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Strain Theory Essay

Writing Assignment #2-Question #2

Agnew’s General Strain Theory

- Micheal Taylor

Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory (GST) argues that strain or stress is the major source of criminal motivation. He expands upon Merton’s Anomie Theory of strain and stress to include several causes of strain or stress. Agnew categorizes 3 types of strain that produce deviance: the failure to achieve positively valued goals, the loss of positive stimuli, and the introduction of negative stimuli. There are several different actions that can be taken to correct the strain in order to curb deviance, including exercise, counseling, and advocacy programs. Furthermore, we will also look at how this relates to domestic violence.

As first mentioned there are 3 categories to Agnew’s theory. The first category, the failure to achieve positively valued goals, suggests that “communities… may affect crime rates by influencing goals that residents pursue and the ability… to achieve such goals through legitimate channels” (Agnew, 1999). This category includes 3 subcategories: the failure to reach ideal goals, the failure to achieve expectations, and the failure to be treated in a fair and just manner.

The failure to reach ideal goals also includes personal inadequacies in abilities and skills in achievement of immediate goals. The second subcategory, the failure to achieve expectations will in turn develop into “anger, resentment, and disappointment” (Akers, p159). This idea relies on the outcome of the person’s behavior. Strain is augmented when the actual accomplishments of a person are less than what was anticipated. The last, failure to be treated in a fair and just manner, is a result of differences between a person’s personal view of what should happen and the real outcome. This allows individuals to compare and contrast their contributions and outcomes against those of others.

The failure to achieve positively valued goals is a central part of GST. It leads one to believe that, in part, the strain caused by not achieving the goals set by communities (be it economic success or achieving status and respect, etc) causes stress on the individual to commit crimes in an attempt to achieve these goals.

The second aspect of Agnew’s GST is the loss or potential loss of positive stimuli. This stressor involves the loss of the “opportunity to freely engage in a range of valued behaviors” (Broidy; Agnew, 1997), such as the loss of romantic partners or friends. In other words, the ability (or lack-there-of) of an individual to deal with stressful events in life can produce deviant feelings and behavior.

Agnew’s last strain producer, the presentation of negative stimuli, refers to such things as child abuse, negative experiences at school, homelessness, and poor association with peers.

Agnew suggests that crime isn’t the only approach people will use in their response to strain. According to Agnew, there are 3 types of strategies, apart from crime, that people can utilize to deal with stress and strain through legitimate means. He says that cognitive, emotional, and behavioral coping strategies can be used to reduce strain in a person’s life (Broidy; Agnew, 1997).

Cognitive strategies allow the person to decipher stress in a different way. A person can reduce the significance of the strain, or maximize the favorable and at the same time minimize undesirable outcomes, or acknowledge accountability for the adverse outcomes (Agnew, 1992).

Emotional strategies require the person to center on eliminating the damaging feelings rather than attempting to change the event through such means as, physical activity, and relaxation methods (Agnew, 1992).

In order to reduce the strain that has resulted, a person may also utilize behavioral coping strategies. A person could look for constructive motivation or try to elude adverse stimuli (Agnew, 1992).

To provide support for these strategies, additional community support is needed. The objective of additional support would be to guide the person on how to deal with stresses and strains on their own through anger control programs. An example of these corrective methods would be peer programs, such as midnight basketball, that attempt to lower the stresses teens feel when dealing with peers. As well as increased community support, it’s vital to alter the approach the person uses in response to their atmosphere and lessen the likelihood of producing negative responses from society.

In response to domestic violence, it’s suggested that teenage violence toward parents is an effort by youths to deal with the stresses of “negative treatment by parents…” in particular when there’s an inability to evade such treatment (Brezina, 1999). Broidy and Agnew (1997) suggest that there are differences in the sorts of stresses experienced by men and women, as well as, differences in the emotional responses to strains. They go on to say, referring to emotional responses, that women are more likely to blame themselves, whereas men are more likely to respond with anger and violent crime. Further, congested living conditions amplify the chances of interaction with angry individuals in the home setting, thereby increasing the chances of provoking friction (Agnew, 1999) or adult-oriented domestic violence.

In conclusion, Agnew’s General Strain Theory, suggests that strain leads to anger, and anger leads to deviance. There are several causes of strain that produce deviance: the failure to achieve positively valued goals, the loss of positive stimuli, and the introduction of negative stimuli. He believes that anger is a central variable that connects strain with deviance. Agnew proposes that corrective actions such as cognitive, emotional, and behavioral coping strategies will help a person deal with stress in a non-criminal manner. It’s also suggested that domestic violence is caused by both stresses from inside the home, and those acquired from social relationships.


