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General Strain Theory as the Most Applicable Criminological Theory to Explain Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Offending

There exist many criminological theories that have their respective shortcomings, limitations, and strengths. Nevertheless, not all of them can be applied to the real-world situations and can be used to explain causes, patterns, and peculiarities pertaining to crime. However, some criminological theories, such as general strain theory developed by Robert Agnew and subsequently improved by a wide range of scholars and researchers, manage to overcome their limitations and weaknesses and become useful for explaining the phenomenon of crime and related issues. Hence, the current paper is aimed at showing that general strain theory is a well-developed and highly applicable contemporary criminological theory that can be used to explain the impact of strain on crime and delinquency with account for major variables, such as gender and race. Moreover, peer rejection and its relation with crime under general Strain Theory are explained, as well. Overall, the criminological theory under consideration is concluded to be an extremely useful and informative psycho-social criminological theory that should be further improved and applied to empirical studies with a view to studying crime and delinquency more deeply and overcoming currently existing gaps in this respective field of knowledge. The present paper consists of such core sections as Brief Overview of Strain Theories, Types of Strain That Lead to Crime and Delinquency under General Strain Theory, General Strain Theory: Adolescence-Limited vs Life-Course Persistent Offending, General Strain Theory and Race, General Strain Theory and Gender, and General Strain Theory and Peer Rejection, which are subdivided into subsections.

Introduction

Nowadays, scholars, politicians, and the public are extremely interested in motivations and causes underlying criminality due to steadily high crime rates that also increase with account for peculiar factors, including belonging to an ethnic minority or having a low socioeconomic status. Hence, various criminological theories aimed at explaining why people commit crimes and how this can be prevented have been developed and tested. These theories are constantly challenged, empirically tested, theoretically questioned, and subsequently improved so that they would take into consideration the reality and emerging issues. However, not all criminological theories are effective in terms of explaining crime to the same extent. Such difference in effectiveness may be partially explained by the fact that different criminological theories focus on different perspectives pertaining to crime and offenders with sociological, psychological, and psychiatric perspectives that are currently considered the most widely-supported. As a rule, criminological theories focus on just one aspect that they consider to be the most influential in terms of impacting criminality. Nevertheless, some theories, such has general strain theory (hereinafter referred to as the GST), take into account several perspectives at the same time with this particular theory focusing on the socio-psychological perspective of criminality. Even though the theory is relatively recent, as it emerged in the early 1990s and has been constantly developed and improved since then, its underlying premises have been supported with findings of numerous empirical studies. Hence, currently the GST seems to be the most applicable criminological theory to explain crime and delinquency, since it offers a multi-perspective psycho-social explanation of the impact of strains on aggression and violence with account for race and gender as compared to other mostly one-perspective theories.

Brief Overview of Strain Theories

The GST belongs to the group of strain theories that include classic strain theories, such as anomie theory, institutional anomie theory, relative deprivation theory, and the GST as the most recent reinterpretation of some premises borrowed from these classical theories with addition of the most relevant elements. Classic strain theories are described briefly below, but they are much older than the GST and have been subject to much criticism due to their inability to explain true motivations of most crimes. However, the common feature of all strain theories is that they explain criminality through stains that creates pressure for an individual and provides an incentive to engage in criminal coping. At the same time, they tend to differ in terms of strain that they consider to be the most influential.

1. Anomie Theory

Anomie theory was developed by Robert Merton and became public in 1938 when the author of the theory voiced his disagreement with the Chicago school criminologists (McMurtry & Curling, 2013). Hence, anomie theory argues that high crime rates in particular and deviance in general were caused by a “rigid adherence to conventional American values” (McMurtry & Curling, 2013). One of the most influential values of the American culture that results in crime, according to Merton, is a belief in economic success, which means that all individuals strive to attain this goal. On the other hand, those individuals who lack legal means to reach their aim engage in criminal activities. Overall, anomie theory focuses on culture and social structures as underlying drivers of criminality, which makes the theory adhere to sociological criminology under Bartol & Bartol (2012).

