Robert S Agnew. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publication. 2009.
Strain theories state that certain strains or stressors increase the likelihood of crime. These strains involve the inability to achieve one’s goals (e.g., monetary or status goals), the loss of positive stimuli (e.g., the death of a friend, the loss of valued possessions), or the presentation of negative stimuli (e.g., verbal and physical abuse). Individuals who experience these strains become upset, and they may turn to crime in an effort to cope. Crime may be a way to reduce or escape from strains. For example, individuals may steal the money they want or run away from the parents who abuse them. Crime may be used to seek revenge against the source of strain or related targets. For example, individuals may assault the peers who harass them. Crime also may be used to alleviate negative emotions; for example, individuals may engage in illicit drug use in an effort to make themselves feel better. Strain theories are among the dominant explanations of crime, and, as discussed in this chapter, certain strain theories have had a major impact on efforts to control crime.
This chapter describes (a) the types of strain most conducive to crime, (b) why strains increase the likelihood of crime, and (c) the factors that increase the likelihood that individuals will cope with strains through crime. All strain theories acknowledge that most individuals cope with strains in a legal manner. For example, most individuals cope with monetary problems by doing such things as cutting back on expenses, borrowing money, or working extra hours. It is therefore critical to explain why some individuals engage in criminal coping. After presenting a basic overview of strain theories, this chapter describes how strain theories have been used to explain group differences, such as gender differences, in crime. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the policy implications of strain theories.
Types of Strain Most Conducive to Crime
Inability to Achieve Monetary Success
Merton (1938) developed the first major strain theory of crime in the 1930s. This theory was developed in the midst of the Great Depression, so it is not surprising that it focused on that type of strain involving the inability to achieve monetary success. According to Merton, everyone in the United Stated—regardless of class position—is encouraged to strive for monetary success. At the same time, lower-class individuals are frequently prevented from achieving such success through legal channels. In particular, the parents of lower-class children often do not equip them with the skills and attitudes necessary to do well in school. Lower-class individuals often attend inferior schools, and they often lack the funds to obtain college educations or start their own businesses. As a consequence, they more often find themselves unable to achieve their monetary goals through legal channels.
This goal blockage creates much frustration, and individuals may cope by engaging in crime, including incomegenerating crimes such as theft, drug selling, and prostitution. Merton (1938), however, emphasized that most individuals do not cope with this strain through crime. Some individuals simply endure this strain, others lower their desire for money, and still others turn to the pursuit of other goals. Merton provided some guidance as to why some individuals cope with crime and others do not. One key factor, for example, is whether individuals blame their inability to achieve monetary success on themselves or on others. Crime is more likely when the blame is placed on others.
Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) have applied Merton’s (1938) theory to the explanation of juvenile gangs. Like Merton, they said that the major type of strain in the United States is the inability to achieve monetary success or, in the case of Cohen, the somewhat broader goal of middle-class status. However, they went on to state that juveniles sometimes cope with this strain by forming or joining delinquent groups, such as gangs. Strained juveniles may form gangs in order to better pursue illicit money-making opportunities, such as drug selling. They may form gangs in an effort to achieve the status or respect they desire. In particular, juveniles sometimes join gangs in an effort to feel important.
Other Strains Conducive to Crime
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, criminologists began to suggest that the inability to achieve monetary success or middle-class status was not the only important type of strain. For example, Greenberg (1977) and Elliott, Huizinga, and Ageton (1979) suggested that juveniles pursue a broad range of goals, including popularity with peers, autonomy from adults, and harmonious relations with parents. They claimed that the inability to achieve any of these goals might result in delinquency. Later, Agnew (1992) drew on the stress literature in psychology and sociology to point to still other types of strain.
According to Agnew (1992), strain refers to events and conditions that are disliked by individuals. These events and conditions may involve the inability to achieve one’s goals. As indicated earlier in this chapter, however, strains may also involve the loss of positive stimuli and the presentation of negative stimuli. In more simplistic language, strains involve situations in which individuals (a) lose something good, (b) receive something bad, or (c) cannot get what they want. These ideas formed the basis of Agnew’s general strain theory (GST), now the dominant version of strain theory in criminology.
