An Overview of General Strain Theory

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    • 00:06

      [An Overview of General Strain Theory]

    • 00:11

      ROBERT AGNEW: Hello, my name is Robert Agnew.I'm Samuel Candler Dobbs professorof sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia,and also past president of the AmericanSociety of Criminology.I'm here today to provide an overview of general straintheory.I developed general strain theoryin the 1980s and early 1990s, and I'veworked on it since that time, as have

    • 00:32

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: a good number of other people.And general strain theory is now one of the leading theoriesof crime.The basic idea behind general strain theory is quite simple.People experience certain strains or stressors.They become upset, and they may respond with crime.For example, someone experiences a desperate need for money,

    • 00:53

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: and they're very frustrated.And then may go out and engage in a crime like theft,selling drugs, or prostitution.Or someone is bullied at school.They become very angry, and they mayrespond by attacking the individuals who bully themat school.General strain theory takes these simple ideasand elaborates on them, and that's

    • 01:14

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: what I want to talk about today.In particular, I want to talk about the types of strainsor stressors that are most likely to cause crime.I want to talk about why strains cause crime.I want to talk about why some people aremore likely than others to respond to strains with crime.And then finally, I want to say a few words

    • 01:34

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: about the policy implications of general stain theory.What does general strain theory saywe should do to reduce crime?[Strains most likely to cause crime]Let me begin by talking about those strainsmost likely to cause crime.First of all, strains refer to events and conditions

    • 01:58

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: disliked by individuals.So something happens to you.You dislike it.That's classified as a strain.And strains fall into three major groups.First, the failure to achieve your goals.The failure to achieve, for example,your desire for monetary success, desirefor status or respect, your desire for autonomy,

    • 02:21

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: for thrills, excitement, et cetera.Second general type of strain is the lossa positively valued stimuli.You lose something that you value.It might be a financial loss, maybethe loss of a romantic partner, the death of a friend, a familymember.The third general category of straininvolves the presentation of negatively valued stimuli.

    • 02:44

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: Someone treats you in a way that you dislike.You're verbally or physically abused, for example.So there are these three broad categories of strain.And literally hundreds, if not thousands, of specific strainsfall into these three categories.For example, they are inventoriesof stressful life events, chronic stressors, daily life

    • 03:06

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: hassles.And some of these inventories contain 200, 300,or more particular strains.One of the arguments that general strain theory makesis that not all of these strains increase the likelihoodof crime-- only some do.So one of the key things that general strain theory triesto do is describe the characteristics

    • 03:27

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: of those strains most likely to result in crime.And these strains tend to have four common features.First, they're high in magnitude.They're severe.So for example, a serious physical assaultversus a minor insult. They're frequent.They last a long time.

    • 03:48

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: They're expected to continue into the future.They're also high in what we call centrality.They involve threats to your core goals, needs, values,identities, and activities.So they're high in magnitude.They're serious.Second, they're perceived as unjust or unfair.They usually involve acts that are seen as voluntary,

    • 04:11

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: intentional, that violate what we call relevant justice norms.So you view them as unfair, or unjust.Third, they are associated with low social control.Some individuals are high in social control.They're closely monitored by parents, friends, teachers,coworkers, et cetera.

    • 04:32

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: And if they do something wrong, there'sa good likelihood they'll be sanctioned.Also, they have a lot to lose if they are sanctioned.For example, they worked hard in school.They have good grades.They're at a prestigious college or university.They have good jobs.They make a high income.They have good reputations in the community.They have strong ties to their family.

    • 04:52

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: And if the engage in crime they risk losing these things.So they're high in social control.The other individuals, low in social control.They commit a crime, little likelihoodit'll be detected and sanctioned.And if they do get caught, they have very little to lose.They're employed.They don't like their parents.They dropped out of school, et cetera.

    • 05:12

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: Well, those strains most likely to result in crimeare associated with low social control.Chronic unemployment, for example,where it's a lot of strain, and if you commit a crimeyou don't have a good job to lose.Parental rejection is another example.You commit a crime, you don't haveto worry about whether that will upset or hurt your parents.