Agnew, Robert. (1992). Foundation for General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency. Criminology: Volume 30, Issue 1 (p47-87).

Agnew, Robert. (1999). A General Strain Theory of Community Differences in Crime Rates. Journal of Research in crime and Delinquency: Volume 36, Issue 3 (p123, 33p).

Brezina, Timothy. (1999). Teenager Violence Toward Parents as an Adaptation to Family Strain. Youth and Society: Volume 30, Issue 4 (p416, 29p).

Broidy, Lisa; Agnew, Robert. (1997). Gender and Crime: A General Strain Theory Perspective. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency: Volume 34, Issue 3 (p275, 32p).

Word Count: 1024

Merton used Durkheim’s concept of anomie to form his own theory, called Strain Theory. Merton argued that anomie is not created by dramatic social change, but rather by a social structure that holds the same goals to all its members without giving them equal means to achieve them. Merton stated that all members of a capitalist society have goals such as “wealth, status and personal happiness”, (Merton, 1938) and that the means available to achieve this success are unevenly distributed throughout society. Merton believes that this lack of integration between society goals and what society realistically permits causes the less dominant or lower class group to suffer ‘strain’ which results in alternate or illegitimate ways of achieving those goals. (Merton, 1938)

Merton did not mean that everyone who was denied access to society’s goals became deviant. He presented five modes of adapting to strain. Conformity is the most common mode of adaptation. Individuals accept both the goals as well as the prescribed means for achieving those goals. Conformists will accept, though not always achieve, the goals of society and the means approved for achieving them. The people who make up this unit are mostly middle and upper-class individuals. The innovators are typically lower-class people who desire a high-class life and focus on achieving it.

Their means of success would be ones such as robbery, embezzlement or other such criminal acts. Ritualism, the third adaptation, is made up of the people who abandon the goals they once believed to be within their reach and dedicate themselves to their current lifestyle; they play by the rules and have a daily safe routine. Retreatism is the adaptation of those who give up not only the goals but also the means. They often retreat into a world of alcoholism and drug addiction. The final adaptation is rebellion, which occurs when the cultural goals and the legitimate means are rejected and are substituted by the individuals own goals and means. (Merton, 1938)

Shoplifting is defined as “the theft by a person of goods or merchandise exposed for sale.” (Denver Crime Definition, 2002) Accurate data on shoplifting is not widely available because it’s largely considered a ‘petty’ crime and its occurrence is not always reported to police. A study of the reported cases of shoplifting found that it occurs most at liquor outlets, pharmacies and general stores. To a lesser extent reported shoplifting occurs at service stations, news agencies and restaurants. (A.I.C. no.221, 2002)

The people at most risk of victimization are those who work at general stores, service stations, pharmacies and liquor outlets. (A.I.C. no.221, 2002) Shoplifting primarily affects the stores owner/s and employees as it hinders revenue, raises operational costs and creates inaccurate stock levels. Shoplifting also causes stress among co-workers which can lead to stressful working environments. (A.I.C. no.11, 2004) Shoplifting has a high involvement of both female and juvenile offenders and the majority of shoplifters are of low class or unemployed. (A.I.C.: Australian Crime Facts & Figures, 2004)

People shoplift because they are unable to gain access to the institutional means to achieve the goals they desire – whether it is food to feed themselves or their families, or materialistic items to increase their status. This relates to shoplifting as the vast majority of cases as it is done predominantly by the lower class or unemployed population. This also explains why there is a lack of middle and high class participants in shoplifting, as they have greater access to legitimate means to achieve their goals. (Merton, 1938)

Shoplifting is often done by the unemployed as an act of innovation, not retreatism, rebellion, or ritualism. The unemployed desire the achievement of cultural goals of society but have an illegitimate access to the institutional means. Conformity can be used to explain why the majority of people do not shoplift, people who conform iternalise both the cultural goals of society and the structural means for doing so. (Merton, 1938)

There are a few areas that Merton’s strain theory fails to explain in relation to shoplifting. His theory does not explain shoplifting committed by people who have high financial status; these people are not conformists, nor are they innovators. However, Merton’s strain theory fits well with explaining the majority of shoplifting. He predicted that most criminals fall into the innovator category, which does explain the majority of shoplifting cases.

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