Criminology Wiki

General strain theory has been around for over a decade now, and had developed out of earlier theories especially the original strain theory itself. The original strain theory has its roots in Merton’s Anomie Theory and Cohen’s Social Control Theory, which deal with the social structures that might influence an individual to commit crime. General strain theory has been a very popular theory in Criminology for the fact that it offers an expanded view of why adolescents and individuals gravitate towards deviance and crime. There are several theories that look at an individual’s social relationships and how they encourage crime. General strain theory also looks at the social relationships of an individual, but the theory focuses more on the negative aspect of relationships.

The idea behind general strain theory is just as its name implies, it looks at the strain on an individual and whether they will gravitate toward criminal behaviors to reduce the strain. The main concepts of general strain theory deal with how a negative relationship affects an individual and their future possible development towards crime. Negative relationships are defined as relationships of others that are not consistent on how an individual believes they should be treated. Strain theory looked at only one type when it was first established, the prevention of achieving positively valued goal in society. Robert Agnew added two more types to fully develop strain theory. The first new type of strain looked at when you took away or threatened to take away a positively valued stimulus that one possesses. The second new type of strain looked at the presence of a negative stimuli or the threat of presenting a negative stimuli. With the addition of these new types of strain, general strain theory was able to distinguish itself from previous theories because of the addition of negative stimuli in its theory. Other criminological theories looked more at the positive effects on an individual, whether it’s from parents keeping the adolescents in control or the positive influence of other adolescents in a delinquent group. The first type of strain, the prevention of achieving positively valued goals, looked at the different views one might have towards certain goals. Agnew first looked at the strain on an individual caused by the difference between ones aspirations and actual achievements. An example would be when an individual has aspirations of becoming wealthy, but their actual achievements have them living a middle class existence. Agnew thought that this could cause enough strain in an individual that they could resort to criminal behaviors to achieve those aspirations. With this first type of strain, Agnew expanded it beyond just having the goal being about monetary values. He expanded the view to be about goals in general that individuals have for themselves. This could also range from a student wanting to get better grades, and having to resort to deviant behavior to achieve those goals. Agnew then looked at the strain on an individual caused by the difference between fair outcomes and actual outcomes. This was a more realistic outlook on the strain caused by not meeting positively valued goals. In the previous type mentioned, Agnew believed that an individual could always decrease the strain associated by different coping mechanisms like decreasing the importance of meeting that aspiration. The individuals could tell themselves that money is not that important. With the second part of the first type of strain, it would be harder for an individual to decrease the importance of this goal because they would not be meeting what they deem they should be worth. Therefore if a businessman at a large office continually works over forty hours a week, but does not receive any recognition or pay compensation for their extra effort, the strain caused might lead to criminal acts. The second type of strain mentioned deals with the removal or threat of removal of a positively valued stimulus. Agnew looked at events that could have a strain on an individual like the possible loss of a boyfriend/girlfriend, the death of a loved one, the moving to another school or suspension from school, and the divorce or separation of one’s parents. Agnew argued that these events could cause a high strain on an individual as one tries to get back the original or substitute another positively valued stimulus. If they are unsuccessful, an individual could become angered in general, or try to get revenge on those responsible for the loss of positive stimulus. The last type of strain on an individual dealt with the addition or repetition of negative stimuli. With this theory Agnew does not look at the negative stimulus itself, but more to the fact that the individual cannot escape the negative stimulus. Anger could arise in the individual because they cannot escape the negative stimulus that is being presented in front of them. This type of strain could also lead to delinquency because the individual will try escaping the source, or if that does not work, they will either seek revenge against the source or end the source of the negative stimuli. One of the major factors in the general strain theory is the effect that anger has towards deviant behavior and possible criminal outcomes. Adversity that followed the strain itself is said to produce a general state of arousal, where anger is a significant part of that emotion. Because of this, anger is a large part of the general strain theory and how one looks at possible future deviant behaviors or crime.