    • 05:33

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: Your parents have rejected you.Chances are you don't particularly like them.But the other strains are associatedwith high social control.They're less likely to lead to crime.So for example, it might be that your parents closelymonitor your behavior, and they consistentlysanction you if you misbehave.You may really dislike those sanctions,

    • 05:55

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: but those sanctions probably won't increase the likelihoodof crime because those sanctions that are associatedwith high social control.Your parents are closely monitoring your behavior,consistently sanctioning you when you misbehave.Another example, if you're a student,you may spend a lot of time each week studying.And you may not particularly like all those long hours

    • 06:15

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: you spend studying-- keep you from doing some thingsthat you're rather be doing-- but that particular strainprobably won't result in crime, because it toois associated with high social control,with your status of a student.And finally, those strains most likely to result in crimeare readily resolved through crime.Again, you have a desperate need for money.

    • 06:36

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: That particular strain, readily resolved through crime.You can go out and steal.You can sell drugs.You can prostitute yourself.A lot of ways to get money through crime.But another strain, say the death of a family member,not so easily resolved through crime.So those strains must likely to result in crime

    • 06:57

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: have those four characteristics.They're high in magnitude, seen as unjust,associated with low social control.They're readily resolved through crime.Well, drawing on these four characteristics,general strain theory, a number of particular strainslikely to result in crime.And they include strains like parental rejection.

    • 07:19

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: Your parents don't like you, have a little to do with you,do little to meet your needs.Harsh, erratic, excessive disciplineby parents, teachers, and others.Child abuse, and neglect, negative school experiences,low grades, negative relations with teachers,experiencing school is boring and a waste of time.

    • 07:41

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: Abusive peer relations where peers virtually physicallyabuse you-- and bullying would fall into this category--criminal victimization, work in the secondary labormarket, that is, work at jobs that pay poorly,have few benefits, unpleasant working conditions,where you are treated badly by supervisors.

    • 08:01

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: Chronic unemployment, certain types of marital problems,spouse abuse, frequent conflict with your spouse,the failure to achieve certain goals, monetary goals,autonomy, masculine status, homelessness, discrimination.So these are some of the particular strains

    • 08:23

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: likely to result in crime.And there have been a lot of research on these strains.For example, some recent researchhas looked at the impact of bullying on crime.And one of the things we know is that individualsthat are bullied are more likely to engage in subsequent crime.Some recent researchers are looking at negative relationswith the police.Whether, for example, the police treatyou in a discriminatory manner, virtually abuse you,

    • 08:45

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: physically abuse you, et cetera.So these are some of the particular strainsthat we know increase the likelihood of crime.And these strains constitute someof the leading causes of crime.But why do these strains increasethe likelihood of crime?Well, there are number reasons.

    • 09:06

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: But general strain theory points to the followingas a particularly important reason.These strains increase negative emotions,emotions like anger, frustration, depression,hopelessness, humiliation.And these emotions create pressure for corrective action.You experience these strains.

    • 09:26

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: You feel bad, and you want to do something about that.And crime is one way-- not the only way-- but one way to cope.So crime, for example, could be a wayto escape from a reduced strain.You have a desperate need for money, you go out and steal.And that reduces your monetary strain.

    • 09:47

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: You were being abused by your parents.You run away from home to escape that abuse.Crime could be a way to seek revengeagainst the source of your strain or related targets.So you're being bullied at school,and you assault the juveniles who are bullyingyou to get back at them.You're being mistreated by teachers,you vandalize a school building to get back at them.

    • 10:09

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: And finally, crime could be a wayto alleviate the negative emotions you're experiencing.So you're feeling bad, you take drugs to feel better.So that's why individuals sometimesrespond to strains with crime.Crime can be a way to cope with that strainand the negative emotions associated with that strain.

    • 10:32

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: But one of the things we know is that most people don't copewith strains through crime.They cope through legal channels.So you have, for example, the desperate need for money.Most people cope with that strain by, for example,borrowing funds, getting a second job,working extra hours, cutting back on expenses, et cetera.

