An Examination of Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory
Joseph Dalton Friel
General Strain theory (GST) is a part of the social structure theories of crime, which “fit the positivist mode in that they contend that these social forces push or influence people to commit crime” (Brown, Esbensen, & Geis, 2013, p. 266). Brown, Esbensen, & Geis (2013) state that social structure theories “link the key troubles of individuals to the social structure origins of these difficulties” (p. 266). At the heart of this social structure theoretical vein lies GST. According to Agnew (1992) “Strain theory is distinguished from social control and social learning theory in its specification of (1) the type of social relationship that leads to delinquency and (2) the motivation for delinquency” (p. 48).
General Strain theory shares beliefs similar to other theories within the social structure genre. Agnew argued that these theories “explain delinquency in terms of the individual’s social relationships” (Agnew, 1992, p. 48). Agnew (1992) states that “Strain theory focuses explicitly on negative relationships with others: relationships in which the individual is not treated how he or she wants to be treated. Strain theory has typically focused on relationships in which others prevent the individual from achieving positively valued goals” (p. 48-49). Agnew later broadened the theory to include “relationships in which others present the individual with noxious or negative stimuli” (Agnew, 1992, p. 49). GST also asserts that “adolescents are pressured into delinquency by the negative affective states- most notably anger and related emotions- that often result from negative relationships” (Agnew, 1992, p. 49). Agnew (1992) argued that “this negative affect creates pressure for corrective action and may lead adolescents to (1) make use of illegitimate channels of goal achievement, (2) attack or escape from the source of their adversity, and/or (3) manage their negative affect through the use of illicit drugs” (p. 49).
Strain and stress are abundant in the lives of people because society places high standards on the successes of people. Brown, Esbensen, & Geis (2013) discussed the notion that “the structure of American society creates the lower social echelons, and consequently, explain lower-class crime” (p. 268). These goals are set too high and out of reach for a proportion of society and are “distorted aspirations, unrealistic desires for attainment, and crass materialism” (Brown et al., 2013, p. 268). This strain “sets the stage for individual failure, and the search for deviant solutions” (Brown et al., 2013, p. 268).
In some cases, Brown, Esbensen, & Geis (2013) suggests that “strain may occur when an individual perceives the reward to be inadequate relative to the effort” (p. 282). This thought process helps give an overall view of strain and why people who are “stressed out” from their environment might turn to deviance to accomplish what they want. Brown, Esbensen, and Geis (2013) explain that many criminologists suggest that they often hear students complain, “But I studied 10 hours for this exam why didn’t I get an A? Does this question indicate strain? Not in a traditional sense, but under Agnew’s General Strain theory we can now appreciate why this same student was caught cheating on the next exam” (p. 282). This example provides evidence that students perceived their reward to be inadequate to the effort put forth.
DURKHEIMIAN AND MERTONIAN ROOTS OF GST
Other scholars paved the way for Agnew’s GST. According to Brown, Esbensen, & Geis (2013), Merton’s explanation of criminal behavior “has been acclaimed as one of the most influential developments in the study of crime and deviance” (p. 271). Merton’s explanation of crime was very similar to that of Agnew. Merton (1938) opined that “ some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in the society to engage in nonconformist rather than conformist conduct” (p. 672). Like Agnew, Merton believed that American society provided the strain that instigated crime due to the pressure of unattainable goals it posed for people to reach. According to Merton (1938):
The extreme emphasis upon the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of success in our own society militates against the completely effective control of institutionally regulated modes of acquiring a fortune. Fraud, corruption, vice, crime, in short, the entire catalog of proscribed behavior, becomes increasingly common when the emphasis on the culturally induced success-goal becomes divorced from a coordinated institutional emphasis (p. 675-676).
Merton, like his predecessors believed that the availability of wealth was separated by the social classes as well. Merton (1938) contended that:
Antisocial behavior is in a sense “called forth” by certain conventional values of the culture and by the class structure involving differential access to the approved opportunities for legitimate, prestige-bearing pursuit of the culture goals. The lack of high integration between the means-and-end elements of the culture role pattern and the particular class structure combined to favor a heightened frequency of antisocial conduct in such groups. (p. 679).
Even though Merton believed in wealth being separated by class structure, he differed in the sense of where the strain was focused. Merton (1938) argued:
The actual advance toward desired success-symbols through conventional channels is, despite our persisting open-class ideology, relatively rare and difficult for those handicapped by little formal education and few economic resources. The dominant pressure of group standards of success is, therefore, on the gradual attenuation of legitimate, but by in large and effective, strivings and the increasing use of illegitimate, but more or less effective, expedience of vice and crime (p. 679).