General strain theory has a very broad reach in the field of criminology because the theory itself was expanded from the original strain theory; Agnew also used several different types of research to fully develop this theory. General strain theory now has it roots from justice research, stress research, equity research and regression research. For this research, he was able to use previous data in those fields to expand his theory. Because of these additions to strain theory, general strain theory now overlaps different disciplines such as psychology. “Agnew suggested that earlier versions of the theory were narrow in their conceptualization of the sources of strain in that they focused exclusively on the failure to achieve positively valued goals” (Ostrowsky & Messner, 2005, p. 464). Because general strain theory is so broad where there are several types of strain that could be examined or used, it also leads to a negative aspect in which researchers do not know what strain to focus on to help prove and strengthen the theory. This theory has a large reach because it has been able to be replicated in different countries with basically the same effects. “Researchers have found support for the theory in studies conducted in China (Bao, Haas, & Pi, 2004), Korea (Moon & Morash, 2004), and the Philippines (Maxwell, 2001)” (Froggio & Agnew, 2007, p. 83).

General strain theory is measured by the magnitude and duration of particular negative events or relationships. The theory looks at those two key elements and then looks at the amount of strain caused from those two elements. The higher the magnitude and duration of a negative event or relationship, the possible increase in an individual’s strain. They only looked at events that were more recent, last 3 months, to look at the possible strain encountered. They also looked at the whether there was multiple negative events that were close together; they believed that these closely spatial events would also have a greater effect on strain. Because of the increase in strain there is a greater the chance of deviant or criminal behavior by the individual. There are also measurements that have a positive effect, or outside social supports that could help reduce strain, these topics were not greatly measured in this theory when it was first developed. Agnew expanded general strain theory from his first research data to include the difference between “subjective” and “objective” strains on an individual. Objective strains deal with the negative conditions that a group generally dislikes. Subjective strains are negative conditions that an individual dislikes because of they have experienced them. The reason for this new addition was that not all individuals view perceived negative events the same way. For example, individuals that viewed their marriage as poor, did not look at their divorce in a negative light, they viewed it more positively. The way Agnew was able to collect the data was to ask the individual about certain events or conditions that the individual had experienced, they were to give a response, usually from 1 to 10 on how stressful this experience was. Agnew would take that data, and then add it to the crime data that the individual also provided to see if there was any correlation between high strain and criminal behavior.