Literally hundreds of specific strains fall under the three broad categories of strain listed in GST. Not all of these strains are conducive to crime, however. For example, homelessness is a type of strain that is very conducive to crime. Being placed in “time out” by one’s parents for misbehaving is a type of strain that is not conducive to crime. GST states that strains are most likely to lead to crime when they (a) are high in magnitude, (b) are perceived as unjust, (c) are associated with low social control (or with little to lose from crime), and (d) create some pressure or incentive for criminal coping (see Agnew, 2006). Homelessness is clearly conducive to crime: It is high in magnitude, often perceived as unjust, and associated with low social control (individuals who are homeless have little to lose by engaging in crime). Furthermore, being homeless creates much pressure to engage in crime, because one must often steal to meet basic needs and engage in violence to protect oneself (see Baron, 2004). Being placed in time out for misbehavior has none of these characteristics.
GST lists the strains most likely to result in crime. These include the inability to achieve monetary goals as well as a good number of other strains. In particular, the following specific strains are most likely to result in crime:
- Parental rejection. Parents do not express love or affection for their children, show little interest in them, and provide little support to them.
- Harsh/excessive/unfair discipline. Such discipline involves physical punishment, the use of humiliation and insults, screaming, and threats of injury. Also, such discipline is excessive given the nature of the infraction or when individuals are disciplined when they do not deserve it.
- Child abuse and neglect. This includes physical abuse; sexual abuse; emotional abuse; and the failure to provide adequate food, shelter, or medical care.
- Negative school experiences. These include low grades, negative relations with teachers (e.g., teachers treat the juvenile unfairly, humiliate or belittle the juvenile), and the experience of school as boring and a waste of time.
- Abusive peer relations. Peer abuse includes insults, gossip, threats, attempts to coerce, and physical assaults.
- Work in “bad” jobs. Such jobs have low pay, little prestige, few benefits, little opportunity for advancement, coercive control (e.g., threats of being fired), and unpleasant working conditions (e.g., simple, repetitive tasks; little autonomy; physically taxing work).
- Unemployment, especially when it is chronic and blamed on others.
- Marital problems, including frequent conflicts and verbal and physical abuse.
- Criminal victimization.
- Discrimination based on race/ethnicity, gender, or religion.
- Failure to achieve certain goals, including thrills/excitement, high levels of autonomy, masculine status, and monetary goals.
Research on Strains and Crime
Researchers have examined the effect of most of the preceding strains on crime. Their studies suggest that these strains do increase the likelihood of crime, with certain of them being among the most important causes of crime (see Agnew, 2006, for an overview). For example, parental rejection, harsh discipline, criminal victimization, and homelessness have all been found to have relatively large effects on crime. The following are two examples of recent research in this area. Spano, Riveria, and Bolland (2006) found that juveniles who were violently victimized were much more likely to engage in subsequent violence. This held true even after they took account of such things as the juvenile’s sex, age, prior level of violence, level of parental monitoring, and whether the juvenile belonged to a gang. Baron (2004) studied a sample of homeless street youth in a Canadian city and found that crime was much more common among youth who reported that they had been homeless for many months in the prior year. This finding was true even after a broad range of other factors were taken into account, such as age, gender, and criminal peer association.
These findings, however, test only one part of GST. GST not only asserts that certain strains increase the likelihood of crime but also describes why these strains increase crime. The next section focuses on this topic.
Why Strains Increase the Likelihood of Crime
Strains are said to increase the likelihood of crime for several reasons. Most notably, they lead to negative emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, and fear. These emotions create pressure for corrective action; that is, strained individuals feel bad and want to do something about it. Crime is one possible response. As indicated earlier in this chapter, crime may be a means for reducing or escaping from strains, seeking revenge against the source of strain or related targets, or alleviating negative emotions (through illicit drug use). Anger occupies a special place in GST, because it energizes individuals for action, reduces inhibitions, and creates a strong desire for revenge.
Several attempts have attempted to determine whether strains lead to negative emotions and whether these emotions, in turn, lead to crime. Most studies have focused on the emotion of anger, and they tend to find that strains increase anger and that anger explains part of the effect of strains on crime—especially violent crime (Agnew, 2006). For example, Jang and Johnson (2003) asked individuals to indicate the strains or personal problems they had experienced. Many such strains were listed, including different types of financial problems, family problems, and criminal victimizations. Jang and Johnson found that individuals who experienced more strains were more likely to report feeling angry and that this anger had a large effect on crime.
