Reasons Why People Commit Crime

Categories: CrimePeople

Deviance, criminal behavior and wrong doings; why do they occur? People don’t just wake up one morning and say “I’m off from work today so why don’t I just go rob a bank”. There has to be something in their past or present experiences that cause one to engage in criminal behavior. So what makes people commit crime and most importantly why do they fell they need to so? Criminologists have studied this question for many years and came up with so many different types of answers and theories.

All these theories prevail their own unique reason for crime.

Due to my interest in this question I also have been reading some theories and looking for a reason. However I stopped at one theory that I automatically had my attention. As I read more about if all the pieces of the complex puzzle of crime began to fall in place. This theory is called the strain theory. This paper will takes you through the day that it was written by Robert Merton in 1938 and the day it was transformed by Robert Agnew into the General Strain Theory in 1992.

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A French Sociologist by the name of Emile Durkheim popularized the concept of anomie in his book Suicide: Astudy in Sociology; 1897 where he studied thousands of cases of suicides and concluded that people commit the self-inflicted act due to influences pressured onto them by society. He defined anomie to mean “normlessness”. Years later, in 1938 Robert Merton applied Durkheim’s definition of anomie to modern industrial societies.

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Robert Merton was born on July 4, 1910, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was named Meyer Schkolnick, but later changed to Robert King Merton because he didn’t was every one to know that he was Jewish. The initial idea for his new identity was actually a revision to his stage name, Robert Merlin that he used when he performed magic shows during his teenage years. He spoke English, French, German, Italian, and Latin. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1936. Soon after, he became a faculty member at Harvard. From 1939 to 1941, he served on the faculty of Tulane University in New Orleans. In 1941, he was appointed to work at Columbia University and became a full professor there in 1947. He published countless works that have aided any sociologists both then and now. His publications broadened the realms of sociology and helped develop new genres of study within the field such as crime and deviance related research. His most famous writings were Social Theory And Social Structure and On The Shoulders of Giants published in 1965. Merton died on February 23, 2003.

Merton stated that anomie is the form that societal disorder that takes when there is a significant detachment “between valued cultural ends and legitimate societal means to those ends”(McCluskey 2002 p11). Basically Merton said that all people have legitimate goals such as “wealth, status and personal happiness”, (Schmalleger, 2002 p208), they are some of the main desires that people posses and strive to get. Some people can never reach these goals and to others they are handed down to them during childhood. Some two types of groups are lower class and upper class individuals. For a person to have wealth, status and personal happiness, they need certain types of tools, such as education, a good job, and financial saving.

Robert Merton states that the means of achieving these goals are not evenly distributed to all members of society. Not everyone can afford and a good college education and progress to become a hard working doctor or lawyer. Dues to the large numbers of low class people in this world this type happy life and financial status is many times not accomplishable. This causes a strain; the dictionary meaning of the word strain states “A great or excessive pressure, demand, or stress on one’s body, mind, or resources” ( Merton reveals in his Strain Theory that this consequences in criminal and deviant behavior when and individual finds out that he does not that the means to fulfill his goals.

Merton did not mean that everyone who was denied access to society’s goals became deviant. He presented five modes of adapting to strain. The chart below gives the five modes of adaptation and illustrates that for each mode there is a goal and mean. The “+” indicates available and the ” – ” not available. Conformity is the most common mode of adaptation. Individuals in this group accept both the goals as well as the prescribed means for achieving those goals. Conformists are the lucky ones who accept the goals of society and the means approved for achieving them. The people in this unit are mostly middle- class and upper-class individuals. The populations who adapt through innovation accept societal goals but don’t have the means to achieve those goals. This causes them innovate (design) their own means to get ahead. Their means of success would be ones such as robbery, embezzlement or other such criminal acts. The

innovators are typically lower-class people who desire a high-class life and strive to get it. In ritualism, the third adaptation, individuals are capable of living a high-class life, but don’t necessarily care for it. “A ritualist may get a good education, work every day in an acceptable occupation, and appear outwardly to be leading a solid middle-class life. Yet that person may care little for the symbols of success, choosing to live an otherwise independent lifestyle.” (Schmalleger, 2002 p208). Retreatism is the adaptation of those who give up not only the goals but also the means. They are very often alcoholics, drug users, or homeless people. They live a non-productive, non-striving lifestyle. The final adaptation, rebellion, occurs when the cultural goals and the legitimate means are rejected and substituted by individuals’ own goals and means.

The highest levels of strain are prevailed in the lower-class population, because there exists less opportunities for success. The absence of opportunity is met wit increased pressure to achieve the social economic goals set upon them, leading to deviance.

As years passed Merton’s theory began declining; it was thought out to be oversimplified with some prevailing flaws. A sociologist then expanded on the strain theory. Robert Agnew was born on December 1, 1953, in Atlantic 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.

Agnew received his Ph.D. in 1980, and the title of his dissertation was “A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency.” This shows that be began researching the strain theory twenty-two years before he actually published his theory in 1992. He has edited two books and authored or co-authored over 40 articles. He normally writes about crime and delinquency, social psychology, and methodology. More specifically, his work is focused on his general strain theory of crime.

