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Criminology Strain Theories
by
Robert Agnew, Heather Scheuerman

Introduction

Strain theories state that certain strains or stressors increase the likelihood of crime. These strains lead to negative emotions, such as frustration and anger. These emotions create pressure for corrective action, and crime is one possible response. Crime may be used to reduce or escape from strain, seek revenge against the source of strain or related targets, or alleviate negative emotions. For example, individuals experiencing chronic unemployment may engage in theft or drug selling to obtain money, seek revenge against the person who fired them, or take illicit drugs in an effort to feel better. The major versions of strain theory describe 1) the particular strains most likely to lead to crime, 2) why strains increase crime, and 3) the factors that lead a person to or dissuade a person from responding to strains with crime. All strain theories acknowledge that only a minority of strained individuals turn to crime. Emile Durkheim developed the first modern strain theory of crime and deviance, but Merton’s classic strain theory and its offshoots came to dominate criminology during the middle part of the 20th century. Classic strain theory focuses on that type of strain involving the inability to achieve monetary success or the somewhat broader goal of middle-class status. Classic strain theory fell into decline during the 1970s and 1980s, partly because research appeared to challenge it. There were several attempts to revise strain theory, most arguing that crime may result from the inability to achieve a range of goals—not just monetary success or middle-class status. Robert Agnew developed his general strain theory (GST) in 1992, and it has since become the leading version of strain theory and one of the major theories of crime. GST focuses on a broad range of strains, including the inability to achieve a variety of goals, the loss of valued possessions, and negative treatment by others. GST has been applied to a range of topics, including the explanation of gender, race/ethnicity, age, community, and societal differences in crime rates. It has also been applied to many types of crime and deviance, including corporate crime, police deviance, bullying, suicide, terrorism, and eating disorders. Much evidence suggests that the strains identified by GST increase the likelihood of crime, although the predictions of GST about the types of people most likely to respond to these strains with crime have received less support.

General Overviews

Strain theories are among the leading theories of crime and so are routinely discussed in textbooks, handbooks, and encyclopedia dealing with crime theories. The selections by Agnew and Brezina 2010, Akers and Sellers 2008, Bernard, et al. 2009, and Kubrin, et al. 2009 are among the better overviews of strain theory—each with particular strengths described below. They are suitable for everyone from undergraduates through professional criminologists. The readers by Passas and Agnew 1997 and Adler and Laufer 1995 are intended for graduate students and professionals. They both contain reviews, tests, and extensions of the leading strain theories. Certain of these selections also discuss anomie theory, which is closely related to strain theory. Anomie refers to a breakdown in social regulation or “normlessness,” and it may lead to strain at the individual level. See entry Anomie.

  • Adler, Freda, and William S. Laufer, eds. 1995. The legacy of anomie theory. Advances in Criminological Theory 6. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Edited volume begins with an introduction by Robert Merton, who reviews and extends his classic strain theory, followed by a range of articles that review, apply, test, and extend strain theory.

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  • Agnew, Robert, and Timothy Brezina. 2010. Strain theories. In Sage handbook of criminological theory. Edited by Eugene McLaughlin and Tim Newburn. London: SAGE.

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    Provides an overview of the leading versions of strain theory; noteworthy for its coverage of general strain theory.

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  • Akers, Ronald L., and Christine S. Sellers. 2008. Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application. 5th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    One chapter provides an overview of the leading strain/anomie theories and the research on them.

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  • Bernard, Thomas J., Jeffrey B. Snipes, and Alexander L. Gerould. 2009. Vold’s theoretical criminology. 6th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The strain theories chapter in this text provides an especially good discussion of the development of the classic strain theories of Merton, Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin; the attacks on these theories; and the relationship between strain and anomie theories.

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  • Kubrin, Charis E., Thomas D. Stucky, and Marvin D. Krohn. 2009. Researching theories of crime and deviance. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    One chapter provides an overview of classic strain theory and general strain theory, with an extended discussion of how key concepts in these theories have been measured and how the theories have been tested.

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  • Passas, Nikos, and Robert Agnew, eds. 1997. The future of anomie theory. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    This edited volume features an introduction and eight chapters that test, apply, and extend strain and anomie theories—often by linking them to concepts in other areas, such as reference groups, identity, organizations, social capital, and social support.

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Classic Strain Theory

Classic strain theory defines strain in terms of the inability of individuals to achieve their success goals, particularly the goal of monetary success. Emile Durkheim 1966 developed the first version of classic strain theory, arguing that a breakdown in social regulation leads individuals to pursue unlimited goals. The frustration and despair that results from the inability to achieve such goals may result in crime and suicide. Durkheim’s version of strain theory has not attracted much attention in criminology, but it helped inspire Robert Merton’s version of classic strain theory, described in Merton 1938 and Merton 1968. Developed during the Depression, this theory focuses on the inability of lower-class individuals to achieve the goal of monetary success. His theory and its offshoots were the leading explanations of crime during the middle of the 20th century. Albert Cohen 1955 drew on Merton’s strain theory to explain the origin and nature of juvenile gangs, which were a major concern in the United States during the 1950s. In particular, Cohen uses strain theory to explain why individuals form “deviant subcultures” or groups that regularly engage in and hold values conducive to crime. In doing so, he links Merton’s strain theory with Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory, another major theory of crime. Cloward and Ohlin 1960 also draws on Merton’s strain theory to explain the origin of juvenile gangs, with a focus on explaining why different communities sometimes develop different types of gangs—some focusing on violence, some on theft, and some on drug use. Cohen later extended his strain theory in Cohen 1965, arguing that individuals compare themselves to others when deciding whether they are experiencing strain and how they should respond to it. The selection by Young 2010 focuses on the development of Cohen’s strain theory, particularly the manner in which others used it to explain the origin of deviant subcultures.

  • Cloward, Richard A., and Lloyd E. Ohlin. 1960. Delinquency and opportunity: A theory of delinquent gangs. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    Drawing on Merton’s strain theory, argues that crime is more likely when individuals lack the opportunity to achieve monetary success. Its major contribution, however, is the concept of “illegitimate opportunities” or the idea that some individuals have more opportunities than others to engage in particular types of crime.

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  • Cohen, Albert K. 1955. Delinquent boys: The culture of the gang. New York: Free Press.

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    A classic text that draws on Merton’s strain theory to explain the formation of juvenile gangs and deviant subcultures more generally. Individuals unable to achieve conventional success goals may band together, creating a subculture that approves of or justifies crime.

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  • Cohen, Albert K. 1965. The sociology of the deviant act: Anomie theory and beyond. American Sociological Review 30:5–14.

    DOI: 10.2307/2091770Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Cohen extends Merton’s and his own strain theory in this key article, arguing that individuals compare themselves to others when deciding whether they are experiencing strain and deciding what to do about it.

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  • Durkheim, Emile. 1966. Suicide: A study in sociology. New York: Free Press.

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    The chapter on anomic suicide presents the first modern strain theory. Societies are said to regulate individual goals, such that people have a reasonable chance of achieving them. But at certain times, such as periods of rapid social change, social regulation breaks down and individuals pursue unattainable goals—with suicide and crime often the result. Originally published in 1897.

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  • Merton, Robert K. 1938. Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3.5: 672–682.

    DOI: 10.2307/2084686Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first part of this classic article presents Merton’s anomie theory, explaining why some societies have higher crime rates than do others. The second part presents his strain theory, explaining why lower-class individuals in many societies have higher crime rates: they are prevented from achieving the goal of monetary success.

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  • Merton, Robert K. 1968. Social theory and social structure. New York: Free Press.

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    Two chapters in this volume focus on Merton’s strain theory; Merton reviews certain of the research on the theory, responds to criticisms of the theory, and elaborates on the ideas originally presented in his 1938 article.

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  • Young, Jock. 2010. Sub-cultural Theory: Virtues and Vices.

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    Traces the development of Cohen’s 1965 subcultural deviance theory, much of it carried out by British criminologists and drawing on conflict as well as strain theory. Deviant subcultures are seen as a form of resistance to class domination.