A few studies also suggest that emotions such as depression, frustration, and fear may sometimes explain the effect of strains on crime (see Agnew, 2006). Recently, researchers have suggested that certain strains may be more likely to lead to some emotions than others. For example, strains that involve unjust treatment by others may be especially likely to lead to anger. Also, strains that one cannot escape from may lead to depression. Further- more, certain emotions may be more likely to lead to some crimes than others. As suggested earlier, anger may be especially conducive to violence. Depression, however, may be more conducive to drug use. Researchers are now examining these ideas.
Strains may also lead to crime because they reduce one’s level of social control. Strains often involve negative treatment by people such as parents, teachers, spouses, and employers. Such negative treatment can reduce the individual’s emotional bond to these conventional others. It can also reduce the individual’s investment in conventional society, particularly if the negative treatment involves such things as low grades or the termination of employment. Furthermore, negative treatment can reduce the direct control exercised over individuals (i.e., the extent to which conventional others monitor the individual’s behavior and sanction rule violations). This may occur if strains such as child abuse cause individuals to retreat from conventional others. Individuals who are low in these types of control are more likely to engage in crime, because they have less to lose by doing so.
Furthermore, strains may foster the social learning of crime; that is, strains may lead individuals to associate with others who reinforce crime, model crime, and teach beliefs favorable to crime. As Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) have suggested, strained individuals may associate with other criminals in an effort to cope with their strains. For example, abused or neglected juveniles may join gangs in an effort to find acceptance and support. Individuals who are threatened by others may join gangs for protection. Also, individuals who are subject to those strains conducive to crime may develop beliefs favorable to crime. For example, individuals who are regularly bullied by others may come to believe that violence is a justifiable, or at least excusable, way to cope. Individuals who are chronically unemployed may come to believe that theft is sometimes justifiable or excusable.
Finally, individuals who experience strains over a long period may develop personality traits conducive to crime, including traits such as negative emotionality. Individuals high in negative emotionality are easily upset and become very angry when upset. The continued experience of strains reduces their ability to cope in a legal manner. As a consequence, new strains are more likely to overwhelm them and make them very upset. Not surprisingly, such people are then more likely to cope through crime.
Several studies have found support for these arguments; that is, strains do tend to reduce social control, foster the social learning of crime, and contribute to traits such as negative emotionality (see Agnew, 2006; Paternoster & Mazerolle, 1994). Strains, then, may increase the likelihood of crime for several reasons, not simply through their effect on negative emotions.
Factors that Increase the Likelihood of Criminal Coping
There are a variety of ways to cope with strains, most of them legal. Juveniles who are having trouble with school- work, for example, might devote more time to their homework; seek help from teachers, parents, or friends; convince themselves that school is not that important; exercise or listen to music in an effort to feel better; and so on. Individuals who experience strains typically cope using legal strategies such as these. Given this fact, it is critical for strain theories to explain why some individuals choose crime as a means of coping. According to GST, criminal coping is most likely to be enacted by individuals with certain characteristics:
- Possess poor coping skills and resources. Some individuals lack the skills and resources to legally cope on their own. They have poor problem-solving and social skills, including skills such as the ability to negotiate with others. They possess traits such as negative emotionality and low constraint. Individuals with these traits are easily upset and tend to act without thinking. Furthermore, they have limited financial resources. Money is a great coping resource, because it allows one to purchase needed goods and services (including the services of people such as tutors, counselors, and lawyers).
- Have low levels of conventional social support. Not only are some individuals unable to legally cope on their own but also they lack others to whom they can turn for assistance. This assistance might include advice on how to cope, emotional support, financial assistance, and direct assistance in coping. For example, children who are having trouble in school might seek assistance from their parents, who may comfort them, give them advice on how to study, and arrange special assistance from their teachers. Individuals who are unemployed may obtain assistance from their friends, who may help them find work and loan them money.
- Are low in social control. Some individuals also have little to lose if they engage in criminal coping. They are unlikely to be punished if they engage in crime, because their family members, neighbors, and others do not closely supervise them and rarely impose sanctions when they do misbehave. They have little to lose if they are punished, because they do not care what conventional others, such as parents and teachers, think of them. Also, they are doing poorly in school, do not plan on going to college, are unemployed or work in “bad” jobs, and do not have a good reputation in the community. They also do not view crime as wrong or immoral.
- Associate with criminal others. Other criminals model criminal coping, frequently encourage individuals to engage in crime, and often reinforce crime when it occurs. Imagine, for example, a gang member who is insulted by someone. This gang member is more likely to respond with violence because that is how other members of the gang respond to similar provocations; other gang members directly encourage a violent response, and they reinforce violent responses—most often with social approval. Furthermore, they may punish nonviolent responses. For example, gang members who do not respond to provocations with violence may be called cowards (or worse) and regularly harassed.
