Techniques of neutralization

This paper aims to present an application of techniques of neutralization by Sykes and Matza in one hand and anomie by Merton on the other in explaining white collar crime. The field of criminology defines white collar crime as a crime committed by an individual of high status and respectability in relation to his occupation (Sutherland, 1949). It is argued that business and professional men commit crimes which should be studied and analyzed within the domain of theories of criminal behaviour. Modern criminology indicates that the term is of no limitation by referencing to types of crime, which could be enumerated as crime by the time of offense, by the type of offender, and by organizational culture (Cote, 2002). White collar crimes are generally not associated with poverty or pathologies relating to it. The legal definition of crime is viewed as the only one definition of crime, in which the behavior being examined is punishable by law (Sutherland, 1949).

Sutherland (1949) claims that persons belonging to the upper socioeconomic class are involved in much criminal behavior, which is characterized as different from the criminal behavior in which the lower socioeconomic class engage in particularly in the aspect of administrative processes. It is also posited that variations in administrative procedures take the perspective of causation of crime (Sutherland, 1949).

Bean (2003) suggests that the first principle for the cure of crime is nothing but stripping off the moralistic excrescences of the criminal; justice system so that the essentials may be given attention. Protecting our persons and property is the prime function of the criminal law and wherever it invades the domains of social welfare and private morality, the proper limits are exceeded. The criminal law posits that man possesses an inalienable right to do as he pleases given that he does not injure a person or his property on the way (Bean, 2003). On the other hand, Braithwaite (1992) states that the foundation of a class-biased criminology and criminal justice policy is lay down by the dominant tradition of criminological theory that excises white collar crime (Braithwaite, 1992). It is also argued that the explanation of the commission of crime in the streets and in the suites account for inequality, a fact considered true of several forms of inequality such as the one based on class, gender, race, and age. There is thus a correlation between inequality of wealth and power with the explanatory theory of crime, in which white collar crime can be pursued by focusing on inequality as an explanatory variable (Braithwaite, 1992). In order to further understand the construction of white collar crime, it is as important to focus on needs which when satisfied allows crime motivated by greed to enable further power and wealth (Braithwaite, 1992).

On one hand, it is important to consider that poverty per se is not the only factor that can lead to crime, but other factors as well. This draws out clearer forms when it is presented that by no means are all criminals' poor or from some racial minorities (Collins, 1992). We may find delinquent youths from the lower class as well as from the middle class, indicating the non-exclusivity of crime within a single social class continuum. White-collar crime is a manifestation of this non-exclusivity pervading among adults in middle and upper class status. Some of these white-collar crimes include passing bad checks, conspiring to bribe government employees, evading legal regulations, and so on.

In understanding how white-collar crimes may be cured, it is important to outline the techniques of neutralization meant for this purpose such as ones presented by Gresham Sykes and David Matza, as well as the notion of anomie as asserted by Merton.

Neutralization is used by white-collar offenders to deal with the explanation for involvement in white-collar criminal activities. Techniques denying criminality are specifically focused on by neutralization (Benson, 2008). Societal attachments have a great influence in the frequency of the use of neutralization techniques. It is posited that socially attached offenders tend to use neutralization than less attached ones, and types of neutralizations differ alongside variations in the nature of neutralization techniques (Copes, 2003).

Setting the concept of neutralization requires an understanding of the concept of delinquent behavior. Delinquent behavior involves a distinctive set of justifications in which individuals are enabled to temporarily drift away from the normative rules and values of society (McLaughlin and Muncie 2006). Gresham Sykes and David Matza developed a social psychological social control perspective aiming to challenge extremely deterministic, positivistic subcultural theories of crime that denies rationality (McLaughlin and Muncie 2006).

McLaughlin and Muncie (2006) says that Sykes and Matza indicate that more than forming a subculture that stands in antagonism to the dominant social order; delinquents drift in and out of deviant activity. They are viewed as choice-makers who move between the division between ‘deviant' and ‘respectable' who need to negotiate these interconnected terms. The proof of this need is the fact that “deviants often feel guilt and/or shame for their actions, often convey respect for citizens who abide by the law, and regularly draw the line between people who can be victimized and those who cannot” (McLaughlin and Muncie 2006: 64).