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Early Tests and Evaluations

The classic strain theories of Merton, Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin were tested in the decades following their development. Most tests examined the educational and occupational aspirations (ideal goals) and expectations of individuals. If classic strain theory is correct, those who do not expect to achieve their ideal goals should commit more crimes than do others. Most research, however, finds that this is not the case. Hirschi 1969 provides one of the most widely cited examples of the tests in this area. Classic strain theory was also criticized on other grounds; for example, self-report data showing a weak relationship between social class and crime was said to contradict the theory. The selection by Kornhauser 1978 provides an overview of the research on and criticisms of classic strain theory. Kornhauser concludes that the theory is flawed and should be abandoned. And, indeed, strain theory came close to being abandoned in the 1970s and 1980s. The selections by Agnew 1997, Bernard 1984, and Burton and Cullen 1992, however, question much of the research on and criticisms of classic strain theory. These selections helped contribute to a revival of classic strain theory, described in Revival. Most of the work on classic strain theory focuses on explaining individual differences in crime. But Blau and Blau 1982 draws on classic strain theory to explain community differences in violent crime, while Messner 1989 draws on the theory to explain societal differences in homicide. Both sets of researchers measure strain in terms of the extent of economic inequality in an area, particularly inequality due to discrimination. Such inequality suggests that some people are being unfairly prevented from achieving their economic goals. These studies find a strong relationship between inequality and crime rates. The review of macro-level research by Pratt and Cullen 2005 confirms the importance of inequality—as well as poverty—in explaining crime across communities and societies. So while the research on classic strain theory at the individual level has produced mixed results, the macro-level research has been more supportive.

  • Agnew, Robert. 1997. The nature and determinants of strain: Another look at Durkheim and Merton. In The future of anomie theory. Edited by Nikos Passas and Robert Agnew, 27–51. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Provides a detailed overview of the strain theories of Durkheim and Merton, argues that they have not been well tested, and presents much guidance on how they should be tested.

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  • Bernard, Thomas J. 1984. Control criticisms of strain theories: An assessment of theoretical and empirical adequacy. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 21.4: 353–372.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427884021004005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the major theoretical and empirical criticisms of classic strain theories, including those made in Kornhauser 1978. Concludes that they are unfounded, and discusses evidence suggesting that classic strain theory may provide a viable explanation of serious delinquency.

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  • Blau, Judith R., and Peter M. Blau. 1982. The cost of inequality: Metropolitan structure and violent crime. American Sociological Review 47.1: 114–129.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095046Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Draws on classic strain theory to explain community differences in rates of violent crime; finds that racial inequality in socioeconomic conditions has a large effect on urban violence. Inspired much additional research on inequality and crime.

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  • Burton, Velmer S., Jr., and Francis T. Cullen. 1992. The empirical status of strain theory. Journal of Crime and Justice 15:1–30.

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    Reviews the empirical research on classic strain theory and argues that the way in which strain is measured has a large impact on whether it is related to crime. Suggests better ways of measuring strain, including the use of measures of relative deprivation.

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  • Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    This book presents Hirschi’s version of social control theory, but sections of it provide tests of classic strain theory. These tests and others like them contributed to the decline in the popularity of classic strain theory that began in the 1970s.

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  • Kornhauser, Ruth. 1978. Social sources of delinquency: An appraisal of analytic models. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    The most comprehensive critique of classic strain theory, providing an overview of research suggesting that the theory is wrong and pointing to logical and other problems in each of the major classic strain theories.

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  • Messner, Steven F. 1989. Economic discrimination and societal homicide rates: Further evidence of the cost of inequality. American Sociological Review 54.4: 597–611.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095881Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Draws on classic strain theory and the work of Blau and Blau 1982 to examine the causes of societal differences in homicide rates. Finds that homicide is higher in countries that engage in economic discrimination against social groups, such as race/ethnic and religious groups.

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  • Pratt, Travis C., and Francis T. Cullen. 2005. Assessing macro-level predictors and theories of crime: A meta-analysis. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 32:373–450.

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    A systematic review of the research on the predictors of crime in communities and societies; finds that economic inequality and poverty are among the better macro-level predictors.

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Revival

Classic strain theory fell into a decline beginning in the 1970s, in large part because of research suggesting that it was wrong. Some criminologists, however, argued that this research was flawed (see Early Tests and Evaluations). And there has been a small revival of research on classic strain theory in recent decades. The theory predicts that the inability to achieve economic success or middle-class status through legal channels is a major cause of crime. Previous research measured such strain by focusing on the gap between occupational and educational aspirations and expectations. The new research employs more direct measures of economic strain. Burton and Dunaway 1994 measures economic strain in terms of relative deprivation: do individuals feel economically deprived compared to others in their “reference group”? This focus on relative deprivation derives from several sources, including Merton’s own work on reference groups. Passas 1997 discusses the notion of relative deprivation and reference groups in some detail and, among other things, argues that it allows classic strain theory to explain crime among both the poor and the wealthy. Agnew, et al. 1996 measures economic strain in terms of how dissatisfied people are with their monetary situation. Agnew, et al. 2008 measures economic strain in terms of whether individuals experience a range of economic problems, such as trouble paying bills and having to postpone medical care. Farnworth and Leiber 1989 measures the disjunction between economic goals and educational expectations. Cernkovich, et al. 2000 measures the importance of material success and satisfaction with one’s economic situation. Baron 2007 measures monetary dissatisfaction, relative deprivation, and homelessness. And Baumer and Gustafson 2007 measures the commitment to monetary success along with the attainment of such success. These and other studies tend to find that economic strain is related to crime, providing support for classic strain theory.

  • Agnew, Robert, Francis T. Cullen, Velmer S. Burton, Jr., T. David Evans, and R. Gregory Dunaway. 1996. A new test of classic strain theory. Justice Quarterly 13:681–704.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829600093151Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that dissatisfaction with one’s monetary status affects crime among a sample of Cincinnati adults. Monetary dissatisfaction, in turn, is affected by several factors, including the desire for a lot of money, feeling relatively deprived, and class position.

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  • Agnew, Robert, Shelley Keith Matthews, Jacob Bucher, Adria N. Welcher, and Corey Keyes. 2008. Socioeconomic status, economic problems, and delinquency. Youth and Society 40.2: 159–181.

    DOI: 10.1177/0044118X08318119Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using a national sample of juveniles, finds that the experience of economic problems has a larger effect on crime than does socioeconomic status. Further, socioeconomic status is only modestly related to economic problems.

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  • Baron, Stephen W. 2007. Street youth, gender, financial strain, and crime: Exploring Broidy and Agnew’s extension to general strain theory. Deviant Behavior 28:273–302.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620701233217Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the effect of homelessness, monetary dissatisfaction, and relative deprivation on crime among a sample of street youth in Canada. Finds that these factors affect crime, although the effects sometimes depend on gender and the type of crime.

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  • Baumer, Eric P., and Regan Gustafson. 2007. Social organization and instrumental crime: Assessing the empirical validity of classic and contemporary anomie theories. Criminology 45.3: 617–664.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2007.00090.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tests anomie and strain theory with data from 77 geographic areas in the United States. The strain tests find that crime is higher in areas where people are strongly committed to pursuing monetary success, but many have not achieved such success and levels of inequality are high.

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  • Burton, Velmer S., Jr., and R. Gregory Dunaway. 1994. Strain, relative deprivation, and middle-class delinquency. In Varieties of criminology: Readings from a dynamic discipline. Edited by Gregg Barak, 79–95. Praeger Series in Criminology and Crime Control Policy. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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    Finds that feelings of relative deprivation affect crime among a sample of suburban high school students. Relatively deprived students feel they don’t have as much money/possessions as others and they are bothered by it. Findings help explain why inequality at the macro-level is linked to crime.

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  • Cernkovich, Stephen A., Peggy C. Giordano, and Jennifer L. Rudolph. 2000. Race, crime, and the American dream. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 37.2: 131–170.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427800037002001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the effect of commitment to material goals, economic satisfaction, income, and other factors on crime among a sample of young adults in Ohio. Finds that blacks have a stronger commitment to material success than do whites. However, the inability to achieve material success affects crime among whites, but not among blacks.