2. Institutional Anomie Theory

Institutional anomie theory is basically an extension and partial reformulation of anomie theory, the primary authors of which are Messner and Rosenfeld. In their statements, they generally agreed with Merton’s view of the American culture and its relation to criminality (McMurtry & Curling, 2013). However, they added information regarding understanding of the way the American dream promoted an institutional structure, in which the economy dominated over all other domains of social life (McMurtry & Curling, 2013). Hence, such imbalance in the institutional structure prevents other institutions from providing members of the society with positive means of social mobility and imposing controls over their behavior, which, in turn, results in criminality and delinquency. At the same time, the criminological theory considers material success to be at the core of most crimes, which makes it quite similar to anomie theory. Moreover, it also belongs to the category of sociological criminological theories under Bartol & Bartol (2012).

3. Relative Deprivation Theory

Relative deprivation theory supposes that it is insufficient to take into account objective factors, such as materiality, when studying the causes of criminality. On contrary, it is necessary to “delineate the factors that regulate the relationship between objective and subjective status” instead (McMurtry & Curling, 2013). Hence, subjective perception of objective conditions should be studied in an attempt to find out why people commit crimes. Supporters of relative deprivation theory measure “people’s subjective assessment of their economic position or other dimension of social comparison” (McMurtry & Curling, 2013). Although this strain theory recognizes that there may exist different kinds of strains, the most frequently studied and mentioned one is economic strain relating to poverty and inequality. There are several variations of this theory, but all of them focus on the lack of some item or quality that individuals strive to possess and subsequently commit crime to attain, while experiencing responsibility for a failure to initially obtain the desired item and such feelings as anger, frustration, and despair. This theory has many supporters today, but empirical studies focusing on it fail to provide a clear description of causes for all types of crimes committed with the exception of those motivated by economic deprivation.

4. General Strain Theory

a) General strain theory as developed by Robert Agnew

The above described strain theories have many limitations, which was the main reason why Robert Agnew developed his own strain theory as a response to these limitations in 1992 (Lieber & Peck, 2014). He named his theory general strain theory and positioned it as “an alternate perspective to social control and differential association/social learning theories” (Lieber & Peck, 2014, p. 390). Hence, under Bartol & Bartol (2012) the GST can be described as the theory with the socio-psychological perspective, since it has much in common with both sociological criminology and psychological criminology. The GST claims that there are different types of strain that can result in negative coping through criminal and delinquent means and strain can occur in different situations, the overwhelming majority of which do not concern economic goals. Hence, Agnew (1992) claims in his GST that strain results from negative relationships of an individual, including three primary drivers of strain emergence and subsequent delinquency. Firstly, there may be a failure to attain goals that are positively valued (Agnew, 1992). Secondly, there may be strain that stands for an anticipated or actual removal of stimuli that are positively valued (Agnew, 1992). Finally, there may be strain that stands for an anticipated or actual presentation of some negatively valued or noxious stimuli (Agnew, 1992). Overall, the GST claims that these three types of strain are the most likely to make an individual refer to negative coping, i.e. the one envisioning delinquent acts. In addition, there is “a mediating or conditioning factor between experiencing strain and delinquent coping”, which is frequently manifested through “negative affective states”, such as anger or frustration (Lieber & Peck, 2014, p. 391). There exist various kinds of strain that can result in negative affective states, but not all of them lead to crime and delinquency, which is discussed in more detail in Section III.

