In modern criminological research and debate, general strain theory (GST) remains at the forefront. The aim of this paper is to discuss general strain theory (GST), what it is, and how it came to be. Details on specific research regarding general strain theory, however, lie beyond the scope of this writing. This paper will instead focus on GST’s place among other criminological theories, and why it stands where it is today. Therefore, to get a proper perspective on this theory, it is prudent to begin with an overview on its origins.
General strain theory sprang from the standard strain theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Agnew, 1992). Up until the wane of the 1960’s, strain theory had become the preeminent theory on deviance. As the 70’s rolled through, however, various differential-association theories, as well as social learning and social control theories, replaced strain theory and left it in near ignominy.
There it remained, for the most part, until the rise of GST (Cole, 1975).
But what, then, is strain theory? Stemming from the work of Émile Durkheim and Robert Merton, strain theory revolves around the concepts of anomie and, of course, strain. The central idea is that, while society in general may share common goals of self-sufficiency and wealth, the means to achieve those goals is limited by socioeconomic class. The disparity between what is expected and what is possible, and the resulting strain, leads to anomie, a state of normlessness, where the standard of conduct becomes skewed and self-regulatory values are rejected (Featherstone & Deflem, 2003).
Strain is said to drive the deprived into following a life of deviance as a means to achieve otherwise impossible goals. An individual under strain might also replace those goals with something more readily achievable, such as “toughness” or “respect”. While there are variations on standard strain theory, they generally tend toward this central concept. As more and more research was conducted throughout the late 20th century, it became clear that, while strain theory could explain many types of crime, it couldn’t explain everything, such as why crime occurs within affluent circles where there is little strain of this type.
Empirical support for traditional strain theory became weaker and weaker, and, as stated, it fell out of favor by the 1970’s, replaced by theories that concentrated more on delinquency being a socially learned behavior. But not everyone disregarded the old theory. Throughout the 1980’s, young sociologist Robert Agnew wrote several papers discussing and critiquing traditional strain theory. One of his papers written in 1985 suggested a new take on strain theory, in which Agnew introduced blockage of pain-avoidance as an additional cause of strains leading to deviant behavior. These works showed that there could be other ways that strain can cause deviance, shedding hope for a newer, more encompassing brand of strain theory. At the start of the following decade, Robert Agnew’s studies finally culminated into a criminological milestone. In 1992, Robert Agnew published a detailed paper formally outlining the new “general strain theory” which, instead of following the traditional focus on broader subculture perceptions and financial objectives, had an emphasis “on the individual and his or her immediate social environment”.
This new theory expanded on the monetary goals outlined in strain theory to include personal goals in general, such as getting good grades or having many friends. Additionally, Agnew introduced the “removal of positively valued stimuli” as a type of strain, including the perception of unfairness originating from a lack of praise, or insufficient compensation for extra work. The third source of strain presented was the presence of negative stimuli such as child-abuse or similar stressful events. Interestingly enough, these three new facets of strain were inspired by research in fields outside traditional criminology, such as psychology and sociology (Agnew, 1992). Utilizing these new definitions of strain, Agnew could give a theoretical basis for many different types of crime, many more than was possible using traditional strain theory. An important aspect of Agnew’s theory was that he not only listed manners of strain but also outlined connections between various strains, and the manners through which they might push an individual to delinquency, in new ways that allowed for greater empirical support than traditional strain theory had been able to obtain.
Agnew’s work quickly captured the interests of the criminological community, and in the decades since its debut, general strain theory has continued to gain popularity across the world. Research continues to be performed on GST, and the results generally seem favorable for this relatively young theory (Sung Joon & Johnson, 2003). As data continues to be gathered, general strain theory is continually refined and further defined, and Agnew still studies, modifies, and writes about his theory (Baron, 2007). Numerous studies taken all over the globe have given much additional support and expansion to GST throughout the years, but the full depth of GST’s applications has not yet been fully explored (Froggio & Agnew, 2007). Still, general strain theory has been used to explain many aspects of crime, such as terrorism, drug abuse, and differences in crime rates between social classes, between racial groups, and between genders (Agnew, 2010) (Kaufman, Rebellon, Thaxton, & Agnew, 2008).
General strain theory has indeed gained much support, and can explain many aspects of crime, but, as Agnew himself noted, it does not account for strains caused through non-social means such as by accident or illness (1992). In its current state, GST is more of a framework for determining likelihoods of deviance rather than an explanation of when and how crimes may be committed (cite). These and other aspects will have to be accounted for and tested before GST can become a full alternative to other theories. Certainly, testing for such a broad spectrum of strains and responses as currently presented in general strain theory already presents a complicated challenge to the scientific community.
There is some speculation that the current support shown for GST in many studies has been garnered using inaccurate testing methods (Froggio, 2007). There is also research that indicates that while strain may cause certain types of criminality, it is not directly responsible for any nonaggressive delinquency. In short, GST is still just an unproven theory, with much room for investigation and expansion. It certainly appears to possibly answer many issues on the nature of crime, but it requires much more research before any conclusions can be made about its veracity and about its potential. Agnew’s work revitalized a dying interest in strain and its impacts on deviant behavior. Time will tell whether this theory can live up to the praise it has garnered in these early stages. While its future seems bright, general strain theory for now remains merely a foundation for many future investigations and studies.