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  • Farnworth, Margaret, and Michael L. Leiber. 1989. Strain theory revisited: Economic goals, educational means, and delinquency. American Sociological Review 54.2: 263–274.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095794Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Measures strain in terms of the disjunction between economic goals and educational expectations and finds that Seattle high school students who want lots of money, but expect less education, are higher in delinquency. Jensen challenges this finding in a study reported in Adler and Laufer 1995 (see General Overviews).

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  • Passas, Nikos. 1997. Anomie, reference groups, and relative deprivation. In The future of anomie theory. Edited by Nikos Passas and Robert Agnew, 62–94. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Passas links Merton’s strain theory to his work on reference groups, arguing that people compare themselves to those in their reference group and, in doing so, determine whether they are relatively deprived. Crime is high in the United State partly because people are encouraged to compare themselves to much wealthier others.

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Revisions

The attacks on classic strain theory in the 1970s and 1980s prompted several researchers to revise the theory. Most of these revisions stated that individuals pursue a variety of goals, not simply the goal of monetary success. Strain may stem from the inability to achieve any of these goals. Further, middle-class individuals may have as much trouble achieving certain of these goals as lower-class people. Greenberg 1977 argues that adolescents pursue several goals, including popularity with peers, money (which helps achieve popularity), autonomy from adults, and—in the case of males—masculine status. Elliott, et al. 1985 argues that adolescents pursue goals such as good relations with parents and success in school. Messerschmidt 1993 focuses on the goal of masculine status, with the definition of masculinity differing somewhat across class, age, and race/ethnic groups. And Agnew 1984 draws on this and other research to argue that adolescents pursue a broad range of goals. As noted in these selections, the research here is mixed. The inability to achieve certain goals, such as masculine status, through legal channels does appear to be related to crime. But the inability to achieve other goals, such as educational success, does not appear to be related to crime. Partly as a result, other revisions in classic strain theory were developed, revisions that did not define strain in terms of the inability of individuals to achieve their goals. Agnew 1985 defines strain in terms of the inability to escape from painful or aversive environments. His work set the stage for the development of general strain theory, now the leading version of strain theory (see General Strain Theory).

  • Agnew, Robert. 1984. Goal achievement and delinquency. Sociology and Social Research 68.4: 435–451.

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    Using data from a national sample of adolescent boys, finds that the inability to achieve academic, student activity, athletic, affiliation, success, and other goals is unrelated to delinquency. Speculates this is attributable to the fact that almost all adolescents report they are achieving at least some of their goals.

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  • Agnew, Robert. 1985. A revised strain theory of delinquency. Social Forces 64:151–167.

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    Argues that strain not only results from the blockage of goal-seeking behavior, but also from the blockage of pain-avoidance behavior (the inability to legally escape from aversive family, school, and other environments). Finds support for this argument in a national sample of adolescent boys.

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  • Elliott, Delbert S., David Huizinga, and Suzanne S. Ageton. 1985. Explaining delinquency and drug use. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    States that strain may result from the failure to achieve several goals, including getting along with parents and school success. Such strain is said to reduce bonds to conventional others, increase delinquent peer association, and directly affect crime. Finds support for the effect of strain on conventional bonds in a national study of adolescents.

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  • Greenberg, David. 1977. Delinquency and the age structure of society. Crime, Law and Social Change 1.2: 189–223.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00728871Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Draws on strain and conflict theory to explain why adolescents, particularly males, have higher rates of offending. Argues that they pursue goals such as popularity with peers, money, autonomy from adults, and masculine status; but often have trouble achieving these goals through legal channels.

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  • Messerschmidt, James W. 1993. Masculinities and crime: Critique and reconceptualization of theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    Argues that males must regularly demonstrate their masculine status, with notions of masculinity varying somewhat by age, class, and race/ethnicity. Although not drawing explicitly on strain theory, states that men who have difficulty accomplishing masculinity through legal means may use crime to demonstrate their masculinity.

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General Strain Theory

General strain theory (GST) builds on classic strain theory and its revisions (see Classic Strain Theory and Revisions). GST broadly defines strains as “events or conditions that are disliked by individuals.” Strains include the inability to achieve valued goals, including goals such as monetary success, autonomy, and thrills/excitement. Strains also include the loss of positive stimuli (e.g., the murder of a friend, loss of money) and the presentation of negative stimuli (e.g., verbal and physical abuse). Such strains increase the likelihood of crime in several ways. Most notably, they contribute to anger and other negative emotions, which create pressure for corrective action. Individuals may engage in crime to reduce or escape from strains, seek revenge against the source of strain, or alleviate their negative emotions (through illicit drug use). Whether individuals respond to strains with crime, however, is influenced or conditioned by a range of factors. Robert Agnew 1992 developed GST, and it is now the dominant version of strain theory and one of the major theories of crime. The theory is described in a series of publications. Agnew 2001 describes the types of strain most likely to lead to crime. Agnew 2002 argues that experienced, vicarious, and anticipated strains may contribute to crime. Agnew 2006a presents an overview of the theory, reviews the research on it, and discusses ways in which the theory should be further developed. Agnew 2006b provides a book-length treatment of GST, suitable for undergraduates through professionals. This book provides the most complete treatment of GST. And Agnew 2010 discusses the policy implications of GST.

  • Agnew, Robert. 1992. Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology 30.1: 47–87.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1992.tb01093.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Evaluates earlier versions of strain theory and describes the general strain theory of crime and delinquency, including the types of strain that cause crime, why they cause crime, and the factors that influence whether individuals respond to strains with crime.

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  • Agnew, Robert. 2001. Building on the foundation of general strain theory: Specifying the types of strain most likely to lead to crime and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 38.4: 319–361.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427801038004001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes in detail the types of strain most likely to cause crime, with such strains being high in magnitude, seen as unjust, associated with low social control, and creating some pressure or incentive for criminal coping.

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  • Agnew, Robert. 2002. Experienced, vicarious, and anticipated strain: An exploratory study on physical victimization and delinquency. Justice Quarterly 19.4: 603–631.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820200095371Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    States that in addition to personally experienced strains, strains experienced by close others (vicarious strains) and strains expected to occur in the future (anticipated strains) may cause crime. Finds that experienced, vicarious, and anticipated victimization affect crime in a national sample of adolescent boys.

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  • Agnew, Robert. 2006a. General strain theory: Current status and directions for further research. In Taking stock: The status of criminological theory. Edited by Francis T. Cullen, John Paul Wright, and Kristie R. Blevins, 101–123. Advances in Criminological Theory 15. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Presents an overview of general strain theory, reviews research on the theory, and describes how the theory explains group differences in crime and crime across the life course, and why some situations are more likely to evoke crime than others.

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  • Agnew, Robert. 2006b. Pressured into crime: An overview of general strain theory. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

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    The most complete source on general strain theory (GST); provides an overview of the theory and research on it. Discusses the strains most likely to cause crime, why such strains cause crime, why some individuals are more likely to respond to strains with crime, the use of GST to explain group differences in crime, and other topics.

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  • Agnew, Robert. 2010. Controlling crime: Recommendations from general strain theory. In Criminology and public policy: Putting theory to work. Edited by Hugh D. Barlow and Scott H. Decker, 25–44. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    A detailed discussion of the policy implications of general strain theory, including efforts to reduce exposure to strains by altering the environment and the characteristics of individuals, and efforts to reduce the likelihood that individuals will cope with the strains they do experience through crime.

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Tests of General Strain Theory

The central propositions of general strain theory (GST) have been tested in scores of studies. Most such studies examine whether the strains identified by GST affect crime; many also examine whether the effect of these strains is mediated by negative emotions, particularly anger; and many examine whether the conditioning factors listed in GST influence the effect of these strains on crime. Further, certain of these studies are longitudinal, employing data collected over time; thus allowing researchers to better determine if strain actually causes crime. Beyond that, the studies differ in a good many ways, including the samples employed and the specific strains examined. The studies listed in this section are among the more comprehensive and/or innovative studies of GST conducted since its inception. Agnew and White 1992 conducted the first empirical test of GST. Paternoster and Mazerolle 1994 tested the theory using longitudinal data from a national sample of adolescents. Brezina 1996 conducted one of the more innovative tests of the theory, examining whether delinquency reduces the negative emotions associated with strain. Hagan and McCarthy 1997 conducted a qualitative and quantitative test of the theory in a sample of street youth, who are generally involved in more serious delinquency. Hoffmann and Miller 1998 conducted one of the more sophisticated tests of the theory. Aseltine, et al. (2000) were among the first to examine the role of negative emotions in the theory. Baron 2004 has conducted one of the most comprehensive tests of the most recent version of the theory. Rebellon, et al. 2009 conducted the first experimental test of theory. Many other excellent tests of GST are described in other sections of this bibliography.

