One criminological theory that attempts to explain why individuals commit crimes is called strain theory. Strain theory claims that crime is a result of lower-class frustration and anger, and that the increased strain of being unable to achieve certain socioeconomic goals creates an increased amount of strain, causing crime. (Siegel, 192)

     In his text The Division of Labor in Society, Emile Durkheim defined the term anomie as meaning a state where societal and moral norms are confused or absent. He believed that this directly caused deviant behavior. This is most likely to occur in societies undergoing massive organizational restructuring, as it is easy to lose track of morals during times of upheaval and change. (Siegel, 192)

     Robert Merton expanded upon Durkheim’s views with his theory of anomie. Merton modified the original definition of anomie to fit within the current socioeconomic conditions of our society. He created four deviant modes of adaptation, in addition to the non-deviant mode of adaptation (conformity), to categorize individuals. (Lilly 65)

     The first of the four deviant types is innovation, and is shown by those who turn to illegitimate methods when their legal methods of economic gain are blocked. White-collar criminals are an excellent example of this type of deviant. The second type of deviant is the ritualist, who conforms to an institutionalized framework, such as a religious ritual, while ignoring cultural mandates regarding success. (Lilly 66)

     The third type of deviant is the retreatist, who rejects all of society. These individuals are normally shown as alcoholics, drug addicts, psychotics, or vagrants. The final type of deviant is the rebellious type, who rejects society, but wishes to change it. They propose a new social order, with a different set of goals and methods, instead of the currently accepted method. (Lilly 67)

     According to the text, social inequality directly leads to anomie. However, it fails to answer certain questions regarding some types of individuals who commit deviant actions. For example, it doesn’t explain why two individuals will commit different types of crimes (i.e.: mugging versus armed robbery), and it fails to explain why others, such as bored, wealthy individuals, commit petty crimes such as shoplifting. (Siegel 194)

     An expansion on Merton’s theory is the institutional anomie theory, developed by Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld in their work Crime and the American Dream. They define the term American Dream to mean the accumulation of material goods and wealth via competition. With this single goal, we all create our own methods to achieve it, depending upon the individual in question. This allows for a variety of individuals, such as Al Capone and Bill Gates, who all have tried to achieve the American Dream in their own fashion. (Siegel 194)

     They claim that there are three reasons why our society is so anomic. The first is that non-economic roles have been given little to no value in modern culture. The second reason is that when conflicts do emerge, the aforementioned non-economic roles become subservient to economic roles. Finally, economic terminology pervades every aspect of our lives, including the previously strictly non-economic, such as household life. This creates an anomic effect on home life, which spills over into the rest of an individual’s life. (Siegel 195)

     According to research done by Mitchell Chamlin and John Cochrane, strong institutional ties (such as churches and family) help to lower the level of anomie in an area, and in areas where this is the case, there is a significantly lower crime rate. Therefore, we can assume that the condition of being anomic is somehow directly related to the lack of oversight in an individual’s life. If he or she is supported and watched over by a strong institution, there is less opportunity for crime. (Siegel 195)

     A similar effect is called relative deprivation, which can affect all neighborhoods, as it relies on the minor differences between individuals, as opposed to massive poverty to flourish. Relative deprivation analyses the propensity for an individual to envy the lot of his neighbor, and grow dissatisfied with his current situation. Obviously, the greater the relative difference, the greater the dissatisfaction, though even minor changes can bring about anomic behavior, anger, and crime. (Siegel 196)

     Robert Agnew developed what is known as General Strain Theory, which helps to analyze strain theory on an individual basis. Agnew identifies three types of strain that produce deviance in an individual: failure to achieve goals, removal of positive stimuli, and confrontation with negative stimuli. He also says that crime is an adaptation to stress, on the individual level. (Akers 159)

     The removal of positive stimuli can be an incident such as an individual’s possessions being removed, either by robbery or as a punishment for an action, whereas the application/confrontation of negative stimuli can be portrayed as verbal or physical abuse of an individual. These two have a very damaging impact on a fragile individual, causing a great deal of stress, and making it significantly more likely that the individual in question will engage in deviant behaviors. (Agnew, General Strain Theory, 135)

     As with strain theory, general strain theory relies on a number of internal and external influences upon the individual to determine if they choose a conformant mode or one of the four deviant modes. Agnew says that general strain theory is not at all tied to class or race, and can be universally applied. (Akers 160)

     Despite this, General Strain Theory shows a marked difference in economic status between high and low crime areas, so much so that it is the primary distinguishing factor. However, the explanation for this is that in the areas of low economic status, they have a much more difficult time achieving their goals, and therefore are forced much earlier to choose one of the deviant methods of behavior. (Agnew, General Strain Theory, 130)

     One problem though is that General Strain Theory is incapable of explaining why certain actions, such as the failure to do well in school and unpopularity do not lead to crime with the same regularity as physical assault. However, these are not found in the theory itself, but rather are drawn from attempts to match experimental data to the theory. (Agnew, Building on the Foundation, 325)

     General Strain Theory is very important, as it pays attention to the individual level, which strain theory does not. It also provides a very descriptive range of directions for where to research in the future, as well as why individuals may not commit crimes as they grow older or why their reasons may shift. (Siegel 199)

     The major drawback in General Strain Theory is the lack of the ability to explain gender differences in the crime rate. Women experience as much or more stress during their youth as men do, and yet the crime rate among women is significantly lower. General Strain Theory makes no attempt to explain this, though it has been theorized by others that this difference is due to a result of women being able to cope with interpersonal stress better. (Siegel 199)

     Overall, strain theory and anomie are excellent tools for analyzing social structure theory, though they are obviously not the only method, nor are they sufficient to perform as the only method. While there are a few drawbacks to General Strain Theory in particular, and strain theory in general, it does an excellent job describing the average case of sources of criminal behavior.
Works Cited
  • Agnew, Robert; A General Strain Theory of Community Differences in Crime Rates; Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 36 No. 2. Sage Publications, 1999, London
  • Agnew, Robert; Building on the Foundation of General Strain Theory: Specifying the Types of Strain Most Likely to Lead to Crime & Delinquency; Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 38 No. 4. Sage Publications, 2001, London
  • Akers, Ronald L.; Criminological Theories – Introduction, Evaluation, & Application. Roxbury Publishing Company, 2000, Los Angeles
  • Lilly, J. Robert; Cullen, Francis T.; Ball, Richard A.; Criminological Theory – Conflict and Consequences; Studies in Crime, Laws, and Justice, Volume 5. Sage Publications, 1989, London
  • Siegel, Larry J.; Criminology, 8th Edition. Thomson Learning, 2003, Canada

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.