The Seductive Nature of Autotelic Crime: How Neutralization Theory Serves as a Boundary Condition for Understanding Hardcore Street Offending



In 1957 Sykes and Matza introduced Neutralization Theory as a response to the prevailing criminological wisdom that offenders engage in crime because they adhere to an oppositional subcultural rule set that values law breaking and violence. Sykes and Matza rejected this perspective arguing that, despite their involvement with offending, delinquents maintain a strong bond to conventional society and want to perceive themselves as “good.” To resolve their contemplated law breaking with this desired self-identity, they employ neutralization techniques designed to assuage anticipated guilt. Subsequent research indicates that the original formulation of the theory is limited to explaining the behavior of conventionally attached individuals and fails to address the decision-making processes of nonconventionally oriented individuals such as criminally embedded street offenders. The current paper argues that, for a core group of such offenders, guilt is not an issue at all because their crimes are not only considered acceptable, but attractive and desirable. In-depth, semistructured interviews conducted with 191 active, noninstitutionalized “hardcore” street offenders indicate they discount guilt not through neutralizations but by attaching normative definitions to their crimes (as either mundane, inevitable, or enjoyable) that preclude them from eliciting guilt in the first place. In addition, these interviews detail the manner in which such outlooks develop among hardcore offenders and how they are maintained in a manner that supports further offending.