Strain Theories

V. Explaining Groups Differences in Crime

Strain theories have been used primarily to explain why some individuals are more likely to engage in crime than others. Increasingly, however, they are also being used to explain group differences in crime, in particular gender, age, ethnic–racial, class, and community differences. An example of this use has already been presented.

Merton’s (1938) version of strain theory has been used to explain class differences in crime. Lower-class individuals are said to engage in higher rates of crime because they have more trouble achieving their monetary goals through legal channels. Note, however, that the relationship between class and crime is not as strong as many people believe. There appears to be little relationship between class and minor crime, although lower-class individuals are somewhat more likely to engage in minor crime (see Agnew, 2009). Furthermore, middleclass individuals are more likely to engage in certain types of white-collar crime, especially corporate crime. Recent versions of strain theory have attempted to explain this by noting that middle- and upper-class individuals do sometimes experience monetary strain, especially when they compare themselves with even more advantaged others (Passas, 1997).

GST explains group differences in crime by arguing that the members of certain groups are more likely to (a) experience strains that are conducive to crime and (b) cope with these strains through crime. As an illustration, consider the strong relationship between gender and crime. With the exception of a few types of crime, males have substantially higher levels of offending than females. Part of the reason for this is that males are more likely to experience many of the strains that are conducive to crime. This includes strains such as harsh parental discipline, negative school experiences (e.g., low grades), criminal victimization, homelessness, and perhaps the inability to achieve goals such as thrills/excitement and masculine status. It is important to note, however, that females experience as much or more overall strain than males. Many of the strains experienced by females, however, are not conducive to crime. These include strains involving close supervision by others and the burdens associated with the care of others (e.g., children and elderly parents). Furthermore, females are more likely to experience certain strains that are conducive to crime, such as sexual abuse and gender discrimination. Overall, however, males are more likely than females to experience strains that are conducive to crime (Agnew, 2006)

Males are also more likely to cope with strains through crime. Part of the reason for this has to do with gender differences in the emotional reaction to strains. Both males and females tend to become angry when they experience strains. The anger of females, however, is more often accompanied by emotions such as guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression. This is because females more often blame themselves when they experience strains, view their anger as inappropriate, and worry that their anger might lead them to harm others. The anger of males, however, is more often accompanied by moral outrage. This is because males are quicker to blame others for their strains and to interpret the negative treatment they have experienced as a deliberate challenge or insult. These gender differences in the experience of anger reflect differences in socialization and social position. Females, for example, are more often taught to be nurturing and submissive, and so they are more likely to view their anger as inappropriate. In any event, the moral outrage of angry males is more conducive to criminal coping, especially to crimes directed against others.

Also, males are more likely to engage in criminal coping because of their standing on those factors that increase the likelihood of criminal coping. Among other things, males are higher in negative emotionality and lower in constraint. Male are lower in certain types of social support— especially emotional supports—and they are lower in many types of social control. In particular, males are less well supervised, less likely to be punished for aggressive behavior, more weakly tied to school, and less likely to condemn crime. Furthermore, males are more likely to associate with other criminals and hold beliefs favorable to crime. Males, for example, are more likely to have delinquent friends and to be gang members than are females. Finally, males are more likely to hold gender-related beliefs that are conducive to criminal coping, such as the belief that they should be “tough.”

Data provide some support for these arguments. Research does indicate that males are more likely to experience many of the strains that are conducive to crime, and studies tend to suggest that males are more likely to cope with strains through crime, although not all studies have found this (see Agnew, 2006; Broidy & Agnew, 1997). Strain theory, then, can partly explain gender differences to crime. Strain theory has also been used to help explain ethnic–racial, age, class, and community differences in crime (see Agnew, 2006 for an overview; see Agnew, 1997; Eitle & Turner, 2003; and Warner & Fowler, 2003, for selected studies). The argument here is the same. The members of groups with higher rates of crime are more likely to experience strains that are conducive to crime and to cope with such strains through crime.