b) Subsequent improvements of the theory

Initial version of the GST as developed by Agnew (1992) presented a blueprint of the theory that required improvements, additions, empirical testing, and theoretical expansion, which was openly acknowledged by the author (Agnew, 2001). Hence, one of the earliest empirical tests of the GST was presented by Agnew & White (1992) with a peculiar focus on the cumulative effect of strain experienced by an individual and with account for several variables, including self-efficacy and association with delinquent peers. Having applied the GST to the study of 1,380 adolescents, Agnew & White (1992) revealed that the aforementioned strains had a substantial impact on the likelihood of adolescents to engage in delinquency and drug use, which provided empirical support for the theory. Since 1992, the GST has gained significant popularity among researchers who have either used to study causes of criminality or to expand the theory. Thus, Hoskin (2011) has contributed to the understanding of the link between criminality and race under the GST, while the same issue has also been studied by Peck (2011) and Rodriguez & Belshaw (2010). In turn, Jaggers et al. (2014) have performed a longitudinal analysis of the impact of personal and anticipated strain on delinquency. Broidy & Agnew (1997) have focused on explaining differences in criminality between male and female genders with the help of the GST. Peer rejection has also been proven to be a major source of strain that results in criminality and delinquency under the GST (Higgins et al., 2011). In general, over the years, the GST has been subject to numerous improvements, but the underlying premises have remained basically the same.

c) Strengths and weaknesses of the criminological theory

One of the greatest strengths of the GST as a criminological theory is the fact that it combines sociological and psychological perspectives in an effective way, which is proven by the abundance of the empirical evidence supporting key premises of the theory. However, the initial version of the GST does not really specify exact types of strain that result in crime and delinquency. The matter is that “GST is so broad that researchers have little guidance as to the specific types of strain to examine in their research” (Agnew, 2001, p. 320). Hundreds of strains comply with initial specifications mentioned by Agnew (1992). Nevertheless, such weakness has been partially improved by Agnew (2001) when he provided specific features that strain should have to cause delinquency. In fact, strengths and weaknesses of the GST differ in terms of how the theory is perceived and used by the researchers. Thus, for instance, Pack (2011) finds certain limitations of the theory when it is applied to the question of how race is connected with criminality, while Hoskin (2011) supposes otherwise. Nevertheless, the GST has less evident weaknesses than classic strain theories and, since it is constantly improved and expanded, the theory has the potential to become highly effective and efficient in terms of explaining causes of criminality and delinquency with account for various major variables, including race and gender.

Types of Strain That Lead to Crime and Delinquency under General Strain Theory

1. Definition of Strain, Subjective vs Objective Strain, Personal vs Anticipated Strain

Another weakness of the initial theory suggested by Agnew (1992) consisted in the lack of a clear definition of the strain concept, which allowed for multiple interpretations depending on researchers and their personal views. Hence, the initial definition was as follows: “relationships in which others are not treating the individual as he or she would like to be treated” (Agnew, 1992, p. 48). Since this definition resulted in the abundance of the concept interpretations, Agnew (2001) decided to narrow the definition and provide more accurate characteristics of strain that could be used to explain delinquency and criminality. Hence, there are objective and subjective strains with objective strains referring to “events or conditions that are disliked by most members of a given group” (Agnew, 2001, p. 320). Examples of such events include physical assaults, absence of shelter, lack of means to satisfy basic needs, etc. In turn, subjective strains stand for “events or conditions that are disliked by the people who are experiencing or (have experienced) them” (Agnew, 2001, p. 321). It should also be emphasized that different individuals vary in terms of their subjective evaluation of the same objective strains, which should be taken into account when studying this type of strains. Moreover, subjective strain is tightly interrelated with “the emotional response to an event or condition” (Agnew, 2001, p. 322). Some scholars, including Jaggers et al. (2014), differentiate between personal and anticipated strains when conducting their researches. They suppose that anticipated strains include a failure to comply with educational expectations and adult expectations, while personal strains include negative peer influence, positive peer influence, and school connectedness (Jaggers et al., 2014). Thus, they emphasize that both kinds of strains have an impact on delinquency even though anticipated strains are frequently overlooked by the researchers using the GST as their theoretical framework (Jaggers et al., 2014). Characteristics of types of strains that may lead to crimes are given below.

