Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory

Criminology is a study that is constantly changing based on the political, economic and spiritual concerns of the society. Many theories come to light and then fade away as the societal climate changes. Strain theory is one such theory that has been pushed aside; however, this theory has been given new life by recent developments in criminology. Robert Agnew developed a new theory, which he named the general strain theory, thus introducing a new perspective on a theory that was written off a few decades ago. General strain theory has defined measurements of strain, the major types of strain, the links between strain and crime, coping strategies to strain, the determinants of delinquent or nondelinquent behavior, and policy recommendations that are based on this theory. General strain theory can also be used to explain the difference in crime between groups, for example male versus female crime rates. While there is still much research that needs to be done on this broad theory, Robert Agnew’s general strain theory appears to be vast improvement over its theoretical predecessor.

Biographical Information

Robert Agnew was born on December 1, 1953, in Atlnatic City, New Jersey. He received a B.A. with highest honors and highest distinction in sociology from Rutgers College, New Brunswick, New Jersey. He continued his education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received a M.A. in sociology. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1980, and the title of his dissertation was "A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency." Since receiving his Ph.D., Robert Agnew has taught at Emory University, where he focuses on graduate and undergraduate classes that involve juvenile delinquency, criminology, and crime and deviant behavior (Agnew, 1997b:1).

Some of the most recent professional programs and community services that Robert Agnew has been involved in include the position of Associate Editor of Theoretical Criminology, serving on the board of advisors for the Not Even One Program at the Atlanta site, and serving on the program committee for the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. He was the first recipient of the "Award for Excellence in Teaching" in the division of the social sciences from Emory University in 1997. This is the second award for teaching that Robert Agnew has received; where as the first was awarded in 1993 as the "Outstanding Teacher" in the sociology department. He has edited two books and authored or co-authored over 40 articles. His work is generally related to crime and delinquency, social psychology, and methodology. More specifically, his work is focused on his general strain theory of crime (Agnew, 1997b:1-7).

The History of Stain Theory

Strain theory was developed from the work of Durkheim and Merton and taken from the theory of anomie. Durkheim focused on the decrease of societal restraint and the strain that resulted at the individual level, and Merton studied the cultural imbalance that exists between goal and the norms of the individuals of society. Anomie can be broken down into two levels. The first of these levels is the macroside of anomie, which is manifest in the inability of society to set limits on goals and regulate individual conduct. The microside of anomie, also known as strain theory, is focused on the reasons behind the increased likelihood of deviance that results from the breakdown of society. According to this microside of anomie, the decrease in societal regulations creates an increase pressure to commit deviant acts (Agnew and Passas, 1997:2-3).

Agnew and Passas (1997:4) addressed the similarities between the macrolevel of anomie and control theory but asserted that the microlevel theory of strain should be considered separate from control theory. Agnew (1992:48) also compared strain theory to control theory and social learning theory. The theories differ in the type of social relations that they stress and the motivations on which they are based. While control theory rests on the premise that the breakdown of society frees the individual to commit crime, strain theory is focused on the pressure that is placed on the individual to commit crime (Agnew, 1992:49). Social learning theory is based on the forces from a group that lead to a positive view of crime (Agnew, 1992:49). According to strain theory, individual deviance is caused as a result of negative treatment from others, and this results in anger and frustration (Agnew, 1997a:31). Control theory, however, is based on the absence of significant relationships with nondeviant others, and social learning theory is based on positive relationships with deviant others (Agnew, 1992:49).

The popularity of strain/anomie theory declined in the late 1960’s due to the lack of empirical evidence put forth by researchers and the political climate of the decade (Agnew and Passas, 1997:4-5). The lack of supporting data can be attributed to several flaws in the original research methods employed by the researchers (Agnew and Passas, 1997:5). Inappropriate methodology, oversimplification of theory, and a neglect of the previous revisions resulted in a body of work that misrepresented the original purpose of anomie/strain theory (Agnew and Passas, 1997:5-7). Along with these flaws, current theorists have argued that empirical data actually supports the theory (Agnew, Cullen, Burton, Evans, and Gregory 1996:700).

Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory

Robert Agnew’s revisions of the strain theory address many of the criticisms of the original strain theory. According to the original strain theory, an increase in aspirations and a decrease in expectations should lead to an increase in delinquency; however, this was not found to be the case (Agnew, 1985:152). Also, the original strain theory predicted a concentration of delinquent behavior in the lower class, but research proved that delinquency was also common in the middle and upper classes (Agnew, 1985:152). Other variables are also neglected by this theory of strain, such as the abandonment of crime in late adolescence and the quality of family relationships (Agnew, 1985:152-153). Agnew broadened the scope of strain theory to include many more variables that addressed the criticisms of the original strain theory. He attempted to explore strain theory from a perspective that accounted for goals other than money and that considered an individual’s position in social class, expectations for the future, and associations with criminal others (Agnew et al., 1996:683). Agnew’s general strain theory is based on the general idea that "when people are treated badly they may get upset and engage in crime" (Agnew, forthcoming). The general strain theory identifies the ways of measuring strain, the different types of strain, the link between strain and crime, and policy recommendations based on the theory.

Measuring Strain

Agnew noted two different ways of identifying and measuring strain in an individual’s life. The first way is the subjective approach, where the researcher directly asks the "individual whether they dislike the way that they are being treated" (Agnew, forthcoming). The second approach is the objective view, in which case the researcher asks individuals about pre-determined causes of strain. The causes of strain are things that the researcher identifies as treatment that a member of the group being studied would dislike. The objective approach is the one most often used in research, and it usually involves relationships with friend, family, and the community. One factor that must be considered is that individuals have different reactions to certain types of strain and subjectively view different types of objective strain (Agnew, forthcoming).

Agnew also noted several processes that must be employed in order to get an effective measure of strain. First, the researcher must develop a comprehensive list of negative circumstances that can result in strain. In this process it must be taken into account that strain is experienced differently by each individual. Also, the specific situations must be objectively identified along with variables that can determine the individual’s reaction to strain. To obtain an effective measure of strain, the cumulative impact of negative relations must be taken into account. It is not entirely clear whether this relationship is additive or interactive. Another factor that must be considered is the presence of positive relations and the lessening effect that they may have on the strain that the individual may experience. The last things that should be considered when measuring strain are the magnitude, recency, duration, and clustering of negative events (Agnew, 1992:61-66).

Major Types of Strain

There are three major types of strain according to general strain theory. They are the failure to achieve positively valued goals, the loss of positive stimuli, and the presentation of negative stimuli. Each of these will be discussed separately.

Failure to achieve positively valued stimuli

The first strain results from an individual’s failure to achieve positively valued goals. Agnew (forthcoming) noted that there are three different types of goals for which members of the society strive. The first of these is money. Money is a cause of strain when it is not available to the individual through legitimate means (Agnew, forthcoming). Agnew (1994:425-426) found that monetary strain was related to crime in a limited fashion, and that the previous studies may not be accurately measuring all aspects of monetary goal blockage. The findings from this study do seem to confirm that delinquents desire to gain large amounts of money (Agnew, 1994:425).

Another type of positively valued goal is that of status and respect. This is an especially important factor in regard to masculine status. This type of status differs culturally, but in order for an individual to prove their masculinity, they may resort to crime to achieve that status. Traits that are associated with masculinity are often displayed through criminal behavior (Agnew, forthcoming).

Autonomy, the power over oneself, is the third type of goal that is valued in a society. Strain induced by autonomy mainly affects adolescents and the lower class because of their position in society. Agnew proposed that the need for autonomy can result in delinquency and crime, as the individual tried to assert autonomy, achieve autonomy, and relieve frustration against those who have denied the individual autonomy (Agnew, forthcoming).

