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The General Strain Theory Review Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2021

The General Strain Theory (GST) as first introduced by Robert Agnew, a sociologist with an expertise in Criminology, in 1992 utilizes the notion that there are significant ramifications of strain on an individual. It is felt that stain manifests itself in a propensity towards delinquency and criminality. According to Agnew, there were three prevalent types of strains which lead to deviant behavior. These types include a failure to achieve goals which are positively valued by society at large, the removal of positive stimuli from the environment and a confrontation with negative stimuli. Agnew further subdivides the failure to achieve goals which are positively valued into three subcategories. One subcategory deals with the traditional concept of the strain theory which delineates that there is a gap between the expected achievements of an individual and the actual achievements. Another subcategory addresses the incongruence between an individual’s perception of what the outcome should be and what it actually is. The final subcategory addresses the setting of unrealistic goals in light of the fact life circumstances circumvent the realization of those goals. The first subcategory includes both long and short term personal goals while the second subcategory makes allowances for ever growing personal disappointment and the final subcategory promotes a decrease in the efforts expended into relationships both personal and professional (Agnew, 2002).

The strain theory as delineated by Agnew brought a new individualized approach which proves to be a marked improvement on the first strain theory as introduced by Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton. Agnew’s GST offers micro level considerations while the Durkheim and Merton offered macro level considerations. (Seigel, 2003). Under the tenets of GST, Agnew, Brezina, Wright, & Cullen (2002) suggest that the underlying personality traits of an individual are the resultant of their reaction to stain within their environment. This in turn manifests itself in delinquency and a life of crime. It is felt that crime serves as an outlet for the tension that results from the strain which is brought into an individual’s life as a direct result of life circumstances. The traits associated with strain on an individual are negative emotionality and difficulty dealing with constraints (Agnew et al., 2002). It is felt that when individuals are ‘provoked’ by strain, the personality traits manifest themselves and this interaction leads directly to anger, crime and delinquency as a means of relieving strain. Seigel (2003) refers to this as negative affect state and denote that the aversive emotions most commonly manifested in anger and frustration can be controlled under normal conditions. When the negative affect state, however, is coupled with low constraint, many individuals experience difficulty in controlling their behaviors and this difficulty can manifest itself in delinquency and criminality.

GST is not without its faults. It does an excellent job in offering a theoretical explanation for deviance and criminality, however it offers an over-simplistic explanation of both deviance and criminality by not specifically pointing out that the lion’s share of individuals who react negatively to stain do so in a delinquent manner not in a criminal manner. If, however, the individuals do react in a criminal manner much of this is evident in the nature of the crime wherein these individuals engage in income-producing crime and very rarely manifests itself in violent hate crimes (Cernkovich, et al., 2000). This does not negate the fact that violence does result from some income-producing crime but this violence is a side effect and not the main purpose of the crime.

There is a great body of empirical research which indicates that the main type of strain which results in criminality relates to the individual’s deleterious economic circumstances (Cernkovich et al., 2000). As a direct result crime and delinquency effectively and efficiently serve to relieve the strain by enabling individuals to illegally obtain income. Evidently, some individuals attempt to relieve their resulting tension other individuals do indeed commit crimes such as robbery. The general strain theory does an excellent job in distinguishing between criminal and delinquent acts. Agnew et al., 2002 attributes a combination of the level of constraint exhibited by an individual and the negative emotionality present in that individual for the differentiation between an individual developing delinquent tendencies and that individual developing criminal tendencies.

In providing empirical support for the general strain theory, Agnew et al. (2002) examined 2300 children between the ages of 7 and 11 first in 1976, and subsequently five years later. During their study, they measured the strain asserted on the children both in a home and school setting and did a comparison between that strain and the level of constraint exhibited by the children along with the level of negative emotionality. In order to obtain the most accurate information, teachers and parents were surveyed and data was collected for each child. The conducted this study based on the hypothesis that only juveniles reacted negatively to strain and wanted to see if the children who exhibited low constraint and high negative emotionality in the study exhibited criminality and delinquency five years later. Additionally, they wanted to assess the comparative level of constraint and negative emotionality between the same children over the course of five years. The findings of the study revealed that the children with low constraint and high negative emotionality in 1976 were more likely to react criminally and delinquently as a direct result of parental and educational strain which occurred during that time.