2. Characteristics of Types of Strain that Are the Most Likely to Lead to Crime

According to Agnew (2001), not all strains result in criminality and delinquency. On the other hand, those that are the most likely to cause negative outcomes have some common characteristics. Hence, there are four key characteristics that are used by supporters of the GST to study strains and their impact on crime and delinquency, including “they (1) are seen as unjust, (2) are seen as high in magnitude, (3) are associated with low social control, and (4) create some pressure or incentive to engage in criminal coping” (Agnew, 2001, p. 327). Justness or unjustness applies to all possible strains and depends on the extent to which it is perceived as unjust by an individual. This characteristic frequently results in anger, which, in turn, promotes crime. It is caused by the fact that this negative affective state impedes noncriminal coping and leaves only the option of criminal coping in many instances. In a similar way, a strain that is high in magnitude prevents an individual from referring to noncriminal coping and fosters a disposition to engage in criminal coping. Besides, strains that are high in magnitude, result in more intense anger, which also promotes criminality. Low social control, as a key characteristic of strains that lead to crime may, for instance, include parental rejection, peer rejection, homelessness, or the lack of parental discipline. At the same time, high social control prevents individuals from referring to criminal coping through depriving them of means to do that. Finally, the fourth characteristics concerns appeal of and exposure to criminal and noncriminal coping, as well as with effectiveness of available coping options.

IV. General Strain Theory: Adolescence-Limited vs Life-Course Persistent Offending

1. Adolescence-Limited Offending as Explained by General Strain Theory

The GST can be used to explain both adolescence-limited and life-course persistent offending. In fact, delinquency among adolescents seems to be the most frequently researched issue with the application of the GST as the overall review of the available literature shows. Under the GST, adolescents are likely to engage in more frequent minor offending because they tend to experience “certain strains conducive to crime”, “perceive these strains as highly aversive”, and “cope with these strains through crime” (Baron & Agnew, 2014, p. 119). Adolescents may experience strains conducive to crime because they receive more freedom from parents’ supervision once they are no longer perceived as children, as well as interacting with peers who may promote delinquency. Furthermore, adolescents are highly likely to perceive existing strains as more aversive as compared to the way they would be perceived by children or adults, as well as having a tendency to blame others for their difficulties, thus complying the unjust characteristic of strain. Finally, adolescents can respond to strains with offending more often than adults due to the fact they lack experience at coping. As a result, parents cannot always cope with strains of their adolescent offspring because they are no longer viewed as children. Criminal coping is also prevalent in adolescence due to the lack of conventional social support and resources that could facilitate coping, while adolescents are low in terms of social control. All these factors combined result in the situation when strains experienced by adolescents lead to criminal coping, i.e. in higher rates of delinquency among this age group. Nevertheless, most adolescents outgrow this stage as they acquire social support and learn positive coping.

2. Life-Course Persistent Offending as Explained by General Strain Theory

However, not all adolescents outgrow the stage of their development when they can engage in crime and some individuals remain offenders throughout their entire lives. Under the GST, it may be explained by the fact that “such offenders are more likely to experience strain, interpret such strain as highly aversive, and engage in criminal coping over much of their lives” (Baron & Agnew, 2014, p. 121). Such individuals have some features, such as low constraint and tendency towards negative affective states over their life course, which, in turn, impact the level of their social control and make them perceive virtually objective strains as unjust and high in magnitude. Moreover, they promote willingness to cope with them in a criminal way. Hence, life-course persistent offenders may become angry very fast and are frequently out of control, which provokes negative responses from the society and makes these individuals engage in criminal behavior. In addition to experiencing many objective strains, such individuals also perceive them as unjust and high in magnitude, which increases the possibility of criminal coping. In addition, the offenders with low constraint and negative emotionality, known as life-course persistent offenders, can also be individuals without such traits. Thus, under the GST, people who “are most likely to be poor and live in poor communities” are also at a high risk of becoming life-course persistent offenders even without low constraint and negative emotionality due to the crime-inducing environment (Baron & Agnew, 2014, p. 122). The main reason for this tendency is the lack of resources and conventional social support that would facilitate noncriminal coping with strains. Moreover, “life-course persistent offending may result from what is known as the proliferation of strain” (Baron & Agnew, 2014, p. 122). It means that an individual is exposed to a chain of strains that cause each other and constantly lead to more strains, which can make an individual choose criminal coping to break the vicious circle. Overall, the GST may definitely be used to explain both adolescence-limited and life-course persistent offending, as well as to clarify why adults refrain from crime after growing out of their adolescence stage of development.

