WHEN BEING GOOD IS BAD: AN EXPANSION OF NEUTRALIZATION THEORY*

Authors

  • VOLKAN TOPALLI

    1. Assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University (GSU). He is also a research fellow with the GSU Partnership for Urban Health Research. His current research interests include street violence, drug markets, inter-offender retaliatory behavior, and criminal decision making.
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  • *

    Portions of this research were supported by funds from The National Consortium on Violence Research (Grants 98-1SDRP & YR3-SDRF-1), the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and the Missouri Research Board. The author wishes to thank the following scholars for their extremely helpful comments, suggestions, and assistance; Robert Bursik, Jr., Dean Dabney, Christopher Mullins, Eric Stewart, T.J. Taylor, and Richard Wright. Special thanks go to Professor Gresham Sykes. All errors are the author's. To contact: Volkan Topalli, Department of Criminal Justice, 1201 Urban Life Bldg. Georgia State University, Atlanta GA 30302. vtopalli@gsu.edu.

Abstract

Traditional subcultural theorists maintain that offenders operate in an environment in which oppositional norms catering to ethics of violence, toughness and respect dominate the social landscape. Such offenders actively reject middle-class value systems and operate beyond the boundaries of what is considered decent society. In their seminal work introducing Neutralization Theory, Sykes and Matza criticized such subcultural perspectives for overemphasizing the extent to which actors reject mainstream values (1957). They maintained that offenders and delinquents are aware of conventional values, understand that their offending is wrong, and self-talk before offending to mitigate the anticipated shame and guilt associated with violating societal norms. This study analyzes street offender decision making and behavior in an effort to expand that perspective. The analyzed data was taken from interviews of hardcore, active, noninstitutionalized (uncaught) drug dealers, street robbers and carjackers to determine how they neutralize to support their offending. Findings indicate that these offenders strive to protect a self-image consistent with a code of the streets orientation rather than a conventional one. That is, they neutralize being good rather than being bad. This suggests that expanding the scope of neutralization theory beyond the confines of conventional value systems will allow the theory to explain the behavior of a larger group of offenders. It also takes into account the kinds of real-world contextual forces that now influence urban crime.

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