  • Agnew, Robert, and Helene Raskin White. 1992. An empirical test of general strain theory. Criminology 30.4: 475–499.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1992.tb01113.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first test of general strain theory, employing longitudinal data from a sample of New Jersey adolescents. Finds that negative life events, life hassles, and negative family relations affect delinquency, particularly among those with delinquent friends and low in self-efficacy.

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  • Aseltine, Robert H., Jr., Susan Gore, and Jennifer Gordon. 2000. Life stress, anger and anxiety, and delinquency: An empirical test of general strain theory. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 41.3: 256–275.

    DOI: 10.2307/2676320Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on the role of negative emotions in general strain theory, using longitudinal data from a sample of Boston high school students. In a series of sophisticated statistical tests, finds that negative life events, family conflict, and peer conflict affect certain types of crime fully or partly through their effect on anger and anxiety; but finds weak support for conditioning effects.

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  • Baron, Stephen W. 2004. General strain theory, street youth, and crime: A test of Agnew’s revised theory. Criminology 42.2: 457–483.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2004.tb00526.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a sample of homeless street youth in Vancouver, provides one of the most comprehensive tests of the most recent statements of general strain theory. Finds that several strains affect anger, and both strains and anger affect crime, but mixed results regarding conditioning effects.

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  • Brezina, Timothy. 1996. Adapting to strain: An examination of delinquent coping responses. Criminology 34.1: 39–60.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1996.tb01194.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An innovative test of general strain theory. Using data from a national sample of adolescent boys, finds that strains lead to negative emotions, but that individuals who respond to strains with delinquency are less likely to experience such emotions. Suggests that delinquency may be a partially effective way to cope with strains.

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  • Hagan, John, and Bill McCarthy. 1997. Mean streets: Youth crime and homelessness. Cambridge Criminology series. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511625497Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A qualitative and quantitative study of street youth in Toronto and Vancouver. Finds that several measures of strain or adversity affect crime, including hunger, the absence of secure shelter, and unemployment. Noteworthy for its mixed-method approach.

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  • Hoffmann, John P., and Alan S. Miller. 1998. A latent variable analysis of general strain theory. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 14.1: 83–110.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1023048509438Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using longitudinal data from a sample of adolescents in a midwestern US city, provides one of the more statistically sophisticated tests of general strain theory (GST). Finds that negative life events reduce social control and increase delinquency, but their effect is not conditioned by self-efficacy, self-esteem, or delinquent peers as GST predicts.

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  • Paternoster, Raymond, and Paul Mazzerolle. 1994. General strain theory and delinquency: Replication and extension. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 31.3: 235–263.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427894031003001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tests general strain theory with longitudinal data from a national sample of adolescents. Finds several measures of strain affect delinquency, both directly and by reducing social control and increasing delinquent peer association. The effect of strain on delinquency, however, is not conditioned by several key variables.

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  • Rebellon, Cesar J., Nicole Leeper Piquero, Alex R. Piquero, and Sherod Thaxton. 2009. Do frustrated economic expectations and objective economic inequity promote crime?: A randomized experiment testing Agnew’s general strain theory. European Journal of Criminology 6.1: 47–71.

    DOI: 10.1177/1477370808098105Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides the first experimental test of general strain theory, focusing on two neglected types of strain. Finds that the disjunctions between expected and actual outcomes, and between fair and actual outcomes, affect both anger and intentions to offend.

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The Role of Emotions

General strain theory (GST) states that strains lead to crime for several reasons. They may create personality traits conducive to crime, such as negative emotionality; they may reduce ties to conventional others and institutions; they may foster beliefs conducive to crime; and they may lead to association with criminal peers. GST, however, focuses on the effect of strains on negative emotions, such as anger. These emotions create pressure for corrective action and, in certain cases, lower inhibitions, create a desire for revenge, and/or impede the ability to cope in a legal manner. Many studies have examined whether negative emotions explain the effect of strains on crime; with several representative and innovative studies below. Initially, research focused on the effect of strains on trait or dispositional anger; that is, the general tendency to respond to stressors with anger. Brezina 1998 provides an example; he finds that trait anger partly explains the effect of adolescent maltreatment on delinquency. Other research has also found that certain strains increase trait anger, and such anger impacts certain types of delinquency, particularly violence. GST, however, focuses primarily on the effect of strains on state or situational anger; that is, GST argues that particular strains lead to specific angry outbursts. The selections by Broidy 2001, Mazerolle, et al. 2003 and Jang and Johnson 2003 suggest that state anger mediate a significant part of the effect of strains on crime, especially violence. GST also deals with negative emotions such as frustration, depression, and fear. The selections by Broidy 2001, Jang and Johnson 2003 and Sigfusdottir, et al. 2004 deal with certain of these emotions (as do several other papers cited elsewhere in this bibliography). Findings here are mixed—sometimes these other emotions mediate the impact of strains on crime and sometimes they do not. Ganem 2010 suggests a possible explanation: particular types of strain may lead to particular negative emotions, which in turn lead to particular types of crime. Bao, et al. 2004 and Jang and Johnson 2003 provide some support for this, suggesting that certain emotions are more strongly related to some types of crime than to others. Finally, the selection by Brezina 2010 links negative emotions, particularly anger, to attitudes favoring aggression. While GST focuses on negative emotions as a mediating variable between strain and crime, it also states that strain leads to crime for additional reasons, including its effect on attitudes.

  • Bao, Wan-Ning, Ain Haas, and Yijun Pi. 2004. Life strain, negative emotions, and delinquency: An empirical test of general strain theory in the People’s Republic of China. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 48.3: 281–297.

    DOI: 10.1177/0306624X03258686Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using data from public school students in China, examines the role that anger, resentment, anxiety, and depression play in mediating the effect of strains on delinquency. Finds that certain emotions are more strongly related to some types of delinquency than to others.

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  • Brezina, Timothy. 1998. Adolescent maltreatment and delinquency: The question of intervening processes. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 35.1: 71–99.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427898035001003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using data from a national sample of adolescent boys, finds that parental maltreatment of adolescents affects delinquency partly through its effect on a measure of trait anger.

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  • Brezina, Timothy. 2010. Anger, attitudes, and aggressive behavior: Exploring the affective and cognitive foundations of angry aggression. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26.2: 186–203.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043986209359849Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that chronic strain and anger may lead to attitudes that favor aggression, with these attitudes having an independent effect on aggression. Longitudinal data from a national sample of adolescent boys support this claim.

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  • Broidy, Lisa M. 2001. A test of general strain theory. Criminology 39.1: 9–33.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2001.tb00915.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on a sample of undergraduates at a Northwestern University, finds certain strains lead to state anger and, to a lesser extent, a scale composed of other negative emotions (e.g., depression, frustration, worry). Anger, in turn, increases the likelihood of criminal coping; but the other negative emotions reduce criminal coping.

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  • Ganem, Natasha M. 2010. The role of negative emotion in general strain theory. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26.2: 167–185.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043986209359558Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on the emotions and general strain theory literatures, argues that different strains may produce different negative emotions, which in turn may produce different types of crime. Finds limited support for these ideas in a vignette study of college students.

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  • Jang, Sung Joon, and Byron R. Johnson. 2003. Strain, negative emotions, and deviant coping among African Americans: A test of general strain theory. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 19.1: 79–105.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1022570729068Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on data from a national sample of African American adults, finds that state emotions largely mediate the effect of strains on crime. Further, inner-directed emotions (e.g., depression, loneliness) have a larger effect on drug use, and outer-directed emotions (anger) have a larger effect on fighting/arguing.

