B. Other Strains Conducive to Crime
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, criminologists began to suggest that the inability to achieve monetary success or middle-class status was not the only important type of strain. For example, Greenberg (1977) and Elliott, Huizinga, and Ageton (1979) suggested that juveniles pursue a broad range of goals, including popularity with peers, autonomy from adults, and harmonious relations with parents. They claimed that the inability to achieve any of these goals might result in delinquency. Later, Agnew (1992) drew on the stress literature in psychology and sociology to point to still other types of strain.
According to Agnew (1992), strain refers to events and conditions that are disliked by individuals. These events and conditions may involve the inability to achieve one’s goals. As indicated earlier in this research paper, however, strains may also involve the loss of positive stimuli and the presentation of negative stimuli. In more simplistic language, strains involve situations in which individuals (a) lose something good, (b) receive something bad, or (c) cannot get what they want. These ideas formed the basis of Agnew’s general strain theory (GST), now the dominant version of strain theory in criminology.
Literally hundreds of specific strains fall under the three broad categories of strain listed in GST. Not all of these strains are conducive to crime, however. For example, homelessness is a type of strain that is very conducive to crime. Being placed in “time out” by one’s parents for misbehaving is a type of strain that is not conducive to crime. GST states that strains are most likely to lead to crime when they (a) are high in magnitude, (b) are perceived as unjust, (c) are associated with low social control (or with little to lose from crime), and (d) create some pressure or incentive for criminal coping (see Agnew, 2006). Homelessness is clearly conducive to crime: It is high in magnitude, often perceived as unjust, and associated with low social control (individuals who are homeless have little to lose by engaging in crime). Furthermore, being homeless creates much pressure to engage in crime, because one must often steal to meet basic needs and engage in violence to protect oneself (see Baron, 2004). Being placed in time out for misbehavior has none of these characteristics.
GST lists the strains most likely to result in crime. These include the inability to achieve monetary goals as well as a good number of other strains. In particular, the following specific strains are most likely to result in crime:
- Parental rejection. Parents do not express love or affection for their children, show little interest in them, and provide little support to them.
- Harsh/excessive/unfair discipline. Such discipline involves physical punishment, the use of humiliation and insults, screaming, and threats of injury. Also, such discipline is excessive given the nature of the infraction or when individuals are disciplined when they do not deserve it.
- Child abuse and neglect. This includes physical abuse; sexual abuse; emotional abuse; and the failure to provide adequate food, shelter, or medical care.
- Negative school experiences. These include low grades, negative relations with teachers (e.g., teachers treat the juvenile unfairly, humiliate or belittle the juvenile), and the experience of school as boring and a waste of time.
- Abusive peer relations. Peer abuse includes insults, gossip, threats, attempts to coerce, and physical assaults.
- Work in “bad” jobs. Such jobs have low pay, little prestige, few benefits, little opportunity for advancement, coercive control (e.g., threats of being fired), and unpleasant working conditions (e.g., simple, repetitive tasks; little autonomy; physically taxing work).
- Unemployment, especially when it is chronic and blamed on others.
- Marital problems, including frequent conflicts and verbal and physical abuse.
- Criminal victimization.
- Discrimination based on race/ethnicity, gender, or religion.
- Failure to achieve certain goals, including thrills/excitement, high levels of autonomy, masculine status, and monetary goals.
C. Research on Strains and Crime
Researchers have examined the effect of most of the preceding strains on crime. Their studies suggest that these strains do increase the likelihood of crime, with certain of them being among the most important causes of crime (see Agnew, 2006, for an overview). For example, parental rejection, harsh discipline, criminal victimization, and homelessness have all been found to have relatively large effects on crime. The following are two examples of recent research in this area. Spano, Riveria, and Bolland (2006) found that juveniles who were violently victimized were much more likely to engage in subsequent violence. This held true even after they took account of such things as the juvenile’s sex, age, prior level of violence, level of parental monitoring, and whether the juvenile belonged to a gang. Baron (2004) studied a sample of homeless street youth in a Canadian city and found that crime was much more common among youth who reported that they had been homeless for many months in the prior year. This finding was true even after a broad range of other factors were taken into account, such as age, gender, and criminal peer association.
These findings, however, test only one part of GST. GST not only asserts that certain strains increase the likelihood of crime but also describes why these strains increase crime. The next section focuses on this topic.