V. General Strain Theory and Race

1. Efficacy of General Strain Theory in Explaining Race Differences Relating to Criminality

As it was mentioned above, race has been widely studied within the framework of the GST with a view to explaining its correlation with criminality and propensity of certain ethnic groups to engage in more crimes than others. However, findings relating to efficacy of the criminological theory under consideration in explaining race differences pertaining to crime differ depending on researchers and groups studied. Thus, Peck (2011) has studied White, Hispanic, and Black youth with the use of the GST and has found no statistical differences relating to the groups’ experiences of strains and subsequent delinquent behavior. Such finding contradicts the real-life statistics, according to which, ethnic minorities have higher rates of crime than the ethnic majority (Peck, 2011). However, there is a possibility that the research by Peck (2011) failed to account for the varying impact of different strains on different ethnic groups. In turn, Hoskin (2011) has found that a high level of race-related prejudice at school increases the chances of African American males with high self-esteem engaging in serious violence and crime. An interesting finding has been presented by Rodrigues & Belshaw (2010) who claim that Latino youth suffer from more strains, including the race-related ones, than their White peers. Nevertheless, they are less likely to refer to delinquent coping. One of the possible reasons for this finding is the different dynamics within Latino groups, but the lack of research regarding this ethnic minority within the framework of the GST does not allow making any relevant exhaustive conclusions.

2. The Link between Race and Delinquency as Explained by General Strain Theory

In general, the GST points out that race issues can become the source of significant strains that are perceived by ethnic minorities as unjust and high in magnitude. Hence, race discrimination, irrespective of whether it is actual or perceived, and prejudice may enhance negative affective states among representatives of ethnic minorities, which can lead to increased violence and delinquency. It is caused by the fact that ethnic groups that are characterized by low social control, lack conventional support systems, and highly violent intergroup dynamics, in particular among males. Therefore, race discrimination is an essential source of strain, which increases the probability that ethnic minorities will experience other types of strains caused by the existing ones, including stigmatization, unemployment, peer abuse, etc. However, more researchers on the correlation of race and crime within various ethnic groups is needed as currently the GST is mostly applied to studies of Whites and African Americans, while Hispanics and Native Americans are rarely studied with the use of this theoretical framework.

VI. General Strain Theory and Gender

1. Efficacy of General Strain Theory in Explaining Gender Differences Relating to Criminality

Researches focusing on the study of crime and gender are usually concerned with two key questions, including the reason behind a higher crime rate among males than females and explanations of why females engage in crime. Broidy & Agnew (1997) claim that the GST can be used to answer these questions and explain the link between gender and crime. The main reason for such a claim is the fact that males and females evidently experience different types of strains, including the ones that are most likely to lead to crime. Moreover, both genders can react to these strains with negative affective states, including anger. However, it should be noted that males and females experience different types of strains and tend to respond to them differently, as well. Thus, research shows that females experience more strains relating to their network dynamics, excessive demands from others, gender-based discrimination, and “low prestige in their work and family roles” (Broidy & Agnew, 1997, p. 295). In turn, males experience more financial strains, criminal victimization, and interpersonal conflicts with peers (Broidy & Agnew, 1997). However, additional research focusing on gender differences in terms of strains experienced and ways of coping with them is required. Nonetheless, the GST seems to be well-equipped for studying the link between gender and crime and for explaining causes of the genders engaging in criminal behavior.

