David Matza was born on May 1, 1930 in New York.  He received his Bachelors degree in 1953 from the City of New York College.  In addition he received his Masters and Doctorate degree from Princeton.  Presently, Matza is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California’s Department of Sociology.


David Matza, who focused on juvenile delinquency, is most popularly known for his work with Gresham Sykes and their theory of neutralization.  Matza also ventured out on his own, giving further explanations and studies of juvenile delinquency.  Because he was studying criminal activity during the mid-twentieth century, he was influenced by the social and political unrest in the United States.  Even though theorists have criticized Matza’s work, it is still used by theorists today as a source of discussion on the topic of juvenile delinquency.  


Gresham Sykes and David Matza

Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency


Sykes and Matza wanted to build upon Arthur Sutherland’s Differential Association theory which states that an individual learns criminal behavior through “(a) techniques of committing crimes and (b) motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes” which go against law-abiding actions (Sykes and Matza, 1957:664).  These techniques reduce the social controls over the delinquent and are also more applicable to specific juveniles.  Neutralization is defined as a technique, which allows the person to rationalize or justify a criminal act.  There are five techniques of neutralization; denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, condemnation of the condemners, and the appeal to higher loyalties. 


Denial of responsibility is a technique used when the deviant act was caused by an outside force. This technique goes beyond looking at the criminal act as an accident.  The individual feels that they are drawn into the situation, ultimately becoming helpless.  These juveniles feel that their abusive families, bad neighborhoods and delinquent peers predispose them to criminal acts.  A common statement used  “It was not my fault.”


Denial of injury occurs when the criminal act causes no harm to the victim.  Criminal acts are deemed deviant in terms of whether or not someone got hurt.  Using this technique the delinquent views stealing as merely borrowing and views gang fighting as a private argument between consenting and willing participants.  The use of this technique is reaffirmed in the minds of these juveniles when society does not look at certain acts, such as skipping school or performing practical jokes, as criminal, but merely accepts them as harmless acts.  “I assumed that a criminal action meant hurting someone, we did not hurt anyone” (Coleman, 1987:411).




Denial of victim is used when the crime is viewed as a punishment or revenge towards a deserving person.  This technique may be used by those who attack homosexuals or minority groups.  “They deserve it.”  This is also glorified in the stories about the character Robin Hood and his actions involving stealing from the rich.


The technique called the condemnation of the condemners, also known as rejection of the rejectors by McCorkle and Korn (1954), places a negative image on those who are opposed to the criminal behavior.  The juvenile ends up displacing his/her deviant behavior on those they are victimizing and also viewing the condemners as hypocrites, such as corrupt police and judges.


The appeal to higher loyalties technique is used when the person feels they must break the laws of the overall community to benefit their small group/family.  This technique comes into play when a juvenile gets into trouble because of trying to help or protecting a friend or family member. 


Matza and Sykes based their theory on four basic facts seen in society.


1)     Many delinquents feel or express remorse and guilt because of the criminal act.

2)     Delinquents frequently show respect for those citizens who are law-abiding.

3)     There is a limit to whom they victimize, they must distance themselves form their victims.

4)     Delinquents can be effected by their surroundings and are susceptible to conformity.

(Sykes and Matza, 1057:665)


Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values


Matza and Sykes further develop their views on delinquency as a result of a deviant sub-culture, which exposes the individual to crime and in turn teaches deviant behavior or subterranean values, which cause them to deviate from the norms of society.    Sykes and Matza also argue that delinquent acts are not as deviant as society would like to believe and that normal values are over-simplified.


They observed several values present, which they define as subterranean values.  First, delinquents search for a thrill or an adrenaline rush.  This “rush” they seek is not easily accomplished through law-abiding means.  The excitement may even be a result of the fact that the behavior is not accepted.  Secondly, they do not view normal occupations as worth the work when they can make more money doing illegal acts.  Some researchers also noted that the behavior may not have solely monetary purposes, but also to gain rank and prestige among other criminals.  Lastly, the deviant becomes aggressive because of their alienation from society (Matza and Sykes, 1961). This is clearly seen in gang rivalries when violence is used to protect “turfs” and reputations.  The purpose of this aggression is to show how tough they are and that they have achieved manhood. 