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  • Mazerolle, Paul, Alex R. Piquero, and George E. Capowich. 2003. Examining the links between strain, situational and dispositional anger, and crime: Further specifying and testing general strain theory. Youth and Society 35.2: 131–157.

    DOI: 10.1177/0044118X03255029Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on a vignette study of college students, finds that situational anger partly mediates the effect of strain on intentions to offend, especially intentions to assault. Further, situational anger has a much larger impact on such intentions than dispositional anger, although dispositional anger influences both strain and situational anger.

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  • Sigfusdottir, Inga-Dora, George Farkas, and Eric Silver. 2004. The role of depressed mood and anger in the relationship between family conflict and delinquent behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 33.6: 509–522.

    DOI: 10.1023/B:JOYO.0000048065.17118.63Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using a national sample of 9th- and 10th-grade Icelandic students, finds that family conflict increases both anger and depression, but only anger affects delinquency.

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Conditioning the Effect of Strain

While certain strains increase the likelihood of crime, only some individuals respond to these strains with crime. General strain theory (GST) devotes much attention to those factors that increase the likelihood of a criminal response. Such factors include poor coping skills and resources, low levels of conventional social support, low social control, association with criminal others, and exposure to situations where the costs of crime are low and the benefits are high. Many studies have examined whether these and other factors influence or condition the effect of strains on crime. The results have been mixed for reasons that are not entirely clear. The studies below focus specifically on conditioning effects. Mazerolle and Piquero 1997 finds that moral beliefs and exposure to deviant peers do not condition the effect of strains on violence. Mazerolle and Maahs 2000 suggests a possible explanation for the mixed results: researchers usually examine the separate effects of conditioning factors; they should instead combine the conditioning factors together to determine the individual’s total risk for responding to strains with delinquency. The 2000 study finds support for this argument. Walsh 2000 suggests that strain theory draws on the behavioral genetic research when examining conditioning factors; such research points to individual differences that increase the likelihood of a criminal response to strain. Agnew, et al. 2002 finds support for this argument; certain personality traits—known to be in part biologically based—increase the likelihood of criminal coping. Likewise, Johnson and Kercher 2007 find that attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder increases the likelihood of a criminal response to strain. Jang and Johnson 2005 point to a conditioning variable not considered in the original statement of GST, religiosity. They find that religiosity conditions the effect of strain on aggression among African American females, but not among African American males. Robbers 2004 finds that social support conditions the effect of strain on crime among females, but not among males. Many of the other studies on general strain theory in this bibliography also examine conditioning effects.

  • Agnew, Robert, Tim Brezina, John Paul Wright, and Francis T. Cullen. 2002. Strain, personality traits, and delinquency: Extending general strain theory. Criminology 40.1: 43–72.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2002.tb00949.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using a national sample of adolescents, finds that those high in negative emotionality and low in constraint are more likely to respond to strains with delinquency.

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  • Jang, Joon Sung, and Byron Johnson. 2005. Gender, religiosity, and reactions to strain among African Americans. Sociological Quarterly 46.2: 323–357.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2005.00015.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a national sample of African American adults, finds that religiosity reduces the effect of strains on aggression among females, but not males. Further, the greater religiosity of women helps explain their lower levels of aggression.

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  • Johnson, Matthew C., and Glen A. Kercher. 2007. ADHD, strain, and criminal behavior: A test of general strain theory. Deviant Behavior 28:131–152.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620601130992Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a sample of college students, finds that strain is more strongly associated with crime among students with attention deficit/hyperactivity.

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  • Mazerolle, Paul, and Jeff Maahs. 2000. General strain and delinquency: An alternative examination of conditioning influences. Justice Quarterly 17.4: 753–778.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820000094751Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Constructed an overall measure of the likelihood that people will respond to strain with crime, based on their moral beliefs, self-control, and delinquent peer association. Data from a national sample of adolescents indicate that this measure strongly influences the response to strain.

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  • Mazerolle, Paul, and Alex Piquero. 1997. Violent responses to strain: An examination of conditioning influences. Violence and Victims 12.4: 323–343.

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    Finds that strain and anger increase intentions to engage in violence among a sample of college students, but the response to strain is not conditioned by moral beliefs and exposure to deviant peers.

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  • Robbers, Monica L. P. 2004. Revisiting the moderating effect of social support on strain: A gendered test. Sociological Inquiry 74.4: 546–569.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2004.00104.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on data from a national sample of young adults, finds that social support reduces the effect of strain on crime among females, but not males.

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  • Walsh, Anthony. 2000. Behavior genetics and anomie/strain theory. Criminology 38.4: 1075–1107.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb01415.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the research on behavioral genetics, arguing that genetic factors influence individual characteristics such as intelligence and temperament. These characteristics, in turn, influence both the experience of and reaction to strain.

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Gender

While general strain theory (GST) has been used primarily to explain individual differences in offending, it can also explain group differences in offending. Most attention has focused on gender, with studies examining whether GST applies to both males and females and whether it can explain the higher rate of offending among males. This section lists several studies focusing explicitly on GST and gender, with additional studies listed in other sections of this bibliography. Hoffmann and Su 1997 did one of the first studies in the area. They note that the stress literature suggests that males and females will respond differently to strains, with females having “internalized” reactions (e.g., depression) and males having externalized reactions (e.g., aggression). Also, certain feminist theories argue that females are less likely to respond to stress with crime since they are socialized to care more about others. Nevertheless, Hoffmann and Su 1997 finds that strain has similar effects on delinquency/drug use among males and females. In a theoretical article, Broidy and Agnew 1997 apply GST to gender and crime, arguing that males are higher in crime because they are more likely to experience strains conducive to crime; they are more likely to react to such strains with pure anger, while females react with anger plus depression; and they are more likely to respond to given strains and anger with crime. Mazerolle 1998, Jang 2007, Hay 2003 and Kaufman 2009 find limited support for these arguments. DeCoster, et al. 2010 also finds some support, but argues that rather than focusing on gender differences in emotional experience, researchers should instead focus on differences in emotional expression—with males more likely to react to depression with crime. Eitle 2002 focuses not on the explanation of gender differences in crime, but on the causes of female crime. He finds that gender discrimination, a neglected variable in the criminology literature, is linked to both crime and drug use.

  • Broidy, Lisa, and Robert Agnew. 1997. Gender and crime: A general strain theory perspective. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 34:275–306.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427897034003001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A theoretical article that applies general strain theory to the explanation of the gender gap in crime, as well as to the explanation of female crime. Argues that males are more likely to experience strains conducive to crime, react to such strains with pure anger, and cope with strains/anger through other-directed crime.

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  • DeCoster, Stacy, and Rena Cornell Zito. 2010. Gender and general strain theory: The gendering of emotional experiences and expressions. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26.2: 224–245.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043986209359853Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the relationship between gender and emotional reactions to strain. Using data from a sample of middle school students, finds there are gender differences in the emotions experienced (females report anger plus depression more often). But what is most critical for explaining delinquency is gender differences in emotional expression.

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  • Eitle, David J. 2002. Exploring a source of deviance-producing strain for females: Perceived discrimination and general strain theory. Journal of Criminal Justice 30.5: 429–442.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0047-23520200146-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a sample of young adult females in South Florida, finds that gender discrimination is related to crime and drug use.

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  • Hay, Carter. 2003. Family strain, gender, and delinquency. Sociological Perspectives 46.1: 107–136.

    DOI: 10.1525/sop.2003.46.1.107Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using data from a sample of adolescents in a Southwestern city, finds males are more likely to experience family strains conducive to delinquency, react with pure anger, and cope with such strains and anger through delinquency.

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  • Hoffmann, John P., and S. Susan Su. 1997. The conditioning effects of stress on delinquency and drug use: A strain theory assessment of sex differences. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 34.1: 46–78.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427897034001004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on the stress and feminist literatures, predicts males will be more likely than females to react to strains with crime. Longitudinal data from a sample of adolescents in high-risk families, however, indicate that strain has similar effects on delinquency and drug use among males and females.

