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Empirical Assessment of Neutralization in Control Theories of Deviance

NCJ Number
J F Sheley
Date Published
337 pages
Results are reported from an empirical test of conflicting theories of deviance advocated by two social control theories.
One social control theory examined suggests that persons create their own freedom to deviate through neutralizations or rationalizations of deviant behavior. Neutralizations are ad hoc manipulations of socially acceptable conditions of norm violation which afford the freedom to deviate without denying the validity of the norms in question. The second control theory analyzed (Hirschi, 1969) contends that persons do not create their own freedom to deviate but possess such freedom through weak attachment to conventional others and weak commitment to or belief in social norms prior to an independent of the desire to violate a particular norm. A resolution of these opposing control theories was sought through an examination of cross sectional survey data collected from 1,561 university students. The data gave greater support to Hirschi's social control theory. Variation was found in respondents' attachment and commitment to and belief in the examined social norms, and the variation was linked to differential involvement in self-reported criminal acts. Lack of variation or the failure to relate variation to criminality would have suggested support for neutralization theory. Correspondence was found between the 'justifications' respondents offered for specific deviant acts and related crime-facilitating beliefs, suggesting that neutralizations are not necessary to permit deviance. A concluding summary indicates the need for a reexamination of the neutralization thesis and suggests various avenues of further research into the controversy examined in the study. The study questionnaire is appended; footnotes and 46 tables are provided. The bibliography lists approximately 80 references. (Author abstract modified)