These above acts are very similar to Thorstein Veblen’s view of the “gentleman of leisure” depicted of the elite upper class; focusing on adventure, low views of menial labor, conspicuous consumption, and respect for masculinity (Matza and Sykes, 1961:715).  The fact that these views are similar reinstates Sykes’ and Matza’s theory that society over-simplifies criminal behavior.  It obviously matters who is partaking in the behavior, not the behavior itself.


Matza and Sykes concluded; however, that their study on the effect of subterranean values and leisure time did not explain several aspects of juvenile delinquency.  First, they cannot explain why certain juveniles convert subterranean values into serious criminal behavior and others do not. Secondly, they admit that their needs to further, in-depth studies done on the effects of the juveniles value systems as a result of leisure time. 


David Matza

Delinquency and Drift


Alone, Matza expressed additional thoughts on juvenile delinquency.  He believed that individuals go from one extreme to another in their behavior, known as drift.  Matza believes that juveniles drift between conventional and criminal behavior.  Drift is explained as a gradual process, which results in molding the individual’s behavior. Once the crime is committed the delinquent feels guilt and must balance their behavior by returning to act in a law-abiding manner.  Drift can be described as soft determinism, which views criminality as partly chosen and partly determined.  The will to commit a crime occurs when one of these conditions is present; preparation and desperation.  These allow the individual to form the decision to commit a crime.  Preparation occurs when a criminal act is repeated once the person realizes that the criminal act can be achieved and is feasible.  Desperation activates the will to initially commit a crime because of an extraordinary occasion; or fatalism, which is the feeling of lacking control over ones surroundings (Matza, 1964).


Matza also believes that “there is a subculture of delinquency, but it is not a delinquent subculture” (Matza, 1964:33).  He also suggests that there are several ways in which a delinquent senses injustice (an underlying condition of drift); through cognizance, consistency, competence, commensurability and comparison.  Matza believes that the juvenile’s connection to law-abiding behavior diminishes when they feel that an injustice has occurred.


Cognizance is defined as to whether or not the juvenile is aware that he/she committed a wrongful act.  Even when they are caught in the act or confess their crime they still may not actually “own-up” to the criminal act in their mind.  Consistency represents whether or not the juvenile feels that they are receiving the same treatment as everyone else who has been involved in the same criminal behavior.  Competence is an issue revolving around those who are in judgment of the juvenile.  “Commensurability refers to the relation between infraction and sanction” (Matza, 1964:159).  In other words, does the juvenile believe that their act should even result in a punishment and if so the punishment should fit the crime. Comparison results when juveniles evaluate the legal system and notice that there are laws, which only pertain to them and not adults.  Some juveniles do not want to accept that they are any different from adults.




The decades preceding Matza and his neutralization and drift theory involved mass social and political movements and located at the University of California he could view these actions first-hand.  During the 1950's and 1960's the citizens of the United States were torn because of social and political struggles, which influenced his work.


Matza believes that delinquents are angered over a sense of injustice, which they feel not only from law enforcement but also from community reactions. His ideas on delinquency were strongly influenced during the 1950's, which saw the beginning of the civil rights movement with the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.  In 1954 the Brown vs. the Board of Education desegregated schools and in 1955 the Montgomery bus riot furthered the desegregation to public areas.  The desegregation produced a lot of tension, which caused some citizens to react with protests and even violence.


With these decades also came scientific advance such as the nuclear arms race following the beginning of the Cold War.  The United States was also involved in the race to get a man on the moon finally ending Neil Armstrong in the Apollo 11 on July 30, 1069.


The 1950's and 60's also were filled with conflicts with other nations, revolving around anti-communism.  The 1950's saw the aftermath of the Korean War, which ended in 1953.  The Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 and, in turn, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 placed the United States in great fear of a nuclear war.  By the mid 1960's the Vietnam War caused many citizens to protest and dodge the draft because of their objection of the war.  The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 also deeply affected the citizens of America.