2. The Link between Gender and Delinquency as Explained by General Strain Theory

In general, the GST can explain differences in rates of female and male crime involvement by pointing out that the two genders experience different types of strain, which result in different responses and affective states caused by the strains. Hence, males have a higher crime rate, since they experience strains that are more conducive to criminal coping, while females experience strains that are not conducive to violence. Besides, strains experienced by women envision high levels of social control and limited criminal coping options, which further reduces their chances of engaging in violent crimes. At the same time, both genders currently start experiencing similar types of strains, especially financial strains, which can align their crime rates in certain fields in the future under the GST. Furthermore, emotional responses of the two genders to strains are different. Even though both genders experience anger in response to severe strains, female anger is accompanied with depression, shame, and guilt, which reduces the possibility of engaging in crime and increases chances of self-inflicted harm. In turn, male anger usually results in violence and crime.

General Strain Theory and Peer Rejection

1. Peer Rejection as Strain that Is Highly Likely to Lead to Crime and Delinquency

Peer rejection is considered to be connected with violence and delinquency even though current researches indicate that this relation may not be as simple as it might seem (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). Thus, not all aggressive children are rejected by peers, but aggression combined with peer rejection can result in delinquency (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). Moreover, children and adolescents who are rejected by peers are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviors as they become suspicious of others, treat them in a hostile way, and generally become more inclined to respond with aggression and violence to further rejection (Siegel, 2007). Furthermore, it is supposed that contrary to peer rejection, peer acceptance can reduce delinquency as “having prosocial friends who are committed to conventional success may help shield kids from crime-producing inducements in their environment” (Siegel, 2007, p. 220). Within the GST, peer rejection is considered to be a strain that may lead to crime and delinquency. The matter is that peers are integral for normal development of an individual, especially in adolescence, while peer relationships become essential for predicting whether adolescents will engage in pro-social or antisocial behaviors (Higgins et al., 2011). Thus, peer rejection becomes a highly stressful event that results in less developed social skills, low social control, and overall tendency to resort to criminal coping. Moreover, rejected individuals may perceive the situation as unfair and high in magnitude due to the significance of socialization and acceptance, which turns peer rejection into a strain that can result in crime and delinquency.

2. Empirical Studies Proving that Peer Rejection Helps Explain Crime and Delinquency under General Strain Theory

There exist several empirical studies focusing on peer rejection and its correlation with aggression and delinquency. However, most of them focus on boys as the sample, while largely overlooking the study of peer rejection among girls. Available studies on gender differences in peer rejection show that delinquency among girls just like among boys can be predicted through the study of peer rejection (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). At the same time, it has been revealed that correlation between peer rejection and delinquency among boys is higher than among girls (Bartol & Bartol, 2012). Furthermore, the empirical study by Higgins et al. (2011) proves that this correlation can be explained through the GST. Hence, it has been proven that high peer rejection is related “to high delinquency/crime among males but not among females” (Higgins et al., 2011, p. 1272). This difference should be further studied with account for gender differences as explained through their relation to crime under the criminological theory under consideration.

Conclusion

Although the GST is a relatively recent criminological theory, it has gained wide support within the scholarly discourse due to its strengths and applicability to real-life situations. Hence, the GST has proven to be effective and efficient when studying correlations between race and crime, gender and crime, as well as other variables and crime. It is undeniable that the theory under consideration has some limitations, such as, for example, a high number of strains that can result in crime and delinquency due to their potential to cause negative affective states. Nevertheless, various theoretical and empirical studies are aimed at constantly improving the theory and its key premises. Hence, its original author has significantly contributed to the comprehension of strains with specific characteristics mentioned above that can result in crime as compared to strains without these characteristics. With account for real-life applicability and identified weaknesses and strengths, the GST is an effective theory of criminology in terms of providing a psycho-social explanation of crime and explaining a connection between strains and violence with account for such key variables as gender, race, and peer rejection.