Strain theory

In criminology, the strain theory states that social structures within society may encourage citizens to commit crime. Following on the work of Émile Durkheim, Strain Theories have been advanced by Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), Cloward and Ohlin (1960), Agnew (1992), and Messner and Rosenfeld (1994). Strain may be either:


Robert Dubin

Dubin (1959) viewed deviance as a function of society, disputing the assumption that the deviant adaptations to situations of anomie are necessarily harmful to society. For example, an individual in the ritualistic adaptation is still playing by the rules and taking part in society. The only deviance lies in abandoning one or more of its culturally prescribed goals. Dubin argued that Merton's focus on the relationship between society’s emphasized goals, and institutionalized prescribed means was inadequate. Dubin felt that a further distinction should be made between cultural goals, institutional means and institutional norms because individuals perceive norms subjectively, interpreting them and acting upon them differently. The personal educational experiences, values, and attitudes may predispose an individual to internalize a norm one way. Another individual with different experiences may legitimately internalize the same norm differently. Both may be acting rationally in their own terms, but the resulting behaviour is different.

Dubin also extended Merton’s typology to fourteen, with particular interest in Innovation and Ritualism. Merton proposed that the innovative response to strain was accepting the goal, but rejecting the institutionally prescribed means of achieving the goal. The implication seemed to be that that not only did the individual reject the means, he must actively innovate illegitimate means as a substitute which would not always be true. Dubin also thought that a distinction should be made between the actual behaviour of the actor and the values that drove the behaviour. Instead of Innovation, Dubin proposed Behavioural Innovation and Value Innovation. Similarly, in Ritualism, he proposed Behavioural Ritualism and Value Ritualism (Dubin, 1959: 147-149). Merton (1959: 177-189) commented on Dubin’s revisions, claiming that although Dubin did make valid contributions, they took the focus off of deviancy.

Robert Agnew

In 1992, Agnew asserted that strain theory could be central in explaining crime and deviance, but that it needed revision so that it was not tied to social class or cultural variables, but refocused on self-generated norms. He therefore proposed a general strain theory that is neither structural nor interpersonal, but emotional and focused on an individual's immediate social environment. He argued that an individual's actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals, actual or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli, and actual or anticipated presentation of negative stimuli all result in strain. Strain emerges from negative relationships with others. If individuals are not treated in the way that they expect or want to be treated, they will lose their belief in the role others play for realizing expectations. Anger and frustration confirm negative relationships. Should attempts to realize goals be blocked by others, the negative affect may lead to pressure which, in turn, may persuade any individual to adopt illegitimate means to attain the goal. This will often involve more unilateral action because there will be a natural desire to avoid unpleasant rejections, confirming more general alienation. If particular rejections are generalized into feelings that the environment is unsupportive, more strongly negative emotions may motivate the individual to engage in crime. This is most likely to be true for younger individuals, and Agnew suggested that research focus on the magnitude, recency, duration, and clustering of such strainful events to determine whether a person copes with strain in a criminal or conforming manner. He particularly identified factors including temperament, intelligence, interpersonal skills, self-efficacy, association with criminal peers, and conventional social support.

Akers' operationalization of Agnew's theory: Sources of strain

Akers (2000: 159) has operationalized Agnew's version of the Strain Theory, as follows:

Failure to achieve positively valued goals:
the gap between expectations and actual achievements will derive from short- and long-term personal goals, and some of those goals will never be realized because of unavoidable circumstances including both inherent weaknesses and opportunities blocked by others; and
the difference between the view of what a person believes the outcome should be and what actually results increases personal disappointment. Frustration is not necessarily due to any outside interference with valued goals, but a direct effect on anger, and has indirect effects on serious crime and aggression. Agnew and White (1992) have produced empirical evidence suggesting that general strain theory was positively able to relate delinquents and drug users, and that the strongest effect on the delinquents studied was the delinquency of their peers. They were interested in drug use because it did not appear to represent an attempt to direct anger or escape pain, but "is used primarily to manage the negative affect caused by strain."

Up to this point, strain theory had been concerned with types of strain rather than sources of strain whereas the stress of events can be shown to interfere with the achievement of natural expectations or just and fair outcomes. These may be significant events or minor "hassles" that accumulate and demoralize over time. Frustration leads to dissatisfaction, resentment, and anger — all the emotions customarily associated with strain in criminology. It is natural for individuals to feel distress when they are denied just rewards for their efforts when compared to the efforts and rewards given to similar others for similar outcomes. Agnew (1992) treats anger as the most critical emotion since it is almost always directed outwards and is often related to breakdowns in relationships. Research shows that the stress/crime relationship appears to hold regardless of guilt feelings, age, and capacity to cope when events occur simultaneously or in close succession.


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