With all of these movements came protests.  Social control shifted the focus from criminals to political activists.  Protestors were arrested and even physically battered, the police were treating them like they were hard criminals.  This correlates to Matza’s idea that crime is just a reaction to improper or biased legal institutions.  He also states that deviance is caused by desperation or the feeling of having no control.  Those protestors felt they had no choice but to express opposition towards certain ideas, otherwise where will all of the governmental controls end.  Matza uses the idea of neutralization to justify certain crimes; those protestors who were considered criminal were forced to act out using the “denial of responsibility” neutralization.   


Matza believes that there is a sub-culture of delinquency, which requires a collective and public effort. This can been seen amongst some protesters, thus emerged a group of people called “hippies”; individuals who were against the Vietnam War, anti-government and anything relating to the “establishment” (draft dodgers), “free-love”, and the freedom to use illegal substances.  The abuse of drugs, dodging the draft and the abundance of sex can be described by Matza’s neutralization theory as using the technique denial of a victim.  These hippies felt that there is no victim, the government does not need nor deserve people to fight in a war, which is unjust.  Also drug use does not hurt anyone and neither does promiscuous sex (not considered criminal but immoral).  They also felt that the government deserved being protested against because of all the injustices it had imposed on people, which demonstrates the condemnation of the condemners technique. 


Matza’s theory of deviance stated that people choose and are partly predisposed to committing crime.  With the beginning of the 60's he states that deviance is supported by excitement, risk taking and adventure.  The protests of civil rights and of the Vietnam War gave the generation most affected the chance to act unconventional.   These changes, however, all occurred over the course of several years, which coincides with Matza’s theory, which concludes that delinquency caused by drift is gradual and has several influences.  Matza also stated that delinquents would drift between criminal and conventional behavior, which explains why not all teenagers were involved.  He has also stated that those who were likely to drift are not as likely to commit crimes as adults.




Matza’s theories of neutralization techniques and drift were not without their criticisms.  The theorist Travis Herschi does not feel that neutralization techniques are relevant towards describing juvenile delinquency.  Herschi believes that deviant behavior is a result of conformity, or lack there of, towards societal norms.   Sociologist Jack Douglas feels that the techniques of neutralization could not possibly “cover-up” the deviant’s feeling of guilt when they realize that their actions are not accepted by the law-abiding community.  Douglas states that the deviant person must learn certain strategies of self-deception and seduction (Pfohl, 1994).  Michael Hindelang, in his 1970 study on rural and urban youths, found no support for neutralization.  He concluded that juveniles who have committed a crime were more likely to accept the behavior as opposed to those not involved in delinquency.  This finding crossed the lines of gender, rural versus urban juveniles and even across several different deviant behaviors (Shoemaker, 1990).  Hindelang disapproved Matza’s later work, which states that the role of peer-group situations cause criminal behavior; that the deviant act occurs because of the pressure of acceptance from the group.  Since this theory is basically a learning theory, it shares some of the criticisms also associated with Sutherland’s Differential Association theory in that the concepts, such as drift, are difficult to measure and test.  As with every learning theory, the question is always posed - who did the first criminal learn deviant behavior from.  Also, it never specifies why or how the neutralization technique process begins.


Recent Applications


Even though the theory has its weaknesses, several theorists have used it as a basis for further study and alteration towards juvenile behavior, which Sykes and Matza encouraged.  Glen Elder provided specific terms such as trajectories and transitions, which helped further the study on the concept of drift.  He compared the transitions (specific sequence of events based on age) of juveniles with trajectories (pathways of life; example, marriage).  Elder stated that certain juvenile subcultures reflect transitional cultural experiences which will effect long-term life trajectories for drifting juveniles.  Matza’s views on subcultures were also extended with Dick Hebdige’s work on British delinquency.  He stated that delinquents, focusing on a cult of juveniles obsessed with a British rock star, are torn between criminal and conventional behavior and that most of their beliefs mirror that of the adult law-abiding community.  “Earnest Campbell (1969) cited Matza in suggesting that much of teenage culture is actually a conventional version of delinquency” (Hagan, 1991:569).  Paul DiMaggi’s study in subcultures within schools conceptualized Matza’s theory on subcultures.  DiMaggio stated that when a juvenile does not have parental and education directed towards “middlebrow cultural activity” and “cultural capital”, they are more than likely to drift into delinquent subterranean cultures (Hagan, 1991:570)


