JUSTIFICATIONS OR EXPLANATIONS? A CRITICISM OF THE CONCEPT OF NEUTRALIZATION IN RESEARCH ON UNDERGRADUATE EXAM CHEATING

L. Benincasa

University of Ioannina (GREECE)
This paper discusses and questions the concept of neutralization, originally developed in the field of criminology and now ubiquitous in the interpretation of research findings on student cheating.

Students’ statements about cheating have often been found to be contradictory. Alleged contradictions have been interpreted through the concept of neutralization. The main idea is that students believe that cheating is wrong. Therefore, when they cheat they justify their behaviour so as to divert blame from themselves and neutralize the feelings of guilt that comes from violating their personal ethical codes. This interpretation often seems to have been adopted a priori and imposed onto the data.

In the paper I take the moves from a study I recently carried out on undergraduate cheating at the examinations. After describing what look like contradictions in my respondents’ ethical arguments about cheating, I explain how they could be interpreted within the frame of neutralization. Then I examine the flaws of such an analysis and question some of the assumptions that underlie this interpretation and discuss possible alternatives that neutralization research has failed to consider.

Finally, I suggest instead a constructionist approach, which I discuss in relation to some of my findings. The paper ends with implications for further research.