Having the cake and eating it too. Techniques of neutralization for breaking the law

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018
4 Pages, Grade: 1,3
Simon Valentin (Author)


Having the cake and eating it too - Techniques of neutralization for breaking the law


Discovering facilitating factors and mechanisms that drive people to law-breaking behavior is one of the most important and interesting questions of civilization. In their paper Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency from 1957, Sykes and Matza formulate an interesting theory about a psychological phenomenon that might facilitate delinquent behavior.[1] In this essay, I will explain how they developed their main idea, what they mean by techniques of neutralization, explain their different forms and finally put the findings in a broader context.

Techniques of Neutralization

The work of Sykes and Matza is a major contribution to the understanding of human delinquent behavior. The paper has more than 6,000 registered citations on Google Scholar and has vastly influenced the pertinent literature to this day.[2] The paper tries to explain especially juvenile delinquency and more general why people violate laws.

The starting point of the argumentation is an explanation prominent at the time of their writing that can be found at Edwin H. Sutherland's Principles of Criminology [3] and Albert Cohen’s Delinquent Boys [4]. Cohen argues that juvenile delinquency happens within a deviant sub-culture that stands in contradiction to the dominant social order. Accordingly, humans, in this case boys, violate laws because they live in or perceive themselves as part of a diametrically opposed value system. Thus, according to this theory, their delinquent behavior is not only perceived right, but behavior is perceived right because it is delinquent. Sykes and Matza built their theory of techniques of neutralization as a necessary alternative explanation of delinquency after showing the defectiveness of this deviant sub-culture theory with four main critiques. First, they present evidence that most delinquents experience guilt, second delinquents normally do not see people who obey the law as immoral and support the dominant social order in other cases than their own, third, delinquents usually distinguish between people that can be victimized and others and do not accept their delinquent behavior against all people, and fourth, the authors question if delinquents can at all be “totally immune” to the human “demands for conformity made by the dominant social order”[5]. They follow that delinquents are in fact largely embedded in the dominant social order and therefore reframe the question from “why men violate the laws” to “why men violate the laws in which they believe”[6].

The explanation given by Sykes and Matza is based on the observation that social rules are seldom shared as categorical imperatives. They guide behavior but if a specific behavior is regarded as right or wrong by the society is largely dependent on the context; even such extreme behavior such as killing might be accepted under certain circumstances. This flexibility is the core of their explanation of delinquency because it allows delinquents to individually justify their generally wrong behavior. Because if there are ways to legitimize a certain delinquent behavior, right or wrong is dependent on if the legal system or the society sees the justification as valid. The main argument of the authors is that the occurrence of “much delinquency is based on […] justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent but not by the legal system or society at large”[7]. This rationalization behavior in order to reduce self-blame and protect the self-image is not a new discovery, but what is new is that the authors argue that it not only occurs after the deviant behavior as a form of cognitive bias but also precedes deviant behavior. This phenomenon, the ex-ante justifications of deviant behavior is what the authors call techniques of neutralization because it frees the individual to engage in delinquency by neutralizing the feeling of doing something wrong and is thus favorable to the violation of laws. The neutralization is the justification of behavior which is generally known to be unlawful by reinterpreting it as legitimate behavior. In this sense, the authors claim that “the delinquent both has his cake and eats it too”[8], contradicting the popular idiomatic proverb that one cannot simultaneously retain a cake and eat it. With the techniques of neutralization, however, a delinquent can in his or her self-perception remain in the dominant social order with all the comforting benefits and has not to deal with the individual implications of a general opposition to the societal value system (having the cake) and simultaneously qualifies any deviant behavior as right (eating the cake). For the delinquent, neutralization seems to unite two irreconcilable things. The theory of neutralization is based on the assumption that criminal behavior can be facilitated by eliminating (neutralizing) the behavioral requirements of criminal law through rationalization and explanation. Therefore, delinquency is accompanied by certain recurring patterns of neutralization and “by learning these techniques the juvenile becomes delinquent”[9]. These neutralizations lead to an apology for the delinquent's behavior and make the threat of punishment recede into the background. For a better understanding and to substantiate the theory the authors divide the techniques into five main forms.[10]

1) The Denial of Responsibility – “I didn't mean it”

This technique is the claim that the deviant behavior happens either by accident or that the behavior is due to forces outside and beyond the control of the individual, who sees him- or herself as “helplessly propelled into new situation”[11].

2) The Denial of Injury – “I didn't really hurt anybody”

This strategy suggests a differentiation of deviant behavior dependent on the harm involved. This in parts societally shared idea allows broad interpretation of the wrongfulness dependent on which harm should be of interest for the community. The delinquent can claim “that his [or her] behavior does not really cause any great harm despite the fact that it runs counter to law”.[12]

3) The Denial of the Victim – “They had it coming to them”

Here, the delinquent argues that the behavior, generally wrong, is “not wrong in light of the circumstances”[13]. The victim is portrayed as somehow deviating from the order and thus behavior is justified as retaliation or punishment. The victim is transformed into someone deserving the injury. This idea builds on the societal acceptance that an act can be more or less appropriate depending on the target and the notion that the end may justify the means. Moreover, the delinquent may see his- or herself in the positively connotated role of a Robin Hood seeking justice outside the law. In general, diminished awareness of the victim’s existence, especially in acts against property, might largely influence the delinquent behavior.


[1] Sykes, Gresham M., and David Matza. "Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency."American Sociological Review 22, no. 6 (1957): 664-70.

[2] See for example Hirschi, Travis. "Causes of Delinquency." (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[3] Sutherland, Edwin H. "Principles of Criminology." Revised by D. R. Cressey, (Chicago: Lippincott, 1955).

[4] Cohen, Albert K. "Delinquent Boys." (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955).

[5] Sykes and Matza, 1957, 665.

[6] Ibid., 666.

[7] Ibid., 666.

[8] Ibid., 667.

[9] Ibid., 667.

[10] Ibid., 667-669.

[11] Ibid., 667.

[12] Ibid., 667.

[13] Ibid., 668.

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Having the cake and eating it too. Techniques of neutralization for breaking the law
University of Toronto  (Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy)
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ISBN (eBook)
Techniques of neutralization, breaing the law, delinquent behaviour
Quote paper
Simon Valentin (Author), 2018, Having the cake and eating it too. Techniques of neutralization for breaking the law, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/491915


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