Managing stigma through techniques of neutralisation

Alongside Coffman’s account of self-presentation and impression management, I draw centrally upon Sykes and Matza’s theory of ‘techniques of neutralisation’ (1957). A modest eight pages in length, their original formulation of the perspective has nevertheless become one of the most widely read, cited and discussed essays in the study of crime and deviance. The theory’s innovation lies in the way it took issue with what, at the time, was perhaps the dominant strand in the American sociology of crime and deviance, namely the subcultural perspective. Like most criminological theories, the subcultural approach sought to answer the question of aetiology - why is it that some people choose to engage in criminal and rule-breaking behaviour, while others do not? The subcultural theorists’ answer focused upon the shared norms and values that supposedly defined the cultural world of the delinquent. The dominant culture places emphasis upon norms and values that encourage conformity and compliance with rules around proper and improper behaviour, and it is the commitment to these norms that ensures people’s actions remain ‘law abiding’. However, subcultural theorists argue that the delinquent occupies a ‘culture within a culture’, a subculture whose norms and values differ markedly from that of the ‘mainstream’. This subculture makes a virtue of the behaviour that is condemned by the rest of society - law-breaking activities such as theft, violence and vandalism. The delinquent subculture inverts the dominant value system, making a virtue of what others would consider vices, and accords esteem to its members when they excel in ‘doing bad. This approach was shaped by the kind of ‘differential association’ perspective mentioned in Chapter 1, and was most influentially developed by Albert Cohen in his book Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang (1955).

Sykes and Matza took issue with the claims made by subcultural theorists in their explanation of crime and delinquency. They claimed that the evidence in fact demonstrated the absence of a distinctive subculture amongst offenders, one in which ‘underlying norms, attitudes, and values ... stand opposed to those of the dominant social order’ (Sykes and Matza, 1961: 712). Rather:

Many delinquents . .. are essentially in agreement with the larger society, at least with regard to the evaluation of delinquent behaviour as ‘wrong.’ Rather than standing in opposition to conventional ideas of good conduct, the delinquent is likely to adhere to the dominant norms in belief. (Ibid.)

They support this stance by pointing out that:

if there existed in fact a delinquent subculture such that the delinquent viewed his illegal behaviour as morally correct, we could reasonably suppose that he would exhibit no feelings of guilt or shame at detection. (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 664)

However, ‘there is a good deal of evidence to suggesting that many delinquents do experience a sense of guilt or shame’ (Ibid.: 664-5). They take such expressions of shame as proof that offenders do in fact partake of the dominant norms around ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviour, and experience socially appropriate emotions when faced with their rule-breaking conduct.

However, if the delinquent is in essence no different from the law- abiding in terms of his value commitments, this leaves us with an explanatory conundrum - how is it possible for someone who believes crime to be ‘bad’ to nevertheless engage, often repeatedly, in precisely such behaviour? Should not their adherence to dominant norms serve to forestall the offending conduct? Sykes and Matza’s answer to this problem comes in the form of ‘techniques of neutralisation, which they define as ‘extensions of defences to crimes, in the form of justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent but not by the legal system or society at large’ (1957: 666). These techniques amount to ‘rationalisations’ that the offender tells himself in order to temporarily suspend the hold that dominant norms of conduct have over him, enabling him to deviate and justify that deviation to himself. Emotionally, use of these techniques serves to allay the feelings of remorse, guilt and shame that would otherwise be experienced in the wake of delinquent behaviour, and which would function to prevent a repeat of similar actions in the future. Sykes and Matza’s conceptualisation owes a clear debt to existentialist thought - their neutralisation techniques bear a close resemblance to what Sartre (2003: 72) calls ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi), a form of selfdeception in which we lie to ourselves, and in doing so seek to evade moral responsibility for our freely chosen actions or inactions.