Tracing strain farther back it is seen that both of these criminologists had their foundation laid by the work of Emile Durkheim. According to Brown, Esbensen, & Geis (2013) “it was Durkheim’s research on suicide that laid the foundation for anomie and strain theory” (p. 269). Durkheim (1951) believed that:
When society is disturbed by some painful crisis or by beneficent but abrupt transitions, it is momentarily incapable of exercising this influence; thence come the sudden rises in the curve of suicides. Then, truly, as the conditions of life are changed, the standard according to which needs were regulated can no longer remain the same; for it varies with social resources, since it largely determines the share of each class of producers (p. 213).
Durkheim (1951) discussed that the strain affected social classes differently and suggested, however, “economic distress does not have the aggravating influence often attributed to it, is that it tends rather to produce the opposite effect. Poverty may even be considered a protection” (p. 206).
Approximately twenty years after Merton (1938) published his work on anomie, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) constructed a theory explaining gang delinquency, which expanded on the work of Merton (1938). Opportunity theory, according to Cloward and Ohlin (1960), suggested that:
It is assumed in the theory of anomie that access to conventional means is differentially distributed, that some individuals, because of their social class, enjoy certain advantages that are denied to those elsewhere in the class structure. There are variations in the degree to which members of various classes are fully exposed to and thus acquire the values, knowledge, and skills that facilitate upward mobility. It should not be startling, therefore, to suggest that there are socially structured variations in the availability of illegitimate means as well (p. 146).
If one is not able to have legitimate success in life, then they will turn to illegal means to try to and accomplish that.
Durkheim (1951), Merton (1938), and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) built the foundation for the GST. While Agnew largely agreed with the earlier versions of strain, there were criticisms that he addressed as he continued to develop the GST. According to Brown, Esbensen, & Geis (2013) “deviance, is but one possible consequence of strain” (p. 282), and it is important to update theories based on new information. Although GST is a relatively new theory it has provided important contributions to the field of criminology by focusing on how the theory “more precisely specifies the relationship between strain and delinquency, pointing out that strain is likely to have a cumulative effect on delinquency after a certain threshold level is reached” (Agnew, 1992, p. 74).
TESTS OF GST
General Strain theory, according to Agnew (1992) “is distinguished by its focus on negative relationships with others and its insistence that such relationships lead to the delinquency through the negative affect – especially anger- they sometimes engender” (p. 49). Agnew continued to develop GST to “significantly expand the focus of strain theory to include all types of negative relations between the individual and others, more precisely specify the relationship between strain and delinquency, and provide a more comprehensive account of the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional adaptations to strain” (Agnew, 1992, p. 74). Agnew understood that “strain was likely to have a cumulative effect on delinquency after a certain threshold level was reached” (Agnew, 1992, p. 74). His continued research pointed to the fact that there were “certain relevant dimensions of strain that should be considered in empirical research, including the magnitude, recency, duration and clustering of stressful events” (Agnew, 1992, p. 75).
GST has been supported in different studies that involved behavior and its link to deviance. Ackerman and Sacks drew on “surveys of more than 3000 sex offenders” (Delisi & Agnew, 2012 p. 174) and found that strain was associated with “general crime, drug recidivism, and violent recidivism. More importantly, their work is the first study to examine GST among offenders on state sex offender registries” (Delisi & Agnew, 2012 p. 174). Similarly, Sharp, Peck, and Hartsfield conducted a study from the “Incarcerated Women and their Children” (Delisi & Agnew, 2012 p. 174). They found “relationships between strain, anger, and daily use of drugs and alcohol” (Delisi & Agnew, 2012 p. 174). Based on these examples it is evident that GST is garnering support.
One of the most recent tets of the theory looked at young adolescents and the affect strain had on their deviant behavior. The main focus of this study was to “draw on general strain theory and to examine how specific forms of strain may lead to crime” (Barn & Tan, 2012, p. 212) in adolescents, and more specifically, those who have been through foster care. Recent similar studies had “helped us to understand the representation of foster youth in crime statistics” (Barn & Tan, 2012 p. 212), but this study and many others after it began to promote findings that could potentially “help to prevent involvement in criminal activity” (Barn & Tan, 2012 p. 212). The results obtained through this study supported the previous work stating that strain is correlated with crime. According to the results “all types of strain except for length of time in care, were found to have positive and significant relationships with criminal activity among young people in the study” (Barn & Tan, 2012 p. 215). The study got even more specific and according to Barn and Tan (2012):
Young people who experienced crime victimization, unemployment, more frequent school exclusion, longer periods of homelessness after leaving care and more placements were reported to be more likely to engage in criminal activity; while those who acquired higher level of life skills were less likely to be involved in criminal activity (p. 215).