    • 10:55

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: They don't go out and steal, or sell drugs,or prostitute themselves.So one of the things that general string theory is askedis, well, why is it that some people aremore likely to cope with strains through crimethan other people?And general strain theory lists someof the factors that increase the likelihood of criminal coping.

    • 11:16

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: So for example, individuals are morelikely to cope with strains through crimeif they have poor coping skills and resources.They have poor social skills.So for example, if they experience a strain,they're not particularly good at talking about it,negotiating with the source of the strain, that sort of thing.They have poor problem solving skills.

    • 11:36

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: They have limited financial resources.And so they're less able to deal with the strainsthey experience in a legal manner.Another fact that increases the likelihoodof criminal coping, low conventional social support.So some individuals, when they experience strain,they don't have anyone they can turn to for support,

    • 11:57

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: for advice, for guidance, for maybe financial assistance,for emotional support.Yet another factor, low social control.So some people who experience strain,they have little to lose by engaging in crime.They've dropped out of school.They're unemployed.They have poor jobs.

    • 12:17

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: They don't have a particularly good reputationin the community.They don't particularly care that much about their familyand how their family might respondif they engage in crime.So they're more likely to cope with strains through crime.So some people hold beliefs favorable to criminal coping.So for example, some individuals in poor, inner city communities

    • 12:38

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: subscribe to what's known as the code of the street.The code of the street refers to a set of beliefs.And these beliefs essentially statethat if someone treats you in a disrespectful manner,in an abusive manner, it's appropriate, even desirable,to respond with violence.So that's an example of a belief favorable to criminal coping.

    • 13:00

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: And finally, individuals are morelikely to respond to strains with crimeif they associate with delinquent or criminal peers.And these peers reward criminal coping.They often model criminal coping,encourage criminal coping.And so these are some of the factors,then, that increase the likelihoodof responding to strains with crime.

    • 13:23

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: So those basically are the core argumentsof general strain theory.General strain theory has been usedto explain individual differences in crime.So we argue that some individualsmore likely to engage in crime than the others,because they're more likely to experience those strains that Ihave listed.And also, they're more likely to possess those factors

    • 13:45

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: that increase the likelihood of criminal coping.They have poor coping skills and resources, low social support,beliefs favorable of the crime, et cetera.And general strain theory has been used,not only to explain individual differences in crime,but also to explain group differences in crime.So for example, it's been used to explain gender differences

    • 14:06

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: in crime.One of the best predictors of whether individuals engagein crime is their sex or gender, with malesbeing much more likely to engage in crime than females.And that's due to a number of factors,but general strain theory helps make sense of that difference.In particular, we know that malesare more likely to experience certain of the strains that

    • 14:28

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: cause crime.So for example, they're more likely to experiencecriminal victimization.They're more likely to experienceschool problems, poor grades, negative relationswith teachers, and so on.Also, males are more likely to experiencecertain types of negative emotional reactionsto strain that are conducive to crime.

    • 14:50

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: So when males and females experience strain,they both tend to become angry.But their anger is different.Female anger is often accompaniedby emotions like depression and guilt, feeling I'm angry,but this anger is inappropriate.If I act on it, I might hurt people I careabout, etc cetera.And as a result, the anger experienced by females,

    • 15:12

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: somewhat less conducive to crime.But when males experience anger, their anger more oftentakes the form of more outrage.I've been wronged.It's not right, and I need to do something about it.And that's the type of emotional reactionmore conducive to crime.And finally, we know that males aremore likely to cope with strains through crime.

    • 15:33

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: In part, because they're more impulsive,more often tend to act without thinking.In part, they're more likely to holdbeliefs favorable to crime.In part, they're more likely to associatewith delinquent peers.So for a variety of reasons then,when males experience strains, they'realso more likely to cope with them through crimethan are females.