These previously mentioned goals turn into strain when the individual is faced with certain disjunctions in their life. The first of these disjunctions is the one that is the focus of previous strain theories, the disjunction between aspirations and expectations. This is founded on the principle of culturally bound goals and values that are accepted by everyone but yet not available to everyone (Agnew, 1992:51). This idea of the American Dream then causes strain and frustration in the individual who cannot achieve this dream through legitimate means (Agnew, 1992:51). This theory has been criticized because it does not explain middle class crime, it only focuses monetary goals, social class is the only barrier that is considered, and it does not specify why some turn to deviance (Agnew, 1992:51). Recent research has found that this traditional view of strain theory is not as applicable to criminality as other theories such as control and differential association theory (Burton, Cullen, Evans, and Dunaway, 1994:231). Due to these problems, the general strain theory continues to cite other sources of strain that can be applied to a broader aspect of an individual’s life.

Another source of strain due to goal blockage is the disjunction between expectations and actual achievements. This disjunction rests on the outcome of an individual’s behavior. Strain is increased when the actual achievements of an individual are less than that which the individual had expected (Agnew 1992:52).

The third type of disjunction occurs when the actual outcome that an individual faces is not the just/fair outcome that he/she felt was deserved. Individuals do not need to have a specific outcome in mind, but based on their input, they have an idea of what would be a fair outcome. This leaves room for social comparisons for individuals to judge their inputs and outcomes against those of others (Agnew, 1992:53-55).

The loss of positively valued stimuli

Agnew’s research in the stress literature led him to the discovery that the removal of positive stimuli can also cause strain. This loss could manifest itself in the form of a death or a broken relationship with a friend or romantic partner, or it could be a result of the theft of a valued object. According to Agnew, the strain that is felt by the individual die to the loss could lead the individual to delinquency as the individual attempts to prevent its loss, retrieve what was lost, or seek revenge on those who removed the positive stimuli (Agnew, 1992:57).

The presentation of negative stimuli

According to Agnew (1992:58), this type of strain had been largely left out of criminology. However, some research has been done on adolescent pain-avoidance behavior and the inability of juveniles to legally avoid noxious stimuli (Agnew, 1985:154). Some examples of negative stimuli that an adolescent might face are child abuse, neglect, adverse relations with parents and teachers, negative school experiences, adverse relations with peers, neighborhood problems, and homelessness (Agnew, 1992:58-59). Since its addition to general strain theory, research has been done in this area. In a study by Hoffmann and Miller (1998:106), it was found that negative life events that include such things as parental unemployment, deaths in the family, and illness impose a strong impact by increasing delinquent behavior in adolescents. This type of strain has also been applied outside the realm of youths. In an interesting study on corporate corruption, Keane (1993:304) found that corporations might violate regulations in order to escape from an adverse economic situation.

Links Between Strain and Crime

Strain from the outside environment can cause many negative feelings in an individual including defeat, despair, and fear, but the feeling that is most applicable to crime is anger (Agnew, 1992:59). Agnew asserted that individuals become angry when they blame their negative circumstances and relationships on others (Agnew, 1992:59). Anger was found to incite a person to action, lower inhibitions, and create a desire for revenge (Agnew, 1992:60). Anger and frustration may also enable the individual to justify crime (Agnew, 1995b:390). Agnew especially stressed that individuals who are subject to repetitive strain may be more likely to commit crime or delinquent acts (Agnew, 1992:60). This is due to the fact that other coping strategies for the strain are taxed, the threshold for negative relations is pushed to the limit, the individual may become hostile and aggressive, and the individual at any time may be high in negative arousal (Agnew, 1992:61).. In essence, general strain theory proposed that an increase in strain would lead to an increase in anger, which may then lead to an increase in crime (Agnew, 1992:61).

Coping Strategies Other Than Crime

Crime is not the only way that people will respond to strain. There are three different types of coping strategies put forth by the general strain theory that enable the individual to deal with the strain in their life through legitimate means. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral coping strategies can be used to lessen the amount of strain in an individual’s life (Agnew, 1992:65).

Cognitive coping strategies enable the individual to rationalize the stressors in a different way. This can take three different forms. This first is to minimize the importance of the strain causing event or circumstance. This may lead to the individual placing less importance on a particular goal in order to escape the strain that they feel for not reaching that goal. The second form involves the individual maximizing the positive while minimizing the negative outcomes of an event. This is an attempt to ignore the fact that there has been a negative event. The third way of cognitively coping with strain is utilized for the individual when they accept responsibility for the negative outcomes. This theory draws heavily from the equity theory in that those who are victims of inequality may come to accept their limited outcomes as fair (Agnew, 1992:66-69).