Robert Agnew criticized and revised the traditional strain theory. According to the original strain theory, an increase in goals and a decrease in means to achieve those goals should lead to an increase in delinquency; however, this was not found to be the case. Also, the traditional strain theory forecasted delinquent behavior in the lower class population, but research proved that delinquency was also seen in the middle and upper classes as well. Merton left out many other vital points in this theory, such as the abandonment of crime in late adolescence and the quality of family relationships. Merton made it seen that money was the key to life; Agnew brought up other important elements in life, such as expectations for the future and position in social class. “General strain theory is based on the general idea that when people are treated badly they may get upset and engage in crime” McCluskey 2002 p17

Agnew noted that’s there are two different ways of identifying and measuring the strain in ones life: the subjective approach and the objective approach. The subjective approach includes the researcher to directly ask the individual whether they dislike the way that they are being treated. The second approach is the objective view, in which case the researcher asks individuals about the causes of strain that were already determined beforehand. They would be identified as treatments for the dislikes of an individual. The objective approach is the one more often then the subjective approach, because it involves real life relationships with friends, family, and the community.

Robert Agnew also introduces the three major types of strain in his theory. The first one is failure to achieve positively valued goals. People constantly want and feel the need for something that they don’t possess. Agnew brings forth three basic goals that individuals in society struggle for. They are money, respect and status, and autonomy. Money is a very crucial goal, everyday and good amount of Americans wake up and for work, for what? Money, that’s what people work and live for. However the failure to own a desired amount of money may result in the unlawful taking of money. Of course there are many people that are able to handle monetary strain and some that are incapable to overcome the craving of money. Respect and status is also essential to the general public. However it is especially directed to the men of society.

“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”(Cheseney-Lind and Pasko, p81) Last but not least, the third goal, autonomy. The dictionary meaning of autonomy is “personal independence, the power or right of self-government” ( This type of strain mainly affects adolescents and the lower class because of their position in society. They normally are considered unimportant and having no voice. They are unable to do have the freedom they would have if they were not adolescent or did not fall into the lower class status. These mentioned goals tend to lead to deviant behavior when they are out of reach.

The next major type of strain is the loss or threaten of loss of positive stimuli. This has to do with removing or losing something or someone that the individual is positively stimulated by. It could death of a loved one, a relationship that was broken, or even a theft of a valuable object. This can also cause deviant behavior because one may try to prevent its loss, retrieve what was lost, or seek revenge on those who removed the person or object. A perfect fictional example of this is seen in the book The Godfather written by Mario Puzo.

The first words of the book states “Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court … and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her” when he did not receive the revenge that he wanted in the court he went to Don Corleone for “proper” vengeance. Amerigo Bonasera then said to the Godfather ” An eye for an eye. Let them (the men) suffer as she (daughter) suffers” In this example Amerigo Bonasera was threatened with losing his daughter and reacted unlawfully.

The third type of strain the presentation of negative stimuli. A perfect example of this is a badly treated adolescent. Some of these might include child abuse, neglect, adverse relations with parents and teachers, negative school experiences, adverse relations with peers, neighborhood problems, and homelessness. All these factors may lead to delinquent behavior.

What is the main feeling that is most applicable to crime? Anger, Robert Agnew stated that when people become angry they might blame their negativity on others. Agnew found that anger has the ability to provoke individuals to negatively respond, lower inhibitions, and create a desire for revenge. Some of the revenge may fall into the category criminal acts, everyone respond to anger, frustration and strain differently.

If everyone would commits a crime when they reacted to strain, more than half of the world would either be in jail or dead. Agnew points out three different types of coping strategies put forth by the general strain theory that allows a person to deal with the stain 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. The cognitive strategies allow the person to decipher strain in an alternate way.

Either reducing the significance of strain, or maximizing the favorable outcomes and at the same time minimizes the undesirable outcomes, or acknowledges accountability for the adverse outcomes. Emotional strategies require the individual to center on eliminating the damaging feeling, rather than trying to change the event, this may be achieved through physical activity or relaxation methods. The third strategy, behavioral goes back to the major types of strain mentioned above. It states that individuals are capable of actively seeking out the positive stimuli or escape the negative stimuli. However, these are not the only coping strategies, other exist themselves as well.

“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”(Cheseney-Lind and Pasko, p81).

General strain theory can be applied to crime and deviance in many ways, and most criminal acts are found to be the result of strain and monetary issues; for these reason I believe that general strain theory does a great job of explaining crime and deviance. It mixes in emotions, money, goals, means, and other elements that are seen in society, and gives us a sufficient explanation why people really commit crime.


Featherstone, Richard, and Mathieu Deflem. 2003. “Anomie and Strain: Context and

Consequences of Merton’s Two Theories.” Sociological Inquiry 73(4): p471-489, 2003.

Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. Review of ‘The Future of Anomie Theory,’ edited by

Nikos Passas and Robert Agnew. Social Forces 78(1): 364-366.

Chesney-Lind, Meda and Lisa Pasko. 2004.The Female Offender: Girls, Women and Crime. Sage Publications.

McCluskey, Cynthia Perez. 2002. Understanding Latino Delinquency. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.

Schmalleger, Frank. 2002. Criminology Today. Prentice Hall (3rd ed.): Upper Saddle River, NJ

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Reasons Why People Commit Crime. (2016, Jul 17). Retrieved from

Reasons Why People Commit Crime

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