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David Matza
In Memoriam

David Matza

Professor of Sociology, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

David Matza, whose seminal work on juvenile delinquency and deviant behavior in the 1950s and 1960s won him an international reputation that endures today, died in Berkeley on March 14, 2018.

David’s core idea was that those who break society’s rules are not necessarily much different from the rest of us: far from being the objects of overwhelming external or internal forces, they are active participants in shaping their own lives. These views challenged the mainstream criminological and sociological wisdom at the time and continue to influence newer generations of scholars.

Born in New York City on May 1, 1930, to parents who had immigrated from Greece and Turkey, David grew up in Harlem and the Bronx. His early years in the Great Depression were often economically pinched, but he was a good student who took naturally to schooling. Along with many other low-income youths in the city, he enrolled in the City College of New York after high school—first in business school and later as a social science major. At the urging of Professor Charles Page, one of his teachers in sociology at CCNY, David applied to graduate school and was accepted at Princeton, where he initially intended to study the sociology of economic life. Instead, he wound up working, in what would turn out to be a famously fruitful collaboration, with a young assistant professor, Gresham Sykes, on studies of juvenile delinquency. Sykes, whose book The Society of Captives was a major landmark in the sociological study of imprisonment, had secured a grant to study delinquent youth, and David studied the attitudes of young people appearing in the country’s first juvenile court, in Chicago.

Sykes and Matza collaborated on two articles that remain staples of the education of American (and other) criminologists, and that set out in embryonic form some of the key concepts that were developed much further in David’s later work. In “Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency,” published in 1957, they took aim at what were probably the dominant theories of juvenile delinquency at the time—so-called “subcultural” theories which saw delinquent youth as enmeshed in oppositional cultures that represented “an inversion of the values held by respectable, law-abiding society.” Delinquents were compelled to break the law because they had learned values that, in effect, turned those of conventional society “upside down.” Against this view, the authors pointed out that most youth who engaged in delinquency felt at least some degree of guilt about it, understood that what they were doing was wrong, and, most of the time, sought the approval of adults who supported conventional values. Sykes and Matza suggested that the real question was not what values compelled youth into delinquency, but what processes allowed them to engage in behavior that they understood was wrong. They proposed that delinquents most often employ a set of “techniques” that serve to “neutralize” the guilt they would otherwise feel. Those might include, for example, claiming that the victim deserved it, that no real harm was actually done, or that their actions represented loyalty to the higher claims of friendship or community.

A second paper, “Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values,” published in 1961, took up a similar theme. Here, Matza and Sykes called into question the very idea that delinquents are so different in their values from the larger society. In particular, the value placed on acts of daring, on conspicuous displays of money and consumption, and on aggression in the service of showcasing one’s masculinity, they argued, are not just characteristic of delinquents, but are woven into the culture of “conventional” society, especially among the leisured elite. The delinquent, then, is best understood not as “an alien in the body of society” but as “a disturbing reflection” of the society’s own “subterranean” values.

Both of these papers had the effect of rendering delinquent youth less “other” than the dominant theories at the time implied, and that theme was carried forward in David’s later work. In his enormously influential book Delinquency and Drift, published in 1964, he expanded on the central critique he and Sykes had leveled against the dominant theories of juvenile delinquency—that, as he put it, they “explained too much delinquency.” Those theories’ implication that lower-class youth in particular were compelled into breaking the law was belied by the facts that most youth, most of the time, did not break the law, that when they did it was usually not very serious, and that most delinquency consisted of “episodic” acts rather than a long-term commitment to a delinquent culture and way of life. Rather than being inexorably pushed by their internal makeup or external circumstances into crime, most youth “drifted” into it—and typically “drifted” back out of it.

David did not deny that internal and external forces played a part in producing delinquent behavior, but he did argue that they represented only part of the picture. He insisted that delinquency—and indeed, all human actions—involved an “ineradicable element of choice and freedom.” And it also involved a complex interplay between the delinquent and the agencies of social control in the surrounding society. By singling out some youths rather than others for punishment, for example, the juvenile justice system could generate a deep sense of resentment that could help tip the balance of forces and allow them to drift further into delinquency.

These ideas were elaborated further in his book Becoming Deviant, published in 1969, which addressed the larger question of how people came to engage in a wide range of “deviant” behaviors more generally. Again, David’s main message was that deviance could not be adequately understood as the result of inexorable forces that propelled people into transgressing. Many people did possess an openness—what David called an “affinity”—to engage in the behavior in question, but that was not, in itself, enough to explain their trajectory into deviance. The development of an identity as a deviant also involved “affiliation”—the presence of others who shared the deviant identity—and the influence of authorities both in defining the behavior as deviant in the first place and responding to the individual who engaged in it, which David called “signification.” Here too, as in Delinquency and Drift, the central message was that deviants were not just objects pushed around by powerful forces, but active subjects trying to make meaning out of the world around them.

These ideas had an immediate impact on the fields of sociology and criminology, and that impact may indeed have become stronger in recent years. Delinquency and Drift was an instant success, and was the first winner of the annual C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, one of the most significant honors in sociology. And, as contemporary scholars have increasingly stressed the importance of human “agency” in understanding behavior, delinquent or otherwise, they have often returned to David’s work for inspiration. In his preface to Delinquency and Drift Revisited, a 2018 reconsideration of David’s work, Francis T. Cullen, a former president of the American Society of Criminology, writes that David’s ideas “remain vividly relevant today:” his writings “continue to question persistent disciplinary assumptions,” “make us pay attention to realities we have blissfully ignored,” and “inspire us to theorize more innovatively than otherwise would have been the case.” Even more fundamentally, the emphasis throughout his work on seeing the delinquent and the deviant as more like the rest of us than different has arguably had an enduringly humanizing impact on both scholarship and social policy.

As a teacher, David presented an unusual combination of a formidable intellect and an extraordinary openness and accessibility to students, many of whom remember him as not only a fountain of creative ideas and source of intellectual inspiration but as a genuinely egalitarian and approachable mentor. His door was always open to students and junior colleagues. He was always available to read drafts and was especially encouraging to those whose ideas challenged conventional sociological framing. Tenured at a time when Berkeley consisted mostly of white male professors, David was committed to diversifying the field of sociology through recruiting and encouraging students and junior colleagues from underrepresented communities. He was among the group of faculty that helped Professor Troy Duster establish the Institute for the Study of Social Change on the Berkeley campus, which nurtured innovative scholarship with a strong orientation toward inclusion and social justice. He also served the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate as a representative to the systemwide Assembly in 1970-71 and as a member of the Committee on Teaching from 1975-77.

David is survived by his three children, Naomi, Karen, and Daniel, and six grandchildren.

Elliott Currie
Jonathan Simon