Several current theorists have looked to Matza’s theories of neutralization and drift to help postulate their own related study.  Priest and McGrath’s (1970) study looked at the neutralization techniques of juvenile marijuana smokers.  More recently, Minor (1980, 1981, and 1984) delved further into neutralization with his three studies, as did Thurman (1984) and Agnew (1994) with violent criminals.


Henry Mannle, a student from Florida State University, formed his dissertation around neutralization techniques and how they are applied towards juveniles in Florida.  His study group consisted of boys from the Dozier School of Boys in Marianna and girls from the McPherson School for girls in Ocala.  His study “examined internal criminogenic factors, i.e., techniques of neutralization, as they relates to sexual differences among delinquents” (Mannle, 1972:128). He hypothesized that girls would use techniques more so than boys do.  Mannle found that there is a “positive correlation between socialization and neutralization for delinquents” (Mannle, 1972:84).  He further found that males and females did not differ in their use of neutralization even though males scored higher on the deviant scale.  He also ascertained that when looking at racial factors,  black males and females used these techniques more often than white males and females. 


In a more recent study by Mitchell, Dodder and Norris (1990:487) they focused on the “relationships between church attendance, delinquent peer association, the tendency to neutralize and self reported delinquent behavior”.  The study suggested that delinquents seek acceptance from society which results in them using neutralization techniques to rationalize their acts.  They also concluded that the effect of neutralization has the strongest effect towards delinquency.  When looking at females, neutralization was less effective of a justification as opposed to males.  Neutralization was also found to be more viable towards Anglo-males than for either females or Mexican Americans.  Mitchell and Dodder (1983) in an earlier study looked at the uses of certain neutralization towards different types of delinquency.


Barbara Costello studied the effects of self-esteem and the use of neutralization techniques; which was a comparison of the control theory versus neutralization theory.  With the neutralization theory Sykes and Matza assert that a person’s self-esteem is protected with the use of neutralization, which is supported with the fact that police-related neutralization has a positive effect towards deviance.  Costello also concluded that those juveniles who are close to their parents are less likely to use any techniques.  She found that strongly attached delinquents find it difficult to effectively use these techniques, because they may not be able to accept that they are valid excesses.  Lastly, it was concluded “some types of neutralization may be more “accessible” to delinquent youth than others”(Costello, 2000:324).  Costello, however, did note that further studies should be done on the accessibility of the different techniques to certain youths.


A study by John Hagan focused not on neutralization, but on the concepts related to subterranean values and drift.  Hangan’s findings “support the thesis that adolescents form distinct and internally coherent subcultural preferences that have class-specific effects on their trajectories toward adult occupational prestige” (Hagan, 1991:580).   Hindelang (1970) also studied drift theory when related to their feelings of obligation towards the criminal act.  He concluded that delinquents have no moral barriers that would prove neutralization techniques were necessary.


James Coleman helped explain how those involved in white-collar crime justified their criminal acts utilizing techniques of neutralization.  Coleman (1987:411) stated that the “most common technique is the use of denial of harm.”  Those involved in white-collar crime believe that their actions did not hurt anyone.  The denial of responsibility is used when those involved in the criminal behavior states that their employer expects them to.  The employee also may justify his or her criminal behavior by saying ‘everybody else is doing it’; which in-turn reinforces the fact that not just one person will be punished unless everyone else is also.  With all of these examples of neutralization, Coleman (1987:414) also notes that the theory “presents a convincing account of the motivations of white-collar offenders and the ways in which they neutralize the symbolic constraints on their behavior, however it fails to explain the origins of the motivations it describes”.