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  • Jang, Sung Joon. 2007. Gender differences in strain, negative emotions, and coping behaviors: A general strain theory approach. Justice Quarterly 24.3: 523–553.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820701485486Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using data from a national sample of African Americans, finds some support for Broidy and Agnew’s 1997 arguments: males are more likely to experience many strains conducive to crime, are more likely to react to them with pure anger, and are more likely to cope with crime (due partly to lower religiosity and social support).

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  • Kaufman, Joanne M. 2009. Gendered responses to serious strain: The argument for a general strain theory of deviance. Justice Quarterly 26.3: 410–444.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820802427866Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using longitudinal data from a national sample of adolescents, finds that there are gender differences in types of strain (e.g., males are higher in violent victimization), the emotional reaction to strain (e.g., females experience more depression), and—in some cases—the reaction to strain/emotions (e.g., males are more violent).

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  • Mazerolle, Paul. 1998. Gender, general strain, and delinquency: An empirical examination. Justice Quarterly 15.1: 65–90.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829800093641Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on certain of the arguments in Broidy and Agnew 1997, examines the effect of strains on delinquency with longitudinal data from a national sample of adolescents. Fails to find gender differences in the effects of strains on property crime, but strains are somewhat more likely to lead to violence among males.

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Race and Ethnicity

General strain theory (GST) has also been applied to the explanation of race and ethnic differences in offending. The selection by Kaufman, et al. 2008 provides an overview of the approach taken. The authors argue that race/ethnicity may affect the level of strain, the types of strain experienced, and the reaction to strain—including the likelihood of a criminal response. One particular strain especially relevant to the members of certain race/ethnic groups is discrimination. Simons, et al. 2003 and Perez, et al. 2008 find that discrimination does increase the likelihood of crime among African Americans and Hispanics. Also important are the strains associated with acculturation or adapting to the dominant culture, and McCluskey 2002 and Perez, et al. 2008 find that such strains increase delinquency. Further, Kaufman 2005 finds that African Americans and Latinos have higher rates of violence because they more often live in disadvantaged communities where they frequently witness violence and are themselves victimized. And Eitle and Turner 2003 find that African Americans have higher rates of violence partly because of their greater exposure to a broad range of stressors (also see Jang and Johnson in The Role of Emotions). Finally, Walls, et al. 2007 find that GST is also applicable to Native Americans.

  • Eitle, David, and R. Jay Turner. 2003. Stress exposure, race, and young adult male crime. The Sociological Quarterly 44.2: 243–269.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2003.tb00557.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Employing a sample of young adult males in South Florida, finds that race differences in violence are due to differences in exposure to strains or Stressors; they are not due to race-related differences in the tendency to respond to strains with violence.

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  • Kaufman, Joanne M. 2005. Explaining the race/ethnicity–violence relationship: Neighborhood context and social psychological processes. Justice Quarterly 22.2: 224–251.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820500088986Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using longitudinal data from a national sample of adolescents, finds that African Americans and Latinos have higher rates of violence partly because they are more likely to live in disadvantaged communities where they both witness more violence and have higher levels of violent victimization.

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  • Kaufman, Joanne M., Cesar J. Rebellon, Sherod Thaxton, and Robert Agnew. 2008. A general strain theory of racial differences in criminal offending. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 41.3: 421–437.

    DOI: 10.1375/acri.41.3.421Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that race affects exposure to strains, types of strains experienced, and the reaction to these strains; African Americans are said to have higher rates of serious crime because they experience more strain, different types of strain, and are more likely to cope with strains/negative emotions through crime.

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  • McCluskey, Cynthia Perez. 2002. Understanding latino delinquency: The applicability of strain theory by ethnicity. Criminal Justice. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.

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    Develops a modified version of strain theory that takes account of race/ethnicity, with the theory focusing on the inability to achieve success goals. Drawing on data from a longitudinal sample of Denver adolescents, applies the theory to whites, African Americans, and two Latino groups.

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  • Perez, Deanna M., Wesley G. Jennings, and Angela R. Gover. 2008. Specifying general strain theory: An ethnically relevant approach. Deviant Behavior 29.6: 544–578.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620701839385Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Links general strain theory to acculturation theory, identifying strains associated with acculturation or adapting to the dominant culture; and also discussing strains such as parental conflict and discrimination. Finds that these and other strains increased violence among a sample of southwestern US Hispanic adolescents, especially in areas of low Hispanic presence.

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  • Simons, Ronald L., Yi-Fu Chen, Eric A. Stewart, and Gene H. Brody. 2003. Incidents of discrimination and risk for delinquency: A longitudinal test of strain theory with an African American sample. Justice Quarterly 20.4: 827–854.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820300095711Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on longitudinal data from a sample of African American children in Iowa and Georgia, finds that discrimination increases delinquency, with the effect partly mediated by anger and depression.

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  • Walls, Melissa, Constance Chapple, and Kurt Johnson. 2007. Strain, emotion, and suicide among American Indian youth. Deviant Behavior 28.3: 219–246.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620701233100Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Data from a sample of American Indian adolescents indicate that certain strains increase suicidal behaviors, with the effect partly mediated by anger and depression.

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Age and Life-Course

General strain theory (GST) has also been used to explain age differences in level of offending, particularly the peak in offending during adolescence, and patterns of offending over the life-course. One major pattern involves an increase in offending during early adolescence, followed by a decrease during late adolescence (“adolescence-limited” offending). Another involves high rates of offending, including serious offending, over much of the life-course (“life-course persistent” offending). Agnew 1997, a theoretical article, applies GST to these issues. He argues that adolescents have high rates of offending because they experience more strains, including strains conducive to crime, and are more likely to cope with such strains through crime. Life-course persistent offending occurs because some individuals—due to their personality traits or extreme poverty—are more likely to experience high levels of strain over their lives and to cope with such strain through crime. Slocum 2010 extends these arguments, stating that exposure to past stressors may increase sensitivity to later stressors and that certain stressors put individuals at increased risk for subsequent stressors. Hoffman and Cerbone 1999 and Slocum, et al. 2005 examine the relationship between strains and crime over the lives of individuals and find that an increase in strain contributes to an increase in offending—both over the short term (Slocum, et al. 2005) and longer term (Hoffman and Cerbone 1999).

  • Agnew, Robert. 1997. Stability and change in crime over the life course: A strain theory explanation. In Developmental theories of crime and delinquency. Edited by Terrence P. Thornberry, 101–132. Advances in Criminological Theory 7. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Explains high rates of offending over the life-course by arguing that some people experience persistent strain because of their personality traits and/or extreme poverty; explains the adolescent peak in offending by arguing that adolescents are especially subject to strains and criminal coping.

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  • Hoffmann, John P., and Felice Gray Cerbone. 1999. Stressful life events and delinquency escalation in early adolescence. Criminology 37.2: 343–373.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1999.tb00489.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on longitudinal data from a sample of Midwestern adolescents, examines the patterning of strain and delinquency over time. Finds that as adolescents experience more stressful life events, they tend to become increasingly involved in delinquency.

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  • Slocum, Lee Ann. 2010. General strain theory and continuity in offending over time: Assessing and extending GST explanations of persistence. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26.2: 204–223.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043986209359850Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Evaluates the explanations offered by general strain theory for life-course persistent offending and, drawing on the stress literature, offers two new explanations: past stressors increase sensitivity to current stressors, making criminal coping more likely; and certain stressors may proliferate, becoming more intense and affecting other areas of life.

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  • Slocum, Lee Ann, Sally S. Simpson, and Douglas A. Smith. 2005. Strained lives and crime: Examining intra-individual variation in strain and offending in a sample of incarcerated women. Criminology 43.4: 1067–1110.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2005.00033.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using 36 months of data from female offenders, finds that periods of high strain are associated with higher levels of offending. Also, provides some evidence that different types of strain lead to different crimes.

