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Matza’s (1964) Delinquency and Drift

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1343 words Published: 18th Sep 2017

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David Matza’s work is often is said to have offered a necessary counteraction to the postulates of the subcultural theory (Young: 1974). In 1957 David Matza and Gersham Sykes presented a radically new theory of deviant behaviour in their seminal work entitled, Techniques of Neutralisation: A Theory of Delinquency and again collaborated in 1961. The dialogue was significantly extended by Matza in his subsequent works, Delinquency and Drift (1964) and Becoming Deviant (1969). This paper will provide a description and evaluation of Matza’s theories. It will then proffer a brief discussion on why Matza’s writings on crime presents a shift from traditional subcultural theories.

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Matza’s work shows a rethink about deviants and how they process and rationalize their crime. He questions the notion that deviants are inherently opposed to societal norms and codes of conduct, and that their actions signify a rejection of the rule of law. He maintains that delinquent values do not necessarily follow a consistent continuum, and therefore to say that delinquency and deviants reject the rule of law is erroneous. He uses the examples of teenage delinquents to demonstrate that while many teenagers commit delinquent acts, many do not offend within a delinquent space or a delinquent subculture. He argues that many times they can immediately return to continuous actions which demonstrate affinity with “normalcy”. In these instances, Matza argues that instead of being in opposition to the rule of law, some acts of delinquency represent a loosening or distance from more positively favoured and consensus value systems to an adoption of what he terms “subterranean” values.

Matza and Sykes (1961) differentiated between subterranean values and formal or mainstream values to highlight this point. Matza identifies formal values as those which demonstrate deferred gratification, can be predictable, respect bureaucratic processes, not aggressive, and conforms to the normal routine. They also have an introspective characteristic which refrains from euphoria, plans meticulously, shows reservation and restraint, and is non-impulsive. Conversely, subterranean values are identified as: relishing short term hedonism and excitement, always seeking change and alternatives, impulsive, very sociable and carefree, and is not afraid to display to aggression. Within this framework, Matza defends his argument by stating that deviants who accept subterranean values usually accentuate these characteristics for short term personal gains, or during leisure periods.

Taylor et al (1973) suggests that Matza’s work (1964) represents an attempt to avoid distorting the motivations of the delinquent and to present a naturalistic analysis of deviant behaviour. Matza contends that theories which strive to label some deviants and establish sub-cultures of deviance, overstate the levels of delinquency and are a result of positivistic influences which attempt to find psycho-social reasons for non-conformity. He articulates that it is flawed to assume delinquent subcultures are zealously embraced by deviants, furthermore, he points out that this intermittent interaction with subterranean values is normal because these values are replicated many times throughout society, albeit most times in controlled environments. He argues that traditional positivistic models of deviance, depict an “antagonistic disjunction between deviant or subterranean values of larger society” (Taylor et al: 1973) which is simply not true. Instead he argues that deviants use techniques of neutralization as excuses for committing delinquent acts.

Matza identified five techniques of neutralization employed by deviants to rationalize their non-conformity: (1) Denial of responsibility , wherein, the offender deflects blame with language such as “it was not my fault” or “it wasn’t really me who did it”. The deviant attributes their actions to the flaws of the wider substructure or environment. (2) Denial of injury, where the delinquent defends their actions on the grounds that it did not cause harm to anyone and substitutes moralistic condemnation on their actions with more favorable terminologies. For example, vandalism would be seen as “just mischief”. (3) Denial of a victim, where they place the victim as the offender in language such as “they had it coming” or “it didn’t affect them”. (4) Appeal to higher loyalties, where the delinquent places himself as torn between two groups with a need to commit the act in the interest of one group. A typical example can be found with foreign national women who do transnational drug couriering, who mostly say they do it because of the economic needs of their children. (5) Condemnation of the condemners, where the offender deflects focus from their actions to chastise the motives of those who condemn the offending act. Those who condemn are usually classified by the deviant as hypocrites.

Matza’s (1964) Drift Theory attempts to situate the deviant in a less deterministic space than positivistic influenced theories allow. He suggested that persistent delinquent behaviour can be explained by a convergence of subterranean values and formal ones, in the absence of stabilizing forces which reinforce the more moralistic formal values. The slow movement from formal and introspective values to more permanent subterranean characteristics is called a “drift”. In their period of drift, Matza contends that delinquents utilise the neutralizing techniques previously discussed, to weaken society’s grasp on their value system. He is however, not without his critics, who point out that Matza underplay offending behaviour and neglects to use his theory as a lens for more violent forms of delinquency (Newburn: 2007).

Matza’s reasoning presents a shift from traditional subcultural theory which is more deterministic in its labelling and examination of deviants. Subculture theory contends that there are dominant cultures and deviant subcultures and they situate the deviant within the latter, because of their non-conformity. Subcultural theory romanticize the dominant culture as always existing within a positive moral space. It sees delinquency as a complete opposition to mainstream values and culture. Matza, on the other hand, advocates that delinquents do place value on mainstream cultures, but may refrain from displaying or voicing such views because they fear rejection from peers. He contends that subterranean values exist alongside those of the so-called dominant culture. This argument was partly sanctioned by Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967) who proffered the example of the male who is compelled to violence to defend the honour of his mother, wife or children. While, this male is predisposed to accepting the dominant culture, his naturalistic tendency to defend in such situations, point to the co-existence of subterranean, even within mainstream cultures.


Matza, D. (1969) Becoming Deviant. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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

Matza, D., Sykes, G. (1961) Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values. American Sociological Review Vol. 26, 713-719.

Newburn, T. (2007) Criminology. Cullompton: Willan.

Sykes, G., Matza, D. (1957) Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency. American Sociological Review, Vol. 22, 664-670.

Taylor, I., Walton, P. & Young, J. (1973) The New Criminology: For a Social Theory of Deviance. London: Routledge.

Wolfgang, M., Ferracuti, F. (1967) The Subculture of Violence. London: Travistock Publishers.

Young, J. (1974) New Directions in Subcultural Theory. In, John Rex (ed) Approaches to Sociology: An Introduction to Major Trends in British Sociology. London: RKP.



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