General Strain Theory

Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory, developed in 1992, was designed to address criticisms of traditional strain theories by broadening the concept of strain to include a wider variety of stressors that affect individuals across different socio-economic backgrounds. This theory was further expanded in 2006, when Agnew included “events or conditions disliked by individuals” to the definition, thus encompassing stressors identified by earlier theorists as well as additional ones that had not been considered before, such as those impacting both lower and middle-class individuals.

Main Types of Strain

  1. Goal Blockage: Traditional strain theories focus predominantly on the disparity between personal aspirations, like financial success, and the actual expectations of achieving these goals, which they often view as unattainable. Agnew expanded on this by suggesting that blockages also occur when individuals fail to achieve expected or equitable outcomes. This broader perspective includes non-material goals such as respect, autonomy, and excitement, emphasizing that such unmet aspirations can significantly affect behavior, especially among young males. This adaptation of the theory enhances its relevance by acknowledging a wider variety of personal goals beyond just economic or middle-class status.
  2. Presentation of Negative Stimuli: This type of strain refers to individuals being subjected to unfavorable circumstances or treatment, such as bullying, negative relationships with authority figures, or becoming victims of crime. The theory suggests that these experiences of negative stimuli contribute to strain by exposing individuals to harsh social environments.
  3. Loss of Positively Valued Stimuli: This strain involves the loss of valued elements in one’s life, ranging from material possessions like valuable property to emotional losses such as the end of a romantic relationship or the withdrawal of parental support. The emotional toll from these losses plays a critical role in the strain theory by illustrating how the removal of positive stimuli can precipitate negative behavioral responses.

Relationship to Crime

Agnew argues that these strains lead to crime because they provoke negative emotions such as anger, resentment, anxiety, and depression, which in turn can motivate individuals to engage in criminal activity. This aspect of the General Strain Theory underscores the significant role of emotional responses in the etiology of crime, setting it apart from other criminological theories that may not focus as heavily on emotional factors.

Persistent Delinquency and Aggressiveness

Further, the theory examines how repeated exposure to strain can develop into stable personality traits that predispose individuals to delinquency. One such trait is aggressiveness, often cultivated through continuous exposure to adversities like inconsistent discipline or emotional neglect. Agnew highlights that aggressive individuals are more likely to perceive situations as frustrating and are thus more prone to react with delinquent behavior, perpetuating a cycle of antisocial activities.

Gender Differences in Delinquency

The General Strain Theory also addresses the gender disparities in criminal behavior, noting that men are typically more involved in crime than women. This is attributed to different experiences and reactions to strain, influenced by societal norms and expectations. While both genders may face similar strains, men are often in environments that promote delinquent responses, whereas women might be more restricted or likely to employ non-delinquent coping mechanisms due to greater social support and supervision.

Community-Level Strain

Agnew extends his theory to the community level, suggesting that high rates of delinquency in certain areas can be explained by widespread and severe strains such as economic disadvantage, racial discrimination, and ineffective social controls. These community conditions not only foster subcultures that are more accepting of delinquency but also heighten the presence of anger and frustration among residents, further contributing to elevated rates of delinquent behavior.

Overall, the General Strain Theory provides a robust framework for understanding how various strains influence individual behavior and community dynamics. By focusing on the role of negative emotions and the broader context in which individuals and communities experience strain, Agnew’s theory offers insightful perspectives on the complex interplay between individual circumstances and societal structures in the genesis and perpetuation of criminal and delinquent behavior.