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Community and Societal Differences in Crime

General strain theory has been used to explain community and societal differences in crime rates. Agnew 1999 argues that community characteristics influence both the level of strain that residents experience and the likelihood they will cope through crime. Individuals in very poor communities, for example, will have more trouble achieving their economic goals and are more often mistreated by other community residents. Further, they are less able to turn to others for help and have more opportunities for criminal coping. Brezina, et al. 2001 find support for certain of these arguments when analyzing schools, Warner and Fowler 2003 find support when analyzing neighborhoods, and Pratt and Godsey 2003 find support when analyzing societies. Further, Pratt and Cullen 2005 find that inequality and poverty are important predictors of area crime rates in a systematic review of the literature. The above studies focus on explaining area crime rates. Brezina, et al. 2001 and Hoffmann 2003 also find that individuals are more likely to respond to personally experienced strains with crime when they are located in areas characterized by high strain.

  • Agnew, Robert. 1999. A general strain theory of community differences in crime rates. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 36.2: 123–155.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427899036002001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that certain types of communities have high levels of strain, limit the ability of individuals to cope in a legal manner, and foster criminal coping.

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  • Brezina, Timothy, Alex R. Piquero, and Paul Mazerolle. 2001. Student anger and aggressive behavior in school: An initial test of Agnew’s macro-level strain theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 38.4: 362–386.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427801038004002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on a national sample of public high schools, finds that both school- and individual-levels of aggression/conflict are higher in schools with a high proportion of angry students, after controlling for a range of other factors.

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  • Hoffmann, John P. 2003. A contextual analysis of differential association, social control, and strain theories of delinquency. Social Forces 81.3: 753–785.

    DOI: 10.1353/sof.2003.0034Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a national sample of adolescents, finds that strain is more likely to lead to crime among adolescents living in communities with high rates of male joblessness.

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  • Pratt, Travis C., and Francis T. Cullen. 2005. Assessing macro-level predictors and theories of crime: A meta-analysis. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 32:373–450.

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    A systematic review of the research on the predictors of crime in communities and societies; finds that economic inequality and poverty are among the better macro-level predictors.

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  • Pratt, Travis C., and Timothy W. Godsey. 2003. Social support, inequality, and homicide: A cross-national test of an integrated theoretical model. Criminology 41.3: 611–644.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb00999.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses general strain and other theories to explain societal differences in homicide rates. Finds that economic inequality is associated with higher homicide rates, especially when levels of social support are low.

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  • Warner, Barbara D., and Shannon K. Fowler. 2003. Strain and violence: Testing a general strain theory model of community violence. Journal of Criminal Justice 31.6: 511–521.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2003.08.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on a sample of 66 neighborhoods in the South, finds that neighborhood disadvantage and stability affect levels of strain (e.g., been threatened or insulted, harassed by police), which in turn affect neighborhood crime rates. Certain factors, such as neighborhood social support, condition the effect of strain.

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Cross-Cultural Studies

Several studies have used general strain theory (GST) to explain crime in other societies. These studies generally find support for GST, suggesting the theory has broad applicability. In particular, many of the strains and conditioning variables that contribute to crime in the United States are operative in other societies. At the same time, there are some cross-cultural differences in the nature of strains, impact of strains, and conditioning variables. This is to be expected, since social and cultural factors affect the types of strains experienced, their subjective interpretation, and the reaction to them. Botchkovar, et al. 2009 test GST in Russia, the Ukraine, and Greece; Cheung and Cheung 2008 in Hong Kong; Bao and Haas 2009 in other parts of China; Froggio and Agnew 2007 in Italy; Landau 1998 in Israel; Maxwell 2001 in the Phillipines; and Moon, et al. 2008 and Moon, et al. 2009 in South Korea.

  • Bao, Wan-Ning, and Ain Haas. 2009. Social change, life strain, and delinquency among Chinese urban adolescents: Thoughts on the broader implication of China’s economic success on the production of delinquency. Sociological Focus 42.3:285–305.

    DOI: 10.1177/0306624X03258686Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses general strain theory to explain China’s rising juvenile delinquency rate, arguing that heightened interpersonal strain and negative emotions, coupled with the limited coping skills of Chinese youth, increase the likelihood of delinquency.

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  • Botchkovar, Ekaternia V., Charles R. Tittle, and Olena Antonaccio. 2009. General strain theory: Additional evidence using cross-cultural data. Criminology 47:131–176.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2009.00141.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tests general strain theory using data from Russian, Ukrainian, and Greek respondents; finds support for the theory in the Ukrainian sample, but not the other samples. Also, compares the effect of objective versus subjective measures of strain and examines certain conditioning effects.

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  • Cheung, Nicole W. T., and Yuet W. Cheung. 2008. Self-control, social factors, and delinquency: A test of the general theory of crime among adolescents in Hong Kong. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 37.4: 412–430.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10964-007-9218-ySave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that several strain measures affect delinquency in a sample of Hong Kong youth.

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  • Froggio, Giacinto, and Robert Agnew. 2007. The relationship between crime and “objective” versus “subjective” strains. Journal of Criminal Justice 35.1: 81–87.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2006.11.017Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using a sample of Italian youth, finds many youth do not view the objective strains they experience as subjectively bad, and that subjective strains are more strongly associated with crime than objective strains.

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  • Landau, Simha F. 1998. Crime, subjective social stress and support indicators, and ethnic origin: The Israeli experience. Justice Quarterly 15.2: 243–268.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829800093731Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that subjective indicators of stress, such as dissatisfaction with one’s economic situation and the state of the country, are related to monthly variations in crime over a 12-year period in Israel.

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  • Maxwell, Shelia Royo. 2001. A focus on familial strain: Antisocial behavior and delinquency in Filipino society. Sociological Inquiry 71.3: 265–292.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2001.tb01113.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that family strain impacts delinquency in a sample of youth in the Philippines.

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  • Moon, Byongook, David Blurton, and John D. McCluskey. 2008. General strain theory and delinquency. Crime and Delinquency 54.4: 582–613.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128707301627Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds a range of strains impact delinquency among Korean youth; some evidence that recent strains and, to a lesser extent, strains perceived as unjust are more likely to affect delinquency.

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  • Moon, Byongook, Merry Morash, Cynthia Perez McCluskey, and Hye-Won Hwang. 2009. A comprehensive test of general strain theory: Key strains, situational- and trait-based negative emotions, conditioning factors, and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 46.2: 182–212.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427808330873Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tests general strain theory using longitudinal data from a sample of South Korean youth; numerous strains affect delinquency, state-based negative emotions mediate their effect, and several conditioning variables are important.

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Applications of General Strain Theory

Now that general strain theory (GST) is fairly well established as a major theory of crime, a number of studies have begun to apply it to new areas. Certain of these studies apply it to new types of crime and deviance, ranging from purging and traffic deviance to terrorism and crimes against humanity. Other studies apply GST to the explanation of crime and other forms of coping among particular groups, including hate groups, prison inmates, police, and slaves. Further, several studies have applied GST to the analysis of victimization, including bullying, making the case that this is a major strain with strong links to crime.

Types of Crime and Deviance

General strain theory (GST) is most commonly used to explain street crimes in general or broad categories of street crime, such as violence, theft, and drug use. The theory, however, has been applied to other types of crime and deviance. GST is often revised in such applications. Most commonly, it is argued that certain types of strain and conditioning factors may be particularly relevant to certain types of crime. Agnew 2010 applies general strain theory to terrorism, Agnew, et al. 2009 to white-collar crime, Ellwanger 2007 to traffic delinquency, Hinduja 2007 to workplace violence, Levin and Madfis 2009 to mass murder at school, Maier-Katkin, et al. 2009 to crimes against humanity, Sharp 2001 to purging, and Sigfusdottir, et al. 2008 to suicide behavior. DeCoster and Kort-Butler 2006 begin to construct a theory indicating which strains are most relevant to which types of crime; they argue that strains in a particular domain, such as family or work, will be more likely to lead to crimes in that domain (e.g., family violence, workplace theft).

  • Agnew, Robert. 2010. A general strain theory of terrorism. Theoretical Criminology 14.2: 131–153.

    DOI: 10.1177/1362480609350163Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Applies general strain theory to the explanation of terrorism, arguing that collective strains of a certain type increase the likelihood of terrorism, although several factors condition their effect.