Further studies, which looked at neutralization techniques, focused not on juvenile delinquency, but on adult criminality.  William Brennan used Sykes’ and Matza’s techniques of neutralization to help explain how women, and even doctors and nurses, justify an abortion.  Brennan (1974:358) wanted to “extend the techniques of neutralization beyond the boundaries of delinquent behavior to encompass involvement in abortion both before and after legalization by the Supreme Court”.  Using the denial of responsibility, blame is transferred away from the pregnant woman to the lack of available birth control or the cost of raising an unwanted child.  The doctor and nurse may also use this technique to justify performing the abortion illegally.  Scientific advances have helped to develop the denial of victim rationalization by depersonalizing the unborn fetus, stating that it is not a viable human life.  With the use of less evasive methods, such as the “vacuum”, for performing the abortion the patient, nurse and doctor only view the fetus as a mass of tissue.  Using the denial of injury rationalization the fetus is said not to posses the ability of consciousness, that consciousness only occurs after birth.  Condemnation of the Condemners is used to state that those who are opposed to abortion, known as ‘pro-lifers’, are against the freedom of a woman have come together to choose what to do to her own body.  With the onset of woman’s rights groups, women came together to support the right to abortion, which allows them to utilize the justification known as the appeal to higher loyalties (Brennan, 1974).


Even though Matza’s first work came out over thirty years ago it still has its place in the criminology and sociology world.  With all of its acceptance and its criticisms, Matza’s theories continue to promote further studies, not only on juvenile delinquency, but also on all crime.  Its longevity has been proven with theorists still using is as a basis for research even in this millennium.




Agnew, Robert. (1994). The Techniques of Neutralization and Violence. Criminology. 32, 555-580.


Coleman, James William (1987). Toward an Integrated Theory of White-collar Crime.  American Journal of Sociology. 93(2). 406-439.


Costello, Barbara (2000). Techniques of Neutralization and Self-esteem: A Critical Test of Social Control and Neutralization Theory. Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 21. 307-329.


Hagan, John.  (1991). Destiny and Drift: Subcultural Preferences, Status Attainments, and the Risks and Rewards of Youth. American Sociological Review. 56(5), 567-582.


Hindelang, Michael J. (1970).  The Commitment of Delinquents to their Misdeed: Do Delinquents Drift? Social Problems. 17, 502-509.


Martin, Randy, Mutchnick, Robert and Austin, W. Timothy. (1990). Criminological Thought: Pioneer Past and Present. New York: Macmillen Publishing Company.


Matza, David and Sykes, Gresham.  (1961). Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values.  American Sociological Review.  26(5). 712-719.


Matza, David (1964). Delinquency and Drift. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.


Matza, David (1964). Becoming Deviant. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.


McCorkle, Lloyd and Korn, Richard.  (1954). Resocialization Within Walls. The Annal of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. 293. 88-98.


Minor, William W. (1980). The Neutralization of Criminal Offense. Criminology. 18, 103-120.


Minor, William W. (1981). Techniques of Neutralization: A Reconceptualization and Empirical Examination. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 18, 295-318.


Minor. William, W. (1984). Neutralization as a Hardening Process: Considerations in the Modeling of Change. Social Forces. 62, 995-1019.


Mitchell, Jim and Richard Dodder. (1983). Types of Neutralization and Types of Delinquency. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 12, 307-318.


Mitchell, Jim, Richard Dodder, and Terry Morris. Neutralization and Delinquency: A Comparison by Sex ans Ethnicity. Adolescence. 25(98), 487-497.


Pfohl, Stephen. (1994). Images of Deviance and Social Control. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.


Priest, T.B and J. McGrath. (1970). Techniques of Neutralization: Young Adult Marijuana Smokers. Criminology. 8, 185-194.


Shoemaker, Donald. (1990). Theories of Delinquency. New York: Oxford University Press.


Sykes, Gresham and Matza, David.  (1957). Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency.  American Sociological Review. 22(6). 664-670


Thurman, Quint. (1984). Deviance and the Neutralization of Moral Commitment: An Empirical Analysis. Deviant Behavior. 5, 291-304.