The individual, to lessen the amount of strain that negative relations might cause, may also use behavioral coping strategies. These behaviors can counter the different types of strain that have been previously mentioned. Individuals may actively seek out positive stimuli or try to escape negative stimuli. In addition, individuals may actively seek out revenge in a nondelinquent manner (Agnew, 1992:69).

The third type of coping strategy is emotional coping. This differs from the two previous strategies because the individual is focusing on removing the negative feelings rather than trying to alter the event itself. Some examples are exercise and relaxation methods (Agnew, 1992:70).

Determinants of Delinquent or Nondelinquent Behavior

There are two different categories of coping mechanisms, criminal and non-criminal behaviors. General strain theory includes constraints to nondelinquent behavior, as well as factors that may affect an individual’s disposition to delinquent behavior. In this way it is possible to predict the adaptations, delinquent or nondelinquent, that will be chosen (Agnew, 1992:70).

The choices that individuals have available to them are confined by several factors. If the initial goals and values of a person are high and they have few alternative goals to fall back on, then the person may be more prone to committing delinquent acts. Also, individuals may have coping resources available through variables such as temperament, self-esteem, and creativity, which will make them less likely to participate in delinquent or criminal acts. Social supports also play a large role in determining whether an individual will commit delinquent acts. Those with greater conventional social supports will be less likely to participate in delinquency. Also, those individuals with a greater level of social control and those who lack the means to committing crime may be less inclined to be delinquent. The larger social environment will also have an effect on the individual’s choice to participate in crime. Society influences individuals’ behaviors by indicating the importance that should be placed on certain goals and the determination of what is adverse and what is not. Also, society deems which adverse situations the individual can cognitively minimize and what other ways of coping are available to the individual. All of these factors can determine whether strain will result in delinquent or nondelinquent coping strategies (Agnew, 1992:71-73).

Along with these constraints on coping, individual dispositions toward delinquency also control the strategies that are chosen by the individual. Temperamental variables and the past reinforcement of delinquent behavior can have an effect on the participation in delinquency. Another key factor in this theory is the individual’s association with delinquent peers. These factors will help determine the impact that strain will have on individuals and the likelihood that they will turn to crime to address their strain (Agnew, 1992:73-74).

Male Versus Female Strain and Crime

General strain theory can be used to explain the difference in crime between larger groups, such as the difference in crime rates between communities and the high rate of crime in adolescents (Agnew, forthcoming). General strain theory has also been applied in criminology to explain the high rate of crime among males as opposed to females. Agnew and Broidy (1997:275) used this theory to explain the increased rate of crime among males and the reason why females commit crime.

In an attempt to explain the high rate of male delinquency as compared to female delinquency, Agnew and Broidy analyzed the gender differences between the perception of strain and the responses to strain. The first area that was explored was the amount of strain that each gender experiences. According to stress research that Agnew and Broidy complied, females tend to experience as much or more strain than males. Also, females tend to be higher in subjective strain as well. That females experience more strain than males does not explain the higher rate of male delinquency according to the general strain theory. Due to this, Agnew and Broidy explored further differences in male and female strain (Agnew and Broidy, 1997,275-278).

Since females experience more strain and commit less crime, Agnew and Broidy investigated the different types of strain that males and females experience. Their findings are listed in Table 1. There was found to be a difference in the types of strain

Table 1: Sex differences in types of strain (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:278-281)

Females

Males

Concerned with creating and maintaining close bonds and relationships with others – thus lower rates of property and violent crime

Concerned with material success – thus higher rates of property and violent crime

Face negative treatment, such as discrimination, high demands from family, and restricted behavior

Face more conflict with peers and are likely to be the victims of crime

Failure to achieve goals may lead to self-destructive behavior

Failure to achieve goals may lead to property and violent crime

experienced between genders, and this helped explain the gender difference in the types of crimes that are committed (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:281).