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  • Agnew, Robert, Nicole Leeper Piquero, and Francis T. Cullen. 2009. General strain theory and white-collar crime. In The criminology of white-collar crime. Edited by Sally S. Simpson and David Weisburd, 35–60. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-09502-8_3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Applies general strain theory to white-collar and corporate crimes, arguing that certain strains are especially conducive to such crimes—such as the blockage of economic goals, economic problems, and work-related stressors—as are several conditioning variables, such as opportunities for white-collar crime.

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  • De Coster, Stacy, and Lisa Kort-Butler. 2006. How general is general strain theory? Assessing determinacy and indeterminacy across life domains. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 43.4: 297–325.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427806291272Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that there is a tendency for strains in a particular domain, such as family or school, to lead to delinquency in that domain; but some “stress spillover” occurs, with strain in one domain contributing to delinquency in others. Finds support for these arguments in a study of middle -school students.

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  • Ellwanger, Steven J. 2007. Strain, attribution, and traffic delinquency among young drivers: Measuring and testing general strain theory in the context of driving. Crime and Delinquency 53.4: 523–551.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128706295991Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a sample of college students, identifies the major strains encountered while they are driving and finds that strains linked to other drivers contribute to traffic delinquency (e.g., speeding, aggressive driving).

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  • Hinduja, Sameer. 2007. Work place violence and negative affective responses: A test of Agnew’s general strain theory. Journal of Criminal Justice 35.6: 657–666.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2007.09.002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a sample of workers at two corporate sites, finds that covert harassment by co-workers (e.g., preventing salary increases and treatment as if nonexistent) predicts alcohol and prescription drug use and a range of negative emotions (anger, the urge to hurt people, exhaustion).

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  • Levin, Jack, and Eric Madfis. 2009. Mass murder at school and cumulative strain: A sequential model. American Behavioral Scientist 52.9:1227–1245.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002764209332543Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on general strain theory, develops a model to explain mass murder at school. The model involves the experience of chronic or long-term strain, isolation from conventional others, and the experience of an acute strain.

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  • Maier-Katkin, Daniel, Daniel P. Mears, and Thomas J. Bernard. 2009. Towards a criminology of crimes against humanity. Theoretical Criminology 13.2: 227–255.

    DOI: 10.1177/1362480609102880Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Draws on criminology to develop a theory of crimes against humanity, including genocide. The theory incorporates arguments from general strain theory, stating that intense and pervasive societal-levels strains, and the strong negative emotions they produce, are a precondition for crimes against humanity.

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  • Sharp, Susan F., Toni L. Terling-Watt, Leslie A. Atkins, and Jay Trace Gilliam. 2001. Purging behavior in a sample of college females: A research note on general strain theory and female deviance. Deviant Behavior 22.2: 171–188.

    DOI: 10.1080/016396201750065036Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that several strains increase the likelihood of purging through their effect on negative emotions, with purging most likely when both anger and depression are high.

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  • Sigfusdottir, Inga-Dora, Bryndis Bjork Asgeirdottir, Gisli H. Gudjonsson, and Jon Fridrik Sigurdsson. 2008. A model of sexual abuse’s effects on suicidal behavior and delinquency: The role of emotions as mediating factors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 37.6: 699–712.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10964-007-9247-6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that sexual abuse increases suicidal behavior (e.g., suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts) among a sample of Icelandic high school students, with abuse partly exerting its effect through depression and to a lesser extent anger. Anger, however, has a stronger effect on outer-directed delinquency.

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Groups

General strain theory (GST) is most often used to explain crime among general samples of youth and adults, although it has also been applied to college students and street youth. The studies below apply GST to additional groups, demonstrating the broad applicability of the theory. Piquero and Sealock 2000 apply GST to juvenile offenders, Blevins, et al. 2010 to prison inmates, Blazak 2004 to hate groups, Arter 2008 to police officers, and Rocque 2008 to slaves

  • Arter, Michael L. 2008. Stress and deviance in policing. Deviant Behavior 29.1: 43–69.

    DOI: 10.1080/01639620701457774Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on intensive interviews with police in two large departments in the South, finds that a range of stressors, many associated with police work, are related to anger and frustration and to various types of police deviance (e.g., rude behavior, excessive force, insubordination).

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  • Blazak, Randy. 2004. “Getting it”: The role of women in made desistance from hate groups. In Home-grown hate. Edited by L. Abby, 161–179. New York: Routledge.

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    Uses general strain theory to explain why individuals become involved with hate groups.

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  • Blevins, Kristie R., Shelley Johnson Listwan, Francis T. Cullen, and Cherly Lero Johnson. 2010. A general strain theory of prison violence and misconduct: An integrated model of inmate behavior. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26.2: 148–166.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043986209359369Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A theoretical paper that uses general strain theory to integrate and extend previous work on prison misconduct and violence, including the deprivation, importation, and coping models.

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  • Piquero, Nicole L., and Miriam D. Sealock. 2000. Generalizing general strain theory: An explanation of an offending population. Justice Quarterly 17:449–484.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418820000094631Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Applies general strain theory to a sample of adjudicated delinquents on probation in a mid-Atlantic state, finds that physical and emotional abuse by family members affect both property and violent crime, with the effect on violent crime partly mediated by anger. Few conditioning effects found.

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  • Rocque, Michael. 2008. Strain, coping mechanisms, and slavery: A general strain theory application. Crime, Law, and Social Change 49.4: 249–265.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10611-008-9106-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on general strain theory, analyzes the strains that slaves in the United States experienced (e.g., overwork and mistreatment, physical and sexual exploitation, the division of families) and the different ways of coping with these strains, including overt resistance.

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Victimization and Bullying

The research on general strain theory sometimes focuses on the impact of particular strains. Most notably, much recent work has examined the impact of bullying and criminal victimization on offending, with these strains emerging as one of the more important causes of crime. Eitle and Turner 2002, Hay and Evans 2006 and Spano, et al. 2006 focus on the impact of victimization on crime. Wallace, et al. 2005, Hinduja and Patchin 2007 and Hay, et al. 2010 focus on the effect of bullying, including both traditional bullying (e.g., direct physical and verbal abuse) and cyber-bullying.

  • Eitle, David, and R. Jay Turner. 2002. Exposure to community violence and young adult crime: The effects of witnessing violence, traumatic victimization, and other stressful life events. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 39.2: 214–237.

    DOI: 10.1177/002242780203900204Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Data from a sample of young adults in South Florida indicate that certain victimization experiences, both direct and witnessed, increase the likelihood of crime.

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  • Hay, Carter, and Michelle M. Evans. 2006. Violent victimization and involvement in delinquency: Examining predictions from general strain theory. Journal of Criminal Justice 34.3: 261–274.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2006.03.005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using longitudinal data from a national sample of children, finds that victimization leads to later delinquency, its effect is partly mediated by anger, and that it has a greater effect on delinquency among those low in self-control.

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  • Hay, Carter, Ryan Meldrum, and Karen Mann. 2010. Traditional bullying, cyber bullying, and deviance: A general strain theory approach. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26.2: 130–147.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043986209359557Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on a sample of adolescents from the Southeast, finds that both traditional and “cyber” bullying are related to delinquency, suicidal ideation, and self-harm; with certain effects greater for males.

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  • Hinduja, Sameer, and Justin W. Patchin. 2007. Offline consequences of online victimization: School violence and delinquency. Journal of School Violence 6.3: 89–112.

    DOI: 10.1300/J202v06n03_06Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Drawing on general strain theory, finds that cyber-bullying increases the likelihood of delinquency, including violence at school.

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  • Spano, Richard, Craig Rivera, and John Bollard. 2006. The impact of timing of exposure to violence on violent behavior in a high poverty sample of inner city African American youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 35.5: 681–692.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10964-006-9080-3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using longitudinal data from a sample of very poor inner-city youth in a southern US city, finds that exposure to violence (both direct victimization and witnessing violence) affects violent behavior, with more recent exposure having a larger effect.

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  • Wallace, Lisa Hutchinson, Justin W. Patchin, and Jeff D. May . 2005. Reactions of victimized youth: Strain as an explanation of school delinquency. Western Criminology Review 6.1:104–116.

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    Drawing on data from a sample of rural middle and high school students in the South, finds that peer victimization is associated with school delinquency, with part of its effect being mediated by anger and frustration.

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LAST MODIFIED: 04/14/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0005

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