The results of this study clearly reinforced the theoretical premise that the greater the amount of strain a person has in their life, the more susceptible they are to committing deviant acts.
Unlike its early counterparts GST has been updated to broaden its look at crime and specify the strain involved with deviant behavior. According to Davis (2009):
General Strain Theory has a greater theoretical sophistication than its traditional counterpart, not only in terms of specifying different types of strain but, most importantly, in recognizing the relationship between the individual and society is more-complex than that suggested by writers like Merton. In particular, Agnew suggests people do not simply react to strain in a mechanical way (if something happens to them they react in a certain way); rather, the individual is surrounded by a complex array of emotional defenses that can be used to minimize, avoid or deflect stains (p. 5).
Agnew went on to “suggest three main forms of coping strategy” (Davis, 2009, p. 5) to help people deal with the strain in their lives. The first of these coping strategies is cognitive, and is also broken down into three parts. The first of these cognitive strategies is minimizing the significance of strain. People often times stress the importance of accomplishing their goals that unfortunately leads to unnecessary amounts of strain. According to Davis (2009), when “using this strategy, the individual attempts to neutralize a strain-causing situation by downplaying the importance of a particular goal in order to avoid the tension that would result from their inability to reach it” (p. 5). However, if someone decided that their goal was still important enough to try and achieve, and they were not successful in achieving it, they could accentuate the positives in the situation. By using this coping strategy a person rationalizes the fact that “they failed to achieve the desired goal by minimizing the negative outcome” (Davis, 2009, p. 5). The outcome of this strategy is to “deny or ignore the overall negative stimuli by an insistence on taking positives from the experience” (Davis, 2009, p. 5). Finally, a person could also accept the negatives in the situation. If someone resorts to this method then the “individual is accepting a negative outcome (because that is) what they expected” (Davis, 2009, p.5). This means that “for whatever reason the individual initially has no great expectation of achieving a desired goal and so their eventual- and inevitable- failure comes as no surprise and, consequently causes no great tension” (Davis, 2009, p. 5).
The second update that Agnew added to his theory of coping strategies was behavioral. Unlike the cognitive strategy, the behavioral strategy seeks to take physical action in dealing with strain. Someone who uses the behavior strategy might change “their behavior in some way – to consciously seek out, for example, positive experiences while avoiding situations that potentially involve negative stimuli” (Davis, 2009, p. 5). By physically omitting negative stimuli and surrounding themselves with positive experiences, these individuals are able to avoid large amounts of stress and strain that can potentially lead to deviant behavior. Davis (2009) states that “this type of avoidance strategy may also, occasionally, represent a non-deviant revenge on those who have, in the eyes of the individual, blocked their opportunities- by removing themselves from negative stimuli the individual denies others what they see as something positive” (p. 5). This avoidance strategy can essentially keep some individuals from committing crimes because they feel they have already gotten their revenge.
The third and final strategy Agnew introduced was the emotional strategy. This is considered one of the most common strategies and it deals with “the individual attempting to remove the negative feelings that cause strain in a particular situation (rather than avoiding or confronting failure)” (Davis, 2009, p. 5). People can control their emotional feelings by taking their mind off of things by partaking in different activities or “techniques of emotional neutralization which include physical exercise, massage, and relaxation techniques” (Davis, 2009, p. 5). This strategy differs from the other two strategies because it attempts to completely remove strain from one’s life in order to avoid falling into the temptation of committing crime.
General Strain theory developed a method of explaining crime in relation to the strain people deal with in their daily lives. While Agnew is credited with GST, it is important to note the key people in history who have helped develop the broader strain perspective that it elaborates. This paper reviewed the foundations provided by the earlier works of Durkheim, Merton and Cloward and Ohlin. Agnew’s contribution to the field helped explain why both adolescents, as well as, adults commit crime. Not only did his work accomplish this explanation, but it also developed potential coping strategies within the theory that could prevent people from committing crimes. Agnew was able to identify a “number of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral adaptations that would minimize negative outcomes and thus reduce the probability of criminal behavior resulting from strain” (Brown, Esbensen, & Geis, 2013 p. 282). It was also evident that in addition to the decline of criminal activity “persons who learn to reduce the relevance of strain will be less likely to resort to antisocial behavior” (Brown, Esbensen, & Geis, 2013 p. 282). While no single theory is capable of explaining all crime, GST covers a broad range of behaviors, relationships, and outside influences.
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