Delinquents, according to Sykes and Matza, are not invulnerable to the demands of the social order, do not necessarily see themselves as criminals, and do not always pursue delinquent behaviors (McLaughlin and Muncie 2006). Rather, they can develop a set of rationalization or techniques to neutralize and suspend commitment to these values temporarily. Likewise, they construct the freedom to engage in deviant acts in coping with the dilemmas encountered by their actions, as well as retain their non-criminal self-image and preserve their self-esteem (McLaughlin and Muncie 2006). Sykes and Matza posit that learning the corresponding techniques for neutralization tends to decrease the effectiveness of social controls and allows the individual to pursue delinquent actions or justify these actions. These techniques are the following:

  1. Denial of responsibility - “I did not mean to do it.”

  2. Denial of injury - “No one was hurt.”

  3. Denial of the victim - “She started it.”

  4. Condemnation of the condemners - “They are just as bad.”

  5. Appeal to higher loyalties - “I was helping my friend” (McLaughlin and Muncie 2006:64).

It is inferred that neutralization and rationalization should not be confused although they are often used interchangeably. Neutralization involves excuses invoked before the commission of the offense in order to repress guilt while rationalization involves excuses invoked after such commission (Salinger, 2005). Using the concept of neutralization which Sykes and Matza present, would deliver significant rationalization on the part of the offenders in a white-collar crime. Embezzling a huge amount of money for example would be rationalized by the offender as not intending to do it, which falls under the first category in our list of neutralization (denial of responsibility). This embezzlement can also be neutralized as “no one will be hurt anyway” in which the offender often thinks that embezzlement is not a direct offense on a direct person and no one is hurt directly by the act. This denial of injury often allows the offender to justify his white-collar crime and be free from guilt, along with the other forms of denial. This could likewise be reinforced by justifying that they are “simply borrowing the money and will pay it back in time,” (Walters, 2002:13), helping them to retain their self-esteem and non-criminal self-image. Condemnation is also an effective neutralizer often resorted to by white-collar criminals who utter that people within the government or corporate system are just as bad anyway and maybe even worse and the funds that they are embezzling are not even half of what all the others have looted. The embezzlement can also be justified by appealing to higher loyalties in which the offender would surmise that he is merely helping his friends/relatives/family, giving a normative value to the action which enables him to be spared from feelings of guilt and/or shame.

Understanding the commission of white-collar crime would entail one to consider the desire for success and the fear of failure that serve as powerful motivating forces that drive a market society. Such is considered powerful enough as to justify the materialization of ambitions through both deviant and conventional means (Karstedt and Bussmann 2003). Society responds to this materialization with an emphasis on high ethical standards of conduct which people must base their actions. However, it is noted that although these ethical standards are easily combined with the values of competitive individualism, there is often an apparent contradiction in actual practice, in which the anomic amorality of techniques of neutralization plays its role (Karstedt and Bussmann 2003). Merton points out that "the institutional structure and culture of market society are riddled with subterranean neutralizations engendering a range of criminal and delinquent activities” (Karstedt and Bussmann 2003:32). It is thus important to elaborate the conception of the culture of competition and hierarchic self-interest prior to discussions of anomie and how it explains the commission of white-collar crimes.

Merton points out in his Social Structure and Anomie that modern capitalism provoked a so-called material longing for infinity which means that people are motivated to protect their class position so that their egos may be protected and their class position be enhanced so that their egos may be enhanced as well (Karstedt and Bussmann 2003). The search for success and the fear of failure complement with protection and enhancement parallelism, resulting in a social psychology of social and economic stratification conceptualized as hierarchic self-interest (Karstedt and Bussmann 2003). Hierarchic self-interest is neither repudiated nor revered consistently, and notions such as greed is good can become subjects of cultural fascination. Moreover, hierarchic self-interest is defended vis-à-vis inequalities of life chances by analyses of educational and occupational outcomes. Merton asserts that some people become standards of social comparison by others and that there is a strain in comparisons of abilities of individuals to pursue constantly higher self-assessments (Karstedt and Bussmann 2003).

The concept of anomie is very important in understanding white-collar crime since white-collar crime is considered deviant, which indicates a certain degree of violation of cultural norms. This includes formally-enacted rules in which rules against white-collar crimes are specified. In Merton's explanation of these crimes in relation to anomie, it can be inferred in this paper that white-collar offenders tend to bind less and connect actions with stable social norms and goals, while people who are well-integrated to society and have good social bonds tend not to commit white-collar crimes.

Merton (2002) argues that individuals are driven by appetites that are not natural but by those that originate in the culture. The social structure of society limits the satisfaction of these appetites by certain members, creating constraints on some individuals to resort to non-conformity in satisfying these appetites. Merton's concept of anomie is derived from Emile Durkheim's theory of anomie which he revised into what is now known as strain theory. The emphasis of the anomic theory is placed on cultural goals and institutional means in order to achieve the goals in which society's culture is defined accordingly. These goals are perceived as worth-striving for and vary from culture to culture (Merton, 2002). In the capitalist societies, the most prominent goal is material accumulation or acquiring wealth, perceived as a natural aspiration by every society member. Culture encourages this goal beyond intrinsic rewards that it may characterize in which accumulated wealth is usually equated with a high degree of prestige, personal value and worth, as well as high social status, causing others without much money to feel degraded (Merton, 2002).