The five techniques of neutralisation identified by Sykes and Matza briefly comprise:

1 Denial of responsibility. In addition to presenting the problematic acts as accidental or unintentional, ‘it may ... be asserted that delinquent acts are due to forces outside of the individual and beyond his control, such as unloving parents, bad companions

or a slum neighbourhood. In effect, the delinquent approaches a “billiard ball” conception of himself in which he sees himself as helplessly propelled’ (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 667).

  • 2 Denial of injury. Here the delinquent may seek to deny or minimise any harm that has been caused as a consequence of their actions - if the behaviour is largely ‘harmless’, then how ‘bad’ can it really be?
  • 3 The denial of the victim. The offender seeks to blame the victim by, for example, insinuating that they ‘brought it upon themselves’ or in some sense deserved the victimisation meted-out (as, for example, when the brawler contends that ‘he started it ... I was just defending myself’).
  • 4 The condemnation of the condemners. Here the individual turns accusations of delinquency or wrong-doing back upon those who have condemned him for his behaviour - ‘his condemners, he may claim, are hypocrites, deviants in disguise, or impelled by personal spite’. Such claims serve to pre-emptively discredit those who seek to discredit him, thereby undermining their legitimate right to pass judgement.
  • 5 The appeal to higher loyalties. Here the delinquent admits his transgressions, but suggest that they were undertaken reluctantly and in the interests of others - socially approved norms of loyalty, fidelity and discharging a trust are mobilised to excuse the breach of other norms (such as those around stealing or damaging property).

These techniques, as we shall see, recur in the self-narratives of fallen sports stars, and are woven into an elaborate tapestry of story-telling aimed at managing stigma. Additionally, I introduce a fifth technique that features across these accounts - what I call ‘denial of the deviant self. This technique amounts to a distancing from, and disavowal of, the self that committed the deviant acts - in a very real sense, the narrators claim that they are ‘no longer that person, having undergone a process of radical transformation and reconstruction. As such, their ‘new self’ should no longer be punished for the actions of a past self that no longer exists.

A final important point of clarification is required regarding my appropriation of Sykes and Matza’s theory. In their formulation (as in much subsequent research using the theory - Maruna and Copes, 2005), techniques of neutralisation are used as an explanatory resource to account for offending amongst those who nevertheless appear committed to ‘the dominant normative system’ which clearly proscribes such behaviour (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 667). As such, these techniques are held to play a key role in temporarily suspending normative commitments that would otherwise inhibit law- and rule-breaking behaviour. In contrast, I mobilise the neutralisation framework not as an aetiology of offending, but as a repertoire of ex-post justifications that are used by individuals to claim mitigation in light of their misdemeanours, and to lay the basis for renegotiating and reconstructing an identity ‘spoiled’ by the stigma of public disapprobation (on the use of such techniques as ex-post rationalisations see Scott and Lyman, 1968, and also Sandberg, 2009). Techniques of neutralisation are treated here as rhetorical devices (in the classical Aristotelian (1959) sense of rhetoric as ‘persuasive speech’), which are incorporated into exculpatory self-narratives (on analysis of narrative as rhetoric, see also Feldman et al., 2004). They are a form of what C. Wright Mills (1940: 904) called ‘vocabularies of motive’ - the means through which ‘actors ... vocalize and impute motives to themselves and to others’, and in doing so attempt to socially justify those actions. These techniques are not taken to be indicative of an individual’s strategies for managing their self-relation by neutralising guilt (which is not to deny that they may play such a role), but as strategies for symbolically managing their relation to others whose judgements and evaluations they seek to sway. They may be effective in this respect precisely because they are ‘extensions of patterns of thought prevalent in society rather than something created de novo’ (Sykes and Matza,

1957: 669) and as such are recognisable to readers and interlocutors as elements of shared social scripts that serve to explain, rationalise and potentially excuse morally problematic behaviour. Conceptualised in this way, techniques of neutralisation can be usefully treated as elaborations of those self-presentational strategies for managing stigma explored by Goffman and others.

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