The study that I looked at for this theory was journal in which Stephen Baron looked at Agnew’s expanded his theory to now focus on the homeless to see if that major type of strain would lead to delinquency. The name of the journal is “General Strain, Street Youth and Crime: A Test of Agnew’s Revised Theory.” Agnew refined his theory for the fact that if the theory did not focus on what types of strain would lead to crime and delinquency, researchers would not be able to prove and expand on general strain theory. “Agnew reviewed the body of work testing GST and concluded that previous research is severely limited because it suffers from two particular problems (2001). First, he observed that many of the key measures of strain outlined in the GST – including certain measures of goal blockage and certain types of negative treatment – are absent. Second, he notes that most research on GST examines the effect of a single, cumulative measure of strain on delinquency” (Baron, 2004, p. 458). Baron took data from 400 respondents (265 male and 135 female) in the Vancouver area under the age of 24 that were currently unemployed, living in some sort of shelter for the last 12 months and either left of school or graduated. “He suggests that homelessness challenges a broad range of identities, needs, values and goals and therefore is likely to be seen as a strain high in magnitude” (Baron, 2004, p. 461). The hypothesis taken for this study was that various types of strain would be positively related to anger. Secondly, with the various types of strain, and anger would lead to a greater possibility of crime. Thirdly, the increase in interaction with deviant peers and deviant attitudes would also lead to a greater possibility of crime. Lastly, they look at the total scope to where interaction with deviant peers, deviant attitudes, self-esteem and various types of strain will lead to a greater possibility of leading to crime (Baron, 2004, p. 465). Baron collected the data over a 15-month time span and the study was mostly centered on the downtown area. All of the respondents were given a $20 food certificate from local participating fast food restaurants. The survey itself took approximately 70 minutes and was conducted in fast food restaurants, bus stops, parks and in storefront social services. The data of crime and drug use was mostly self-reported the respondents answering several questions about how many times in the last year they did the following: broken into a car, broken into a building, taken something less than $50, taken something more than $50, broken into a structure to sleep, stolen food, taken a car without permission of the owner, used physical force to get money or things from another person, attacked someone with a weapon or fists injuring them so badly they probably needed a doctor, got into a fight, taken part in a group fight (Baron, 2004, p. 466). The survey collected data from the respondents by asking them how many times in the last year they used illegal drugs excluding prescription drugs with a rating from (1= never; 7=daily). The respondents were then asked a number of questions on different types of strain. The first questions dealt with the first type of strain, the failure to reach positively valued goals, to where they were then asked if they were satisfied with the amount of money they have to live on. The interview then went to ask the respondents about negative stimuli that they have encountered. The questions focused on the respondents answering how many times in the last year did the following situations occur: living on the street or in shelters without a permanent address, the amount of times they have been physically attacked by others either by weapons or firsts, physically attacked by others to gain money or possessions from them. They used the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire to measure the various types of abuse that occurred during the respondent’s childhood. They ranged from questions about verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Anger was determined by asking the respondent about certain situations and if anger appears, for example, do they get angry easily, do people stay away from them when they do get angry. The interviewers then went on to record outside conditioning variables like deviant peers, deviant attitudes, self-esteem and self-efficacy. After all of these topics of the survey they were able to formulate results that are outlined below. It was found that anger was a significant predictor of total crime, which is a significant part of the general strain theory; they also found that 3 types of strain were positively related to crime: homelessness, monetary dissatisfaction and property victimization. It was also found that deviant peers also influenced total crime, as well as deviant attitudes. One interesting fact that was found during the study was that self-esteem was also related to crime, which was different than what was predicted. When you had interaction of terms there were also those related to total crime: sexual abuse/deviant attitudes, homelessness/deviant attitudes, relative deprivation/deviant peers and homelessness/self-efficacy. There were two interactions that were not related to total crime that was different than expected: emotional abuse/self-esteem and victimization/self-efficacy.

General strain theory has grown in popularity over the last decade and a half that it has been introduced to the criminological society. Knowing that there are certain types of conditions that are more closely related to being a predictor of possible deviant behavior, you could look more closely at these factors when evaluating adolescents that are showing these types of predictors. There could be more programs that are established for today’s youth to help get them off the street, since there is a high magnitude of strain associated with being homeless. By creating more programs, which take them away from other deviant peers and get them the possible psychological help that they could possibly need from child abuse and to help correct their deviant attitudes. Other policies that could help with reducing criminal behavior start in adolescents would be to look more closely at families that have a high amount of abuse shown toward their children. Since sexual abuse was positively connected to criminal behaviors when interacting with deviant attitudes, this would seem like a possible solution. Since general strain theory focuses on more of the negative events that are in ones life, programs that could also be created are ones that help adolescents and adults cope better with possible life strains. Although it was not show or really measured, positive events in ones life should help reduce high magnitude negative events that are occurring in a short period of time. By starting more of grass roots programs that could be found in several locations, they could help certain individuals cope better with certain strains that might arise. Because of the cost associated with this type of effort, more governmental funds would need to allocated towards these programs to help reach out to larger areas.


  • Agnew, R. (1992). Foundations for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30, 47-87.
  • Agnew, R. (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, 319-361.
  • Baron, S. W. (2004). General strain, street youth and crime: A test of Agnew’s revised theory. Criminology, 42, 457-483.
  • Froggio, G., & Agnew, R. (2007). The relationship between crime and “objective” versus “subjective” strains. Journal of Criminal Justice, 35, 81-87.
  • Ostrowsky, S., & Messner, S. (2005). Explaining crime for a young adult population: An Application of general strain theory. Journal of Criminal Justice, 33,463-476.