In This Article Strain Theories

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Criminology Strain Theories
Robert Agnew, Heather Scheuerman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 December 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0005


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 2012; 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.

  • 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.

  • Akers, Ronald L., and Christine S. Sellers. 2012. 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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