Matza argued that instead of crime being a feature of deviant values shared in criminal subcultures, in fact we all had so-called “subterranean values” that, for the most part, we managed to control and inhibit.  He argued that criminals use techniques of neutralisation because they know that their actions are deviant, that they do share the value consensus of the rest of society and wish to “neutralise” their transgression as soon as possible. Thus they try to explain their deviant actions in such a way as to return quickly to being a normal, compliant member of society.  They will deny responsibility, deny injury, appeal to higher loyalties, etc.  However, critics suggest this is just people making excuses to try and get away with their crimes.  It is not that they share mainstream values but that they are aware that they have behaved in a deviant way and wish to avoid punishment by appealing for mitigation.

Techniques of neutralization are a theoretical series of methods by which those who commit illegitimate acts temporarily neutralize certain values within themselves which would normally prohibit them from carrying out such acts, such as morality, obligation to abide by the law, and so on. In simpler terms, it is a psychological method for people to turn off inner protests when they do, or are about to do something they themselves perceive as wrong.

The idea of such techniques was first postulated by David Matza (born May 1, 1930) and Gresham Sykes (born 1922) during their work on Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1950s. While Matza and Sykes were at the time working on juvenile delinquency, they theorised that the same techniques could be found throughout society and published their ideas in Delinquency and Drift 1964.

Techniques of neutralization do just this by providing simple and powerful rationales for why we violate society’s norms, and we use them to explain to ourselves and others why it was “okay” that we do wrong. Matza and Sykes identified five separate techniques of neutralization:

1) Denial of responsibility. We acknowledge doing the behavior considered wrong, but we claim that we had no choice—that we had to do or we were forced to do so.

2) Denial of injury. We acknowledge doing the wrong action, but we claim that no one was harmed by what we did, so it really shouldn’t be a problem.

3) Blaming the victim. We acknowledge that people were hurt by our actions, but we claim that though we did the action, it was really the victim’s fault—they brought about or otherwise deserved our behavior.

4) Condemn the condemners. We abdicate all responsibility for our behavior, and instead we point to the people condemning us. They are the problem, not us. What they have done wrong excuses our behavior.

5) Appealing to a higher loyalty. We claim that while we violated some social norms, we’re actually adhering to other norms and loyalties, and these higher principles justify our behavior.

It’s pretty straightforward to illustrate these techniques using everyday wrongdoing. Suppose that you cheat on a test. You could deny responsibility. Rather than redefine yourself as a cheater, you might decide that you really had no choice—you just have to graduate this semester.

Matza and Sykes’ theory states that people are always aware of their moral obligation to abide by the law, and that they have the same moral obligation within themselves to avoid illegitimate acts. Thus, they reasoned, when a person did commit illegitimate acts, they must employ some sort of mechanism to silence the urge to follow these moral obligations.

This theory rejects other theories which suggested that groups containing delinquents have set up their own permanent moral code which completely replaces moral obligations. Thus, Matza and Sykes were able to explain how offenders ‘drift’ from illegitimate to legitimate lifestyles repeatedly, as they retain the moral code rather than wipe it clean to be replaced by a more illegitimate one as previous theories suggested.

Further research in the theory has produced inconclusive results. Offenders have been found both with a solid belief in their moral obligations, and without. Travis Hirschi, a social bond theorist, also raised the question as to whether the offender develops these techniques to neutralise their qualms regarding offending before or after they actually commit the offence.

Neutralization Theory was introduced by Sykes and Matza in 1957, facing the then prevailing criminological wisdom that offenders engage in crime because they adhere to an oppositional subcultural rule set that values law breaking and violence, they rejected this perspective. Subsequent research revealed that the original formulation of the Sykes and Matza’s theory explains only the behavior of “conventionally attached individuals” not those of “nonconventionally oriented individuals” such as “criminally embedded street offenders”. Professor Volkan Topalli, at Georgia State University, in his article The Seductive Nature of Autotelic Crime: How Neutralization Theory Serves as a Boundary Condition for Understanding Hardcore Street Offending, explains that for those groups “guilt is not an issue at all because their crimes are not only considered acceptable, but attractive and desirable”.