greater good.

These techniques reflect the various ways in which individuals rationalize deviation, facilitating their participation in criminal activities while maintaining a self-concept that aligns with social values.

Evaluation and social impact

The theory of drift and the accompanying neutralization mechanisms gained significance in the context of the social change of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This period, characterized by the questioning of traditional values and the exploration of new forms of expression, provided fertile ground for Matza’s ideas. The theory resonated with observations that many individuals who engage in criminal behaviors do not permanently adopt a criminal identity but enter and exit criminal roles. This fluidity suggested that traditional models of criminal behavior, which often described a static and immutable trajectory towards delinquency, were insufficient.

Matza’s work highlighted the nuances of how social norms and individual actions intersect, suggesting that delinquency could be a temporary state rather than a fixed identity. The social impact of these ideas was significant, offering a framework for understanding how cultural, social, and individual factors contribute to the complexity of criminal behavior. It suggested that interventions aimed at reducing delinquency might need to focus not only on deterrence but also on understanding the rationalizations that facilitate criminal acts and addressing the social conditions that support them.

Maguire, M., Morgan, R., & Reiner, R. (Eds.). (2012). The oxford handbook of criminology (5a ed.). Oxford University Press.