Agnew and Broidy next hypothesized that there may be differences not only in the types of strain, but in the emotional response to strain as well. The gender differences are discussed in Table 2. Since Agnew and Broidy found that there were sex differences

Table 2: Sex differences in emotional response to strain (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:281-283)

Female

Male

More likely to respond with depression and anger

More likely to respond with anger

Anger is accompanied by fear, guilt, and shame

Anger is followed by moral outrage

More likely to blame themselves and worry about the affects of their anger

Quick to blame others and are less concerned about hurting others

Depression and guilt may lead to self-destructive behaviors (i.e. eating disorders)

Moral outrage may lead to property and violent crime

in the emotional response to strain, this can be used to explain gender differences in crime participation (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:281-283).

Males and females have been found to experience different types of strain and different emotions according to the general strain theory. Next, Agnew and Broidy investigated the reasons why males may respond to strain with crime. Research indicated that females might lack the confidence and the self-esteem that may be conducive to committing crime and employ escape and avoidance methods to relieve the strain. Females may, however, have stronger relational ties that might help to reduce strain. Male participation in crime has been studied in several different theories such as control theory and differential association theory. Males are said to be lower in social control, and they socialize in large, hierarchical peer groups. Females, on the other hand, form close social bonds in small groups. Therefore, males are more likely to respond to strain with crime (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:283-287).

There is much research that remains to be done in this area (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:288). Most of the data comes from previous studies focused on stress (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:279). Recently, a study was performed on gender differences in participation in drug use (Hoffmann and SU, 1997:46). This study did not find any significant differences between genders; however, the researchers noted the limits of their study in comparison to the broad aspects of general strain theory (Hoffmann and Su, 1997:70). There are many gaps in the data that must be filled.

Along with explaining the high rate of male crime, general strain theory can also be applied to explaining why females commit crime. Agnew and Broidy first identified the types of strain that females face. In regard to goal blockage, a break in interpersonal bonds and discrimination in attempts to achieve financial goals result in strain for the female. Also, as an example of a loss of positive stimuli, females may face barriers to social settings due to social discrimination. Females are also the targets of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, which is considered to be negative stimuli. These types of strain may lead to the female acting out criminally. Female criminals seem to differ from female non-criminals in that they have an increased opportunity for crime, are lower in social control, and have delinquent peers. Agnew and Broidy found that not only can general strain theory explain the higher rate of male crime, but it can also explain why females would participate in crime as well (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:288-294).

Policy Recommendations

General strain theory is a broad theory that can be applied to many different aspects of delinquency. One of these applications focuses on the programs that will prevent crime. Agnew (1995a:48) proposed several different programs to reduce delinquency which have shown success after being implemented. These programs focus on the root of strain theory, which is negative treatment by others (Agnew, 1995a:48). Family-based programs are designed to teach the members how to solve problems in a constructive manner, and parents are taught how to effectively discipline their children (Agnew, 1995a:48-50). This will reduce the amount of negative emotions that result from conflict in the family and will decrease the amount of strain in the home.

School is also a source of strain for many adolescents. School-based programs seek to improve relations in and between school. Along with focusing on relationships, these programs also help improve the student’s performance, which can be a major source of strain for the adolescent (Agnew, 1995a:50-51).

Peer based programs seek to reduce the amount of strain that an adolescent feels as a result of relationships with peers. Relationships with peers can be negative when the peers are delinquent or when they are physically or verbally abusive toward other peers. Most of these programs occur in the school setting where it can have the greatest impact on the greatest number of adolescents (Agnew, 1995a:53-54).

Since it is unrealistic to think that it is possible to completely eliminate strain by preventing people from treating one another badly, policies must also instruct the adolescents to cope with strain. Increased social support assists the adolescent in dealing with particular problems. Behavioral, emotional, and cognitive support is provided through these support systems. The goal of these programs is to provide the adolescent with an individual who will commit to helping the adolescent with problem and who will teach them how to cope on their own (Agnew, 1995a:56-59).

Individuals must also be taught how to cope without the help of others. These types of programs involve teaching the adolescent to be assertive rather than aggressive. It can also involve social skill and problem-solving training. Anger control programs can teach the individual how to effectively cope with the emotions that result from strain (Agnew, 1995a:59-61).