The analysis of anomie explaining white-collar crime in Merton's point of view is seen as one that justifies wealth accumulation as a socially desirable trait. The means of achieving this is overshadowed by the actual result itself, such as in white-collar crime in which the offender accumulates money and wealth through the offense. This is seen in de-emphasizing rewards which the task itself provides, such as the monetary reward that embezzlement of funds can cause an individual. It is posited that societies which place a great emphasis on monetary success and accumulation of wealth while de-emphasizing the norms and rules in obtaining them tend to exhibit violations of rules, such as committing white-collar crimes.

Aside from the great stress on the cultural goal of success which capitalist society places, culture also involves what is referred to as equality of opportunity, which posits that success is available to everyone, regardless of origin (Coleman and Norris 2000). However, reality shows that access to success goals through the institutional means does not account for equal opportunity. Rather, there pervades inequality of opportunity in the utilization of socially accepted means (Coleman and Norris 2000).

In pursuing cultural goals such as wealth and material accumulation, some people use conformity in which they still maintain allegiance to both cultural goals and means to achieve them. These people are the ones not likely to commit white-collar crime since they have a strong attachment to societal norms and rules and base their actions on these societal standards. Innovation is a type of deviant behavior in which cultural goals are embraced continuously while technically more efficient means for achieving the goals replace the institutional means, in which some may well be illegitimate (Coleman and Norris 2000). Pursuing white-collar crime like graft and corruption and malversation of funds falls under this category.

Alder et al (2000) notes that Merton argues that low economic status plays a different dynamic role in various social and cultural structures in that he observes that deviant activities such as white-collar crime occurs only in societies in which people from across the social structure acknowledge the same goals universally. It is likewise hereby acknowledged that access to the legitimate means of achieving them is not universal (Adler et al, 2000).

Hence, analyzing the commission of white-collar crime based on Merton's perspective would allow one to infer that anomie explains why certain individuals justify that wealth accumulation is more important than the means to achieve this goal, undermining issues of morality and organizational ethics. An individual, who commits bribery in order to extract money for example, would surmise that a person's financial reputation is more important than the social norms and values which society presents. This view is made possible due to people's lack of societal attachments to them. Society witnessed wealthy people in the government organization who may be committing fiscal dishonesty but whose actions are overshadowed by their wealth and prestige, values deemed more important by capitalist society than other intrinsic values of honesty and honor.

Anomie plays an important role in justifying the commission of white-collar crimes in that people's lack of emphasis on culturally accepted means of obtaining cultural goals allows them to resort to illegal actions such as embezzlement of funds, bribery, graft and corruption, and so on, resorted to in order to achieve the intended goals. The lack of moral grounding vis-à-vis setting of cultural goals enables individuals to easily resort to these socially deviant means in order to obtain their material and financial goals. Society's focus on wealth and material accumulation while foregoing the social and family values may result in the commission of illegal acts in order to sustain these goals. It is said that individuals and groups respond and adapt to the very nature of particular social structures, and that some societies are criminogenic based on the nature of their structure (Tunnell, 2006). It is then assumed that certain societies are organized for crimes, having the idea of a greater importance placed on the achievement of goals regardless of the means as the basis. This assumption follows the adage, “Societies get the type and amount of crime they deserve” (Tunnell, 2006: 70). This type and amount of crime is either heightened or minimized depending on the level of anomie that a society adapts, which means that the lack of social attachment to cultural norms and values results in the acceptance of deviant means to achieve them, which is equated to the commission of a crime. White-collar crimes are thus committed due to absence of cultural and societal attachment of offenders to social values and norms (Tunnell, 2006).

White-collar crime may be analyzed in two ways: according to neutralization techniques in which the offender enables to spare himself from feelings of guilt and shame caused by the act; and according to the concept of anomie. Sykes and Matza explain that an offender tends to justify his criminal actions by neutralizing and rationalizing them in which he is able to maintain his level of self-esteem. Neutralization is viewed as necessary in committing white-collar crimes since the offender would tend not to hurt his esteem in the undertaking of the offense. The persistence of the offender to utilize neutralization techniques is due to his high status and respectability in relation to his occupation, which he wants to maintain even after committing the crime.

Merton, on the other hand, states that individuals commit white collar crime because of their non-attachment to cultural values and norms that set out the rules of conduct and proper behavior. Through the concept of anomie, Merton is able to explain the occurrence of crimes as having to deal with individuals' more important regard for the pursued rewards (goals) rather than the means to achieve them. Often enough, the means are not legal and legitimate but since the individual does not find such important, white-collar crime is easily committed.


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