Delinquency and Drift
Before reading these two books I would willingly have declared that juvenile delinquency had been exhausted as a topic; that nothing more of value could be written about it, and that, certainly, no reputable publisher could publish a worse book about it than already existed. Mr. Matza proves me wrong on the first two counts, and Mr. Schwitzgebel on the last. Delinquency and Drift is elegant and light, precise and penetrating, wholly original, and so unsentimental that it can treat of misery to some coherent purpose, avoiding both disguise and despair. It is subtle, too intricate to summarize, yet very clear.
Professor Matza examines, and ultimately dismisses as too deterministic the conventional psychological and sociological explanations of juvenile delinquency. Neither the young delinquents nor the relationships they establish among themselves—the so-called “delinquent subculture”—are sufficiently unusual or abnormal to justify explaining delinquency as an expression of particular psychological or social pathology. Delinquent boys are likely to be somewhat less neurotic than their most law-abiding peers, especially in an ill-behaved community. No juvenile delinquent is more than sporadically so; the rest of the time he carries on quite ordinary social intercourse, often pleasantly enough. Matza rejects the possibility of a “delinquent subculture” on the grounds that delinquents share the same norms as their better-behaved neighbors. When they “sound” one another or put anybody down, they condemn them on the same grounds most of us would: meanness, irresponsibility, cowardice—though each excuses his own behavior as partially extenuated by his peculiar circumstances.
Since, as he maintains, there is nothing very special about juvenile delinquents except the social role in which they find themselves, Matza is obliged to explain early in his discourse why they have come to be treated as a special phenomenon. The necessity to make man’s social behavior a proper subject for scientific inquiry, and thus to legitimate the social sciences, has, he maintains, led social scientists to assume that free will is a negligible factor in human behavior. All that we need in order to understand ourselves and our social institutions is an adequate system of empirical generalizations, and enough precise data to fit into them. All contemporary sociologists would grant that we can’t do this yet; our theories are too scrappy and not yet sufficiently architectonic, as Robert Merton said fifteen years ago in Social Theory and Social Structure. But, in principle, delinquent boys, like all of us, are as completely governed by circumstances as molecules. Matza dryly disagrees with this.
Even if delinquency could be predicted, and given the current state of knowledge, it obviously cannot, still we would desire more…where many factors matter rather than few, and no one can pretend to know how many is too many, this may be a signal that our model is not a truthful simplifying of reality but instead a complicated falsification…A science of man may differ fundamentally from natural science in the simplicity with which it may be rendered. But so too, may it …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.