    • 15:55

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: [Policy implications]There's been some discussion of the policy implicationsof general strain theory.So what recommendations would general strain theorymake for reducing crime?And one very obvious recommendationis, well, we need to eliminate those strains that cause crime.And there have been some efforts to do this.So for example, there have been efforts

    • 16:16

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: to reduce the likelihood that parentswill abuse their children.A number of programs work with parents,sometimes starting even before the birth of the childwhile the mother still pregnant, to help these parents,train these parents, how to better raise their childrenso they're less likely to abuse their childrenor treat them harshly.There have been some very effective programs

    • 16:38

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: that have reduced bullying in the school system.There have been job training programsto help individuals that are unemployed,who work at bad jobs, to get jobs, or get better jobs,programs to help juveniles do better in school, and so on.But as much as we might try to eliminate strains,we probably can't eliminate them entirely.

    • 16:59

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: So it's still going to be the case, for example,that teachers give out low grades,or that the police arrest individuals, and so on.But we could alter these strains to makethem less conducive to crime.So for example, we could train teachers, police, and so on,to treat individuals-- including individualswho get those low grades, those individuals who

    • 17:19

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: are arrested-- in a more respectful, just, fair manner.And by doing so, that reduces the likelihoodthat strains like low grades, arrest,will later lead to crime.Now in some cases where we can't eliminate strains,in extreme cases, we can remove individuals from strains.So for example, if parents are abusing their children

    • 17:42

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: in extreme cases, we could remove themfrom the home environment.If students are having a serious bullying problems at school,in extreme cases we might assist themin terms of changing classrooms, or evenschools if the other efforts to reduce bullyingare ineffective.And finally, we could alter the larger social environment.

    • 18:02

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: One of the things we know is that certain larger socialconditions contribute to a lot of the strainsthat I've mentioned.In particular, poverty and inequalitycontribute to these strains.Individuals that are very poor, livein very poor communities, who experience inequality,they're more likely to experiencemany of these strains that I've mentioned,like school problems, family problems,

    • 18:25

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: criminal victimization, and so on.And there have been a number of effortsto alter the larger social environment, includingefforts in your area perhaps.Efforts for example, to raise the minimum wage,to mandate a living wage.And these efforts to reduce poverty and inequalitycan ultimately reduce exposure to many of the strains

    • 18:45

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: that I've mentioned.So one major way that we could reduce crime,according to general strain theory,is by reducing the exposure of individualsto strains in the ways that I've mentioned.But as much as we might do in that area,it's still the case that there are some individuals who are

    • 19:06

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: going to experience strains.We can't completely eliminate all strain from our society.So a second major recommendation of general strain theoryis we reduce the likelihood of criminal coping,reduce the likelihood that individualswho experience strains will cope through crime.And there are a number of ways we might do that.

    • 19:26

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: We might, for example, improve coping skills and resources.So for example, there are programs out therethat try and teach individuals problem solvingskills, social skills, anger management, and so on.We could provide individuals with social support.And again, there are a number of programsout there to try and do this, mentoring programs

    • 19:47

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: like Big Brothers and Big Sisters.We could increase social control.So for example, we could increase the monitoringto teach parents to better monitor and sanctiontheir children.We could alter believes conducive to criminal coping,and reduce association with criminal peers.So for example, we can try and teach juveniles

    • 20:09

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: that, for example, drugs aren't an ineffective or particularlygood way to cope with strain.And we could take steps to try and reduce the likelihoodthat juveniles will get involved,for example, with gang members.[Conclusion]So general strain theory has been

    • 20:30

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: used, not only to explain why some individuals are morelikely to engage in crime than the others,not only to explain why some groups havehigher rates of offending than the other groups,but also increasingly, individualsare asking how we might draw on general strain theoryto reduce crime in our society by both reducing exposureto strain, and reducing the likelihood that individuals

    • 20:51

      ROBERT AGNEW [continued]: who experience strain will cope in a criminal manner.

An Overview of General Strain Theory

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Abstract

Professor Robert Agnew explains the principles of general strain theory, which he pioneered. His analysis includes the types of strain that influence criminal behavior and the personality types most motivated by strain to engage in criminal activity.

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An Overview of General Strain Theory

Professor Robert Agnew explains the principles of general strain theory, which he pioneered. His analysis includes the types of strain that influence criminal behavior and the personality types most motivated by strain to engage in criminal activity.

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