Analysis Essay Neutralization Theory

by Tabetha Cooper

Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior
Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Everyone does it.”  An excuse I am sure that we have all used in adolescence while trying to convince our parents of why we should be allowed to do something.  This is just one of the many excuses used to justify crime, according to the Neutralization Theory, one of the Social Process Theories.  Along with the Neutralization Theory this paper is also going to discuss Social Process Theory, how it pertains to crime, and how it has influenced public and social policies.
             As Siegel (2007) points out, criminal behavior is a result of people’s involvement with different organizations and institutions and their overall encounter’s with society, which is known at the Social Process Theory.  In other words people that are actively involved with others that abide by the law and have good morals are not going to participate in criminal or delinquent behaviors and people who maintain contact with criminals or other individuals who push the boundaries of the law are going to partake in like behaviors.  There are theories that fall under the Social Process Theory, such as Social Learning Theories (Differential Association Theory and Neutralization Theory), Social Control Theory, and Social Reaction Theory (also known as Labeling Theory).
A 1920s display comparing brain types to crimi...
A 1920s display comparing brain types to criminality. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
            The Neutralization Theory simply states that no person is completely bad or completely good.  That criminals “drift” between criminal and conventional behaviors (Siegel, 2007, p. 154).  Matza (1964) defined drifting as people swaying from “one extreme behavior to another.” (http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/matza.htm).  Drifting behavior can be classified as soft determinism, which is the belief that criminality is both chosen by the criminal and determined by nature.  A person chooses to commit crime but they believe that obeying law is what is supposed to be done.  People drift in and out of crime because criminal behaviors are not acceptable in every situation.  These people feel that they are restricted by law and “shun” criminal behaviors all the while participating in those same delinquent or criminal behaviors themselves (DeMelo, 2001).  Matza (1964) feels that these people live in a “continuum” between freedom and restraint.
To keep guilt at bay, or neutralizing it, criminals use justifications that convince them that their behavior is acceptable. These excuses are called neutralization techniques.  The first is denial of responsibility, where a person convinces themselves that they had no choice but to do it, an “it wasn’t my fault” attitude.  The next is denial of injury which is when the person committing a crime uses the excuse that they weren’t hurting anyone, an “it isn’t a big deal” type of attitude.  Then there is denial of victim, where the criminal feels that they committed the crime against someone who deserved it, a “he had it coming” view.  The next is condemnation of condemners, where the person believes that they person scalding them is only doing so because they have already done the same thing themselves or wish they could do it.  The last is the appeal to higher loyalties, where the delinquent commits the act because he feels that he has to, due to expectations of his peers or needs of his family, seen like “mom needed to pay the electric bill.” (Siegel, 2007, p. 154-155 & Topalli, 2006, p. 476-477).  The neutralization theory can explain why criminals are believed to age out of crime, these people mature and these excuses are no longer valid.
Throughout time Social Process Theories have affected public and social policies.  According to Siegel (2007) these theories have been utilized in community action policies as well as treatment institutions.  An example of a policy that has been influenced by these theories is the diversion program, a program set up to keep criminals out of the prison system.  In a diversion program an offender is sentenced to some sort of treatment program.  Say a man was arrest for possession of oxycodone; he can be sentenced to a rehabilitation center instead of going to jail, with the condition that he completes the program.  Another example is restitution, which is where an offender is given the option of paying back the victim or community either with money or through community service.  Say a woman was in a non-injury car accident, but she didn’t have any insurance.  She may be sentenced to probation and restitution in the amount of the damages she caused to the other person’s vehicle.
Social Process Theories tend to focus on why people don’t commit crimes verses other theories of criminology that focuses on why people do commit crimes (Sellers, 2010).  The Social Process Theory believes that people who associate with law abiding people will abide by the law and vice versa.  That criminal and delinquent behavior is determined by whom a person associates with.  It has been established that the Neutralization Theory was based on the fact that people who come from a law abiding community but make friends with deviants and criminals can “drift” between behavior roles, neutralizing their guilt of criminal behavior by justifying it.  It is clear that the different Social Process Theories has affected policies in the justice system.  It can be foreseen that additional policies will be implemented based on these theories.


DeMelo, D. (2001) about: Tabs. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from

Matza, D... (1964) Delinquency and drift - Books. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from

Siegel, L. J. (2007). Criminology: The Core (3rd Ed.). Belmont, Ca. Cengage Learning
Topalli, Vokan. (2006) The Seductive Nature of Autotelic Crime:  How Neutralization Theory Serves as a
Boundary Condition for Understanding Hardcore Street Offending. Retrieved February 24, 2010,

Unknown. (unknown) David Matza. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from

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