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Reducing seriousness of a crime

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

We use them for failures and mistakes, as well as for misdemeanors

Symbolic Interactionists identified “Techniques of Neutralization” after devising the Labelling Theory to explain crime and deviance.  Labels are names given to those who break social norms, and are intended to be negative sanctions aimed at encouraging or forcing deviants to conform to norms. Techniques of neutralization are devised by perpetrators to reduce the effect of such labels.

In order to reject labels, those who break norms use five techniques of neutralization identified by Sykes and Matza (1988).

1. “I am not responsible.”  This is where the person breaking the norm claims that someone else is responsible for breaking the norm, or that it was an accident.  Often that person sees herself or himself as a victim rather than as a perpetrator.

2. “No one got hurt.”  Although the perpetrator might acknowledge that the action was illegal, they claim that there was no victim, or that they were just having a little fun.

3. “He or she deserved it.”  Here the perpetrator sees herself of himself as an avenger, righting the wrongs they claim that the victim had earlier committed.  They are merely “evening the score.”

4. “You have no right to judge me.”  Here they claim their accusers are hypocrites, and have done the same or worse themselves.

5. “I am loyal to a higher purpose.”  Here the perpetrator may have been “just helping a friend,” or loyal to his or her gang.

What we now see is that these are used every day by all of us to minimize our deviance, and not reserved only to those accused of a crime.  Instructors hear them a lot when students do not do their assignments, disrupt a class, or cheat on an essay or exam.

Reference Cited:  Sykes, Gresham and David Matza, “Techniques of neutralization,” in J.M. Henslin (ed)  Down to Earth Sociology, Introductory Readings, Free Press. New York.
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