Food for Thought: “a considerable process of neutralization”

Posted: February 7, 2013 by Mike Larsen in Food for Thought

This unit is dedicated to the study of ‘pathways into corruption’. We will discard the straightforward distinction between ‘good cops’ and ‘bad cops’ and consider the process of ‘becoming bent’ – the psychological, social and organizational factors that contribute to a slide into deviance.

One of the most important tools for making sense of pathways into corruption is neutralization theory – first introduced by Sykes and Matza (1957, based on Sutherland’s earlier work on differential association), and later adapted by Cohen (2001) (among many others).

Sykes and Matza (1957) are interested in the rationalizations and justifications that persons engaged in deviant behaviour use to neutralize the moral binds that would otherwise restrict them from acting. They propose (p.666):

It is our argument that much delinquency is based on what is essentially an unrecognized extension of defenses 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.

Building on this work (as well as the psychoanalysis and human rights literatures), Cohen (2001) offers a detailed theory of denial. In summarizing Sykes and Matza, he notes that vocabularies of denial and rationalization function (p. 6)

“after the fact to protect the individual from both self-blame and blame by others, and before the act to weaken social control – and hence make delinquency possible. Between contemplating the act and doing it, the anticipated social disapproval by significant audiences must be neutralized or deflected”

Theories of neutralization and denial can help us to explain how police engaged in deviant activities operate as ‘creatures in between’ (Punch 2009), using rationalizations and euphemisms to make sense of the dissonance that arises from simultaneously occupying the position of law enforcer and law breaker.

Food for thought:

Assume that you occupy a position of authority within a police accountability office (this could be internal – a professional standards office, or external – a civilian complaints or investigation body).

  • How would your understanding of neutralization theory shape your approach to individual instances of police wrongdoing?
  • How could you use neutralization theory to implement some proactive measures to prevent police wrongdoing?

The deadline for this post is Thursday, Feb 21.

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