- Hold beliefs favorable to criminal coping. Some individuals believe that crime is an excusable, justifiable, or even desirable response to certain strains. For example, they believe that violence is an appropriate response to a wide range of provocation (Anderson, 1999). They learn these beliefs from others, especially criminal others. Also, as indicated previously, they sometimes develop these beliefs after experiencing chronic or long-term strains (e.g., being bullied over a long period).
- Are in situations where the costs of criminal coping are low and the benefits high. In particular, strained individuals are more likely to turn to crime when they encounter attractive targets for crime in the absence of capable guardians. An individual with a desperate need for money, for example, is more likely to engage in theft if he or she comes across a valuable item that is unguarded.
In sum, individuals are most likely to engage in criminal coping when they (a) are unable to engage in legal coping, (b) have little to lose by criminal coping, (c) are disposed to criminal coping because of the people with whom they associate and the beliefs they hold, and (d) encounter attractive opportunities for crime.
Researchers have examined the extent to which certain of these factors influence the likelihood of criminal coping. The results of their studies have been mixed (see Agnew, 2006). Some have found that individuals with these factors are more likely to cope with strains through crime; for example, some research indicates that criminal coping is more likely among individuals who are high in negative emotionality or who associate with delinquent peers. Other studies, however, have not found this.
Criminologists are now trying to make sense of these mixed results (see Agnew, 2006; Mazerolle & Maahs, 2000). One possibility for the conflicting results has to do with the fact that researchers often examine the preceding factors in isolation from one another. However, it may be that individuals engage in criminal coping only when their standing on all or most of the preceding factors is favorable to such coping. Mazerolle and Maahs (2000) explored this possibility. They examined three factors: (1) low constraint, (2) association with criminal peers, and (3) beliefs favorable to criminal coping. Mazerolle and Maahs found that when all three of these factors were favorable to criminal coping, highly strained individuals were quite likely to engage in crime.
Explaining Groups Differences in Crime
Strain theories have been used primarily to explain why some individuals are more likely to engage in crime than others. Increasingly, however, they are also being used to explain group differences in crime, in particular gender, age, ethnic-racial, class, and community differences. An example of this use has already been presented.
Merton’s (1938) version of strain theory has been used to explain class differences in crime. Lower-class individuals are said to engage in higher rates of crime because they have more trouble achieving their monetary goals through legal channels. Note, however, that the relationship between class and crime is not as strong as many people believe. There appears to be little relationship between class and minor crime, although lower-class individuals are somewhat more likely to engage in minor crime (see Agnew, 2009). Furthermore, middle-class individuals are more likely to engage in certain types of white-collar crime, especially corporate crime. Recent versions of strain theory have attempted to explain this by noting that middleand upper-class individuals do sometimes experience monetary strain, especially when they compare themselves with even more advantaged others (Passas, 1997).
GST explains group differences in crime by arguing that the members of certain groups are more likely to (a) experience strains that are conducive to crime and (b) cope with these strains through crime. As an illustration, consider the strong relationship between gender and crime. With the exception of a few types of crime, males have substantially higher levels of offending than females. Part of the reason for this is that males are more likely to experience many of the strains that are conducive to crime. This includes strains such as harsh parental discipline, negative school experiences (e.g., low grades), criminal victimization, homelessness, and perhaps the inability to achieve goals such as thrills/excitement and masculine status. It is important to note, however, that females experience as much or more overall strain than males. Many of the strains experienced by females, however, are not conducive to crime. These include strains involving close supervision by others and the burdens associated with the care of others (e.g., children and elderly parents). Furthermore, females are more likely to experience certain strains that are conducive to crime, such as sexual abuse and gender discrimination. Overall, however, males are more likely than females to experience strains that are conducive to crime (see Agnew, 2006)
Males are also more likely to cope with strains through crime. Part of the reason for this has to do with gender differences in the emotional reaction to strains. Both males and females tend to become angry when they experience strains. The anger of females, however, is more often accompanied by emotions such as guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression. This is because females more often blame themselves when they experience strains, view their anger as inappropriate, and worry that their anger might lead them to harm others. The anger of males, however, is more often accompanied by moral outrage. This is because males are quicker to blame others for their strains and to interpret the negative treatment they have experienced as a deliberate challenge or insult. These gender differences in the experience of anger reflect differences in socialization and social position. Females, for example, are more often taught to be nurturing and submissive, and so they are more likely to view their anger as inappropriate. In any event, the moral outrage of angry males is more conducive to criminal coping, especially to crimes directed against others.
