Strain theories are based on a simple, commonsense idea: When people are treated badly, they may become upset and engage in crime. Strain theories elaborate on this idea by describing the types of negative treatment most likely to result in crime, why negative treatment increases the likelihood of crime, and why some people are more likely than others to respond to negative treatment with crime.
The strains most likely to lead to crime are high in magnitude, perceived as unjust, and associated with low social control, and they create some pressure or incentive for crime. Examples include parental rejection, harsh or abusive discipline, chronic unemployment or work in “bad” jobs, criminal victimization, homelessness, discrimination, and the inability to achieve monetary goals. These strains lead to a range of negative emotions, such as anger. These emotions create pressure for corrective action, with crime being one possible response. Crime may allow individuals to reduce or escape from strains, seek revenge, or alleviate their negative emotions (through, e.g., illicit drug use). Strains may also increase crime by reducing social control, fostering association with criminal peers and beliefs favorable to crime, and contributing to traits such as negative emotionality. Individuals are most likely to engage in criminal coping when they lack the resources to legally cope with strains, have little to lose by engaging in crime, are disposed to criminal coping, and are in situations that present attractive opportunities for such coping.
Researchers are extending strain theory in important ways. They are using the theory to help explain group differences in crime, such as gender differences in offending. Also, the implications of strain theory for controlling crime are receiving increased attention. Agnew (2006) described still other extensions. In sum, strain theory constitutes one of the major explanations of crime and has much potential for controlling crime.
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