Agnew summarized four recommendations from general strain theory that should lead to a decrease in delinquency. The first of these is to reduce the negative relationships of the youth’s social environment. Second, it is necessary to change the way that the youth responds to their environment and decrease the chance that they will produce negative reactions from others. Increased social support should be made available to help the individual cope with the strain, and, lastly, the adolescent should be taught how to cope with the strain by himself/herself (Agnew, 1995a:64).

Critiques

Robert Agnew’s general strain theory has come on the scene of criminology and brought a renewed interest in the effect of strain on crime. Since this is a relatively new theory that is very broad in its scope, there is not much data to support or refute it. Due to the fact that it is such a broad theory, it is not possible to test it all at once, and it must be broken down into its component parts (Agnew, 1992:75). Agnew (1992:75) also noted that it is not a fully developed alternative to other theories, since it does not extend into the macrosocial world and does not take into account factors such as strain caused by non-social means. Agnew (1992:75) emphasized that "the general strain theory then, is presented as a foundation on which to build."

More research is needed in most every area, but certain goals can be made. In the way of explaining group differences in crime, it is necessary to determine how much and what types of strain are experienced and how and why groups cope with the strain in distinctive ways (Agnew and Broidy, 1997:296). At the macrosocial level, opportunity structures and how this effects the individual need to be analyzed (Agnew, 1997:45). Agnew and Passas (1997:17) noted that a challenge for researchers would be to determine which types of strain lead to crime and why the relationship exists. These future research areas have the potential to provide significant support to the general strain theory.

References:

  1. Books and Articles
  2. Agnew, Robert. (1985). A revised strain theory of delinquency. Social forces. 64(1), 151-167.

    Agnew, Robert. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology. 30(1), 47-87.

    Agnew, Robert. (1994). Delinquency and the desire for money. Justice quarterly. 11(4), 411-427.

    Agnew, Robert. (1995a). Controlling delinquency: recommendations from general strain theory. In Barlow, Hugh D. (ed.). Crime and public policy: putting theory to work. (pp. 43-70). Boulder: Westview.

    Agnew, Robert. (1995b). Testing the leading crime theories: an alternative strategy focusing on motivational processes. Journal of research in crime and delinquency. 32(4), 363-398.

    Agnew, Robert. (1997a). The nature and determinants of strain: another look at Durkheim and Merton. In Agnew, Robert and Nikos Passas (eds.). The future of anomie theory. (pp. 27-51). Boston: Northeastern University Press.

    Agnew, Robert. (forthcoming). An overview of general strain theory. In Poternaster Raymond (ed.). Essays in criminological theories. LA:Roxbury.

    Agnew, Robert and Lisa Broidy. (1997). Gender and crime: a general strain theory perspective. Journal of research in crime and delinquency. 34(3), 275-306.

    Agnew, Robert, Francis Cullen, Velmer Burton, T. David Evans, and B. Gregory Dunaway. (1996). A new test of classic strain theory. Justice quarterly. 13(4), 681-704.

    Agnew, Robert, and Nikos Passas. (1997). Introduction. In Agnew, Robert and Nikos Passas (eds.). The future of anomie. (pp. 1-26). Boston: Northeastern University Press.

    Burton, Velmer, Francis Cullen, T. David Evans, and R. Gregory Dunaway. (1994). Reconsidering strain theory: operationalization, rival theories, and adult criminality. Journal of quantitative criminology. 10(3), 213-238.

    Hoffmann, John and Alan Miller. (1998). A latent variable analysis of general strain theory. Journal of quantitative criminology. 14(1), 83-110.

    Hoffmann, John and Susan Su. (1997). The conditional effects of stress on delinquency and drug use: a strain theory assessment of sex differences. Journal of research in crime and delinquency. 34(1), 46-78.

    Keane, Carl. (1993). The impact of financial performance on frequency of corporate crime: a latent variable test of strain theory. Canadian journal of criminology. 35(3), 293-308.

  3. Web Sites

Agnew, Robert. (1997b). Vitae. [Online]. Available: http://www.emory.edu/SOC/bagnew/cv_agnew.html