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Neutralization Theory Critique

Sykes and Matza’s neutralization theory is a conceptual theory subject to critical analyses as it contains various shortcomings. These shortcomings are what make it a theory and not empirical evidence. However, many sociological theories and studies of deviance have been critiqued because they lack complete information that makes them valid and reliable in all cases of deviance (Tittle 2018). Despite the clear development and description of the neutralization theory by syke and Matza, many researchers and scholars have come up to criticize the theory and prove how it’s not entirely suitable as a piece of empirical evidence in a case of deviance. The lack of empirical study and research makes the theory weak. Thus it fails in satisfying all the deviance cases, and at times only some of its techniques are applicable in some cases, with the others failing to be applicable.

Researchers and scholars examined the neutralization theory by sykes and Matza, they have continually argued that the theory lacks an empirical study and support (Vance, Siponen & Straub 2020). This means there are no underlying facts that have been used to build the theory and that there was no empirical example used to prove the theory’s credibility. Scholars such as Minor (1981), after evaluating the theory, termed it as underdeveloped, understudied, and misconstructed due to the lack of sufficient information to help in supporting the theory. Sykes and Matza, in theory, also argued that the behaviors and morals of both the offenders and the responsible person are the same. The argument is criticized by various researchers arguing that the character traits and beliefs of the delinquents and non-delinquents differ from each other. In opposing the arguments, researchers such as Ball (1966) argued through his research that non-delinquents had higher neutralization than delinquents, which led to the theory being considered a weak theory of defending deviance.

In addition, other researchers argued that when the delinquents were asked to justify their actions, they employed tactics rather than moral arguments (Schwendinger 1967). According to Schwendinger, the delinquents used tactical arguments based on the current situation they found themselves in. Thus, to the delinquent, morality was not something they could rely on at the time. The argument by Schwendinger further develops the shortcomings of the theory by Sykes and Matza on the issue of the standard moral system between delinquents and non-delinquents. Youth engaging in deviance are said to accept their actions more than those who already are delinquents. To support the argument, the research study carried out by Hindelag to show how youths engaged in deviance readily accepted their behavior and were responsible for the acts (Minor 1981); again, the argument disapproves the facts laid by Sykes and Matza of the parties sharing similar moral values,

Besides the issue of underdevelopment and misconstruction of the theory, Minor further argues that in the theory technique of denial of victims, Sykes and Matza failed to specialize on the victim subject to the technique. In these, Minor argued that the technique denial of victims was double-centered in that it both favored the victims known to the offender and the delinquents deserving the fate (Minor 1981). Despite the confusion of the technique on its meaning, Minor further argued that there are other techniques that Sykes and Matza failed to include in the theory and are suitable to be used primarily in white-collar deviance acts; these bring to attention the failure of the theory to appreciate the need for necessity on who, what and to what extent is the theory applicable in the scope of deviance.

However, the neutralization theory is applicable in that most guilty people tend to neutralize and justify their actions in search of sympathy and freedom against their acts; however, the techniques are not fully applicable in all deviant cases and situations as the applicability are highly dependent on the deviant individual. To support this (Copes 2003) analysis, delinquents who feel guilty of their behavior are less likely to neutralize their behavior, while those who do not find any issue with their actions will not neutralize their behavior. According to Copes, individuals who are likely to legitimize their actions depending on the techniques of neutralization are firmly and more attached to the societal norms, beliefs, and morals, which means that the neutralization theory is only relevant to the people attaching themselves to the society and fails to defend those who are not attached to the societal beliefs.

Consumption of cannabis is often considered deviant and risky. A study carried out by( Perreti-Watel 2003) found that the neutralization theory did not apply to Cannabis users, especially when relating to the technique of the denial of injury. The use of cannabis is considered an offense of the law and is known to have adverse effects on human health; thus, it is termed as risky as its users have to risk their health and their lives to consume the cannabis. These show failure of Sykes and Matza to recognize the aspect of risk in their theory and either develop the risk-denial technique as suggested by Perretti-Wetzel. the study further proves that there was a lack of knowledge and research while the theory was being developed and that the theory does not fully apply to all the causes of deviance.

Therefore, the neutralization theory by Sykes and Matza is helpful in sociology studies and deviance in helping to form a background for researchers and scholars to develop more informed and well-constructed theories by identifying the shortcomings of the theory (Wilhelm, Joeckel & Ziegler 2020). Despite its shortcomings, the theory provides an escape route that the delinquent can use to justify their actions, especially when presented to the court. It also helps in forming a fundamental concept that is well understood by society; the society can better understand the delinquents and their behaviors and come up with better ways and strategies to help in controlling future cases of deviance and help the delinquents not to fall victims of deviance in the near future.


Tittle, C. R. (2018). Control balance: Toward a general theory of deviance. Routledge.

Vance, A., Siponen, M. T., & Straub, D. W. (2020). Effects of sanctions, moral beliefs, and neutralization on information security policy violations across cultures. Information & Management57(4), 103212.

William Minor. “Techniques of Neutralization: a Reconceptualization and Empirical Examination,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 18, no. 2 (July 1981): 295-318

Peretti-Watel, Patrick. “‘Neutralization Theory and the Denial of Risk: Some Evidence from Cannabis Use Among French Adolescents.’” The British journal of sociology. 54 (2003): 21–42.

Sykes, Gresham M., and David. Matza. Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency Indianapolis, Ind: Bobbs-Merrill, College Division, 1960.

Copes, Heith. “Societal Attachments, Offending Frequency, and Techniques of Neutralization,” Deviant Behavior 24, no. 2 (2003): 101-127

Wilhelm, C., Joeckel, S., & Ziegler, I. (2020). Reporting hate comments: Investigating the effects of deviance characteristics, neutralization strategies, and users’ moral orientation. Communication Research47(6), 921-944.


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