Also, males are more likely to engage in criminal coping because of their standing on those factors that increase the likelihood of criminal coping. Among other things, males are higher in negative emotionality and lower in constraint. Male are lower in certain types of social support—especially emotional supports—and they are lower in many types of social control. In particular, males are less well supervised, less likely to be punished for aggressive behavior, more weakly tied to school, and less likely to condemn crime. Furthermore, males are more likely to associate with other criminals and hold beliefs favorable to crime. Males, for example, are more likely to have delinquent friends and to be gang members than are females. Finally, males are more likely to hold gender-related beliefs that are conducive to criminal coping, such as the belief that they should be “tough.”
Data provide some support for these arguments. Research does indicate that males are more likely to experience many of the strains that are conducive to crime, and studies tend to suggest that males are more likely to cope with strains through crime, although not all studies have found this (see Agnew, 2006; Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Strain theory, then, can partly explain gender differences to crime. Strain theory has also been used to help explain ethnic-racial, age, class, and community differences in crime (see Agnew, 2006 for an overview; see Agnew, 1997; Eitle & Turner, 2003; and Warner & Fowler, 2003, for selected studies). The argument here is the same. The members of groups with higher rates of crime are more likely to experience strains that are conducive to crime and to cope with such strains through crime.
Recommendations for Controlling Crime
The early strain theories of Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) had a major impact on efforts to control crime. These theories were one of the inspirations for the War on Poverty, which was developed under President Kennedy’s administration and implemented under President Johnson. The War on Poverty consisted of a number of programs designed to eliminate poverty in the United States. While eliminating poverty was, of course, a desirable goal in itself, it was also felt that eradicating poverty would reduce other social problems, such as crime. Several of the programs that were part of the War on Poverty were directly inspired by strain theories. These programs were designed to help lower-income people achieve the goal of monetary success (or middle-class status) through legal channels. Certain of these programs remain in existence.
One such program is the National Head Start Association, which sponsors a preschool enrichment program. Head Start focuses on preschool-age children in disadvantaged areas. Such children are placed in a preschool program designed to equip them with the skills and attitudes necessary to do well in school. The program also works with the parents of these children, teaching them how they can help their children do well in school. Another program, Job Corps, focuses on older juveniles and adults. This program attempts to equip individuals with the skills and attitudes necessary to obtain a good job. Some evidence suggests that both these programs are successful in reducing crime, especially when they are well implemented (see Agnew, 2009, and Agnew, in press, for further discussion),
GST suggests still other strategies for controlling crime (Agnew, 2006, in press). These strategies fall into two broad groups. First, GST recommends reducing the exposure of individuals to strains that are conducive to crime. Head Start and Job Corps fall into this category, because their primary goal is to reduce the likelihood that individuals will experience school and/or work problems, such as working in “bad” jobs or chronic unemployment. Second, GST recommends reducing the likelihood that individuals will cope with strains through crime.
Reducing the Exposure of Individuals to Strains that are Conducive to Crime
Several programs have tried to eliminate or at least reduce certain of the strains conducive to crime. For example, parent training programs attempt to reduce the likelihood that parents will reject their children and use harsh or abusive disciplinary methods. These programs target at-risk parents, such as teenage parents, or the parents of delinquent youth or juveniles believed to be at risk for delinquency. Among other things, such programs teach parents how to effectively discipline their children and how to better resolve conflicts that arise. They may also encourage family members to spend more time together in pleasurable activities. Further- more, these programs may attempt to reduce some of the stresses or strains that parents experience, such as work and housing problems. These stresses have been found to contribute to a range of poor parenting practices.
Another program that attempts to reduce exposure to strains focuses on bullying or peer abuse at school. This program attempts to make students, teachers, parents, and administrators more aware of the extent and consequences of bullying. These individuals are then given assistance in designing an anti-bullying program. Clear rules against bullying are established, these rules are widely publicized, and teachers and others closely monitor the school for bullying. Bullies are disciplined in an appropriate manner, and the victims of bullying are offered support. Still other programs attempt to reduce strains such as poor academic performance, work and employment problems, and homelessness. Many of these programs have shown much success in reducing crime (see Agnew, 2006, 2009, in press).
Still other programs recognize that, despite our best efforts, we will not be able to eliminate all strains that are conducive to crime. Teachers, for example, will likely continue to give low grades to students. We can, however, alter strains so as to make them less conducive to crime. For example, teachers can be taught to assign grades in a manner that is more likely to be perceived as fair by students. Likewise, police and justice professionals can adopt techniques that are more likely to be perceived as fair by individuals who are arrested and punished. Many such techniques are embodied in the restorative justice approach. In addition, we can make it easier for individuals to avoid strains that are conducive to crime. For example, we can make it easier for students to change teachers or schools when other efforts to deal with school-related strains fail. Or we can make it easier for individuals to move from high-crime communities where they are regularly victimized.
Finally, we can equip individuals with the traits and skills to avoid strains. Individuals sometimes provoke negative treatment from others, including parents, peers, teachers, and employers. This is especially true when individuals are low in constraint and high in negative emotionality. As indicated, such individuals are easily upset, tend to act without thinking, and often have an antagonistic interactional style. Not surprisingly, these individuals frequently upset other people, who may then respond with negative treatment. Parents, for example, may eventually come to reject and harshly discipline children with these traits. Several programs, however, have shown some success in teaching individuals to better manage their anger and show some restraint before acting. As such, these programs may reduce the likelihood that individuals elicit negative treatment from others.
Reducing the Likelihood that Individuals will Respond to Strains with Crime
Although we can do much to reduce the exposure of individuals to strains conducive to crime, it is unlikely that we can entirely eliminate such exposure. For that reason, it is also important to reduce the likelihood that individuals respond to strains with crime. Several programs in this area have shown some success in reducing crime. One set of programs attempts to improve the coping skills and resources of individuals. For example, individuals may be taught problem-solving and social skills, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be able to develop and implement legal methods for dealing with their strains. To illustrate, individuals may be taught how to respond in a legal manner if they are harassed by peers. On a related note, individuals may be taught methods for better managing their anger.
Individuals also may be provided with increased levels of social support. For example, they might be assigned mentors who provide assistance in coping. Also, a range of government assistance programs may be developed to help individuals cope when they face strains such as long-term unemployment, homelessness, and discrimination in the job market. Beyond that, steps may be taken to increase the level of social control to which individuals are subject. For example, parent training programs can increase the bond between parent and children and improve parental supervision. Also, school-based programs can raise academic performance and improve student-teacher relations. These programs reduce the likelihood that individuals will engage in criminal coping, because such coping is more likely to result in punishment, and individuals have more to lose if they are punished.
Programs may also be used to reduce association with criminal peers and alter beliefs that encourage criminal coping. For example, certain programs have shown some success in altering beliefs that are favorable to drug use. Unfortunately, it has been more difficult to convince individuals to quit juvenile gangs or stop associating with their delinquent friends. Some progress is being made, however.
Strain theories are based on a simple, commonsense idea: When people are treated badly, they may become upset and engage in crime. Strain theories elaborate on this idea by describing the types of negative treatment most likely to result in crime, why negative treatment increases the likelihood of crime, and why some people are more likely than others to respond to negative treatment with crime.
The strains most likely to lead to crime are high in magnitude, perceived as unjust, and associated with low social control, and they create some pressure or incentive for crime. Examples include parental rejection, harsh or abusive discipline, chronic unemployment or work in “bad” jobs, criminal victimization, homelessness, discrimination, and the inability to achieve monetary goals. These strains lead to a range of negative emotions, such as anger. These emotions create pressure for corrective action, with crime being one possible response. Crime may allow individuals to reduce or escape from strains, seek revenge, or alleviate their negative emotions (through, e.g., illicit drug use). Strains may also increase crime by reducing social control, fostering association with criminal peers and beliefs favorable to crime, and contributing to traits such as negative emotionality. Individuals are most likely to engage in criminal coping when they lack the resources to legally cope with strains, have little to lose by engaging in crime, are disposed to criminal coping, and are in situations that present attractive opportunities for such coping.
Researchers are extending strain theory in important ways. They are using the theory to help explain group differences in crime, such as gender differences in offending. Also, the implications of strain theory for controlling crime are receiving increased attention. Agnew (2006) described still other extensions. In sum, strain theory constitutes one of the major explanations of crime and has much potential for controlling crime.