Cernkovich et al. (2000) approached the general strain theory from a different vantage point. Instead they examined race and motivation for the attainment of the ‘American Dream’ in light of their effects on individual criminality and delinquency. They utilized a between groups design wherein there were two groups of individuals. The first group consisted of individuals residing in private households and the second group consisting of offenders who were previously institutionalized. The methodology was similar to the Agnew et al. (2002) study in that the first sample—the household sample was interviewed as juveniles in 1982 and then re-interviewed ten years later. The sample of institutionalized individuals was studied in 1995. The findings of the study indicated that when framed in terms of career goals and the monetary rewards attained, there was a high commitment to attain the American dream by African-Americans but this commitment was not exemplary in the income and employment levels. In fact, there was a disproportionately high rate of unemployment and low income among African-Americans. This effectively meant that the attainment of the American Dream was still present, however, the lack of access to capital and materialistic property which were essential markers of the American Dream necessitated delinquency and criminality (Cernkovich et al., 2000). Essentially, the dream was present but the means of attaining it legally were not and in this absence, the only way to attain the dream is through criminal activity.

Cernkovich et al. (2000) were effective in establishing a link between racial factors and the general strain theory. They were able to illustrate that race as well as the trait factors of low constraint and high negative emotionality served to increase an individual’s propensity towards crime and delinquency. Examining the general strain theory from either the vantage point of Agnew et al. (2002) or Cernkovich et al. (2000) one is offered a clear and concise explanation of the etiology of crime and delinquency. In the case of Agnew et al. (2002) delinquency and crime occurs as a direct result of the traits of low constraint and high negative emotionality and in the case of Cernkovich et al. (2000) the most prevalent form of negative emotionality is one that is inextricably linked to race.

No one can dispute the fact that the general strain theory does an excellent job in explaining both crime and delinquency in minority populations but it does fall short in explaining criminology theory as a whole. Overall, it does explain why racial minority do commit crimes and acts delinquency but it does very little to explain why crimes do occur within the Caucasian race. General strain theory does not offer any explanation for crime and delinquency among individuals who are not necessarily under strain. The only explanation it offers is the presence of the traits of low constraint and negative emotionality. It does not account for individuals who do commit crimes and acts of delinquency who do not possess the traits or are not evidently under any conditions of strain.

Agnew et al. (2002) were adamant about the fact they felt that juveniles who possess the traits of low constraint and negative emotionality were very likely to react negatively to strain and this would manifest itself in delinquency and criminal behavior. This begs the question of the faith of non-juveniles who do possess these traits. Seigel & McCormick (2003) attempts to add clarity to this point by indicating that negative affective states which include anger and frustration can result in criminal and delinquent acts in individuals of all ages. This however, does not address the psychopaths and sociopaths of the world who by their very nature are devoid of feelings with regards to the nature of their crimes. Many of them have no rational reason for their crimes and delinquency and will often commit crimes ‘just because’ and not as a direct result of any negative state of being. Essentially, the general strain theory which operates on the micro level does explain crime and delinquency for a microcosm of the population but it does address crime and delinquency for society at large.

Finally, it is prudent to note that the general strain theory does have its shortcomings but it does represent an excellent start at understanding the etiology of crime and delinquency within a given population. It is evident that more empirical research is needed to extend this theory to the entire population. There are many questions which remain unresolved and there is a need for more diversification of research in order to overcome the shortcomings of this theory. When a strong body of research is compiled and many of the questions and grey areas are clarified, then and only then can the general strain theory be utilized to explain crime and delinquency on a macro level. Until then, there is a dire need for empirical as well as action research which can be utilized to minimize the level of crime and delinquency within our societies.


  1. Agnew, R., Brezina, T., Wright, J.P., & Cullen, F.T. (2002). Strain, personality traits, and delinquency: Extending general strain theory. Criminology, 40(1), 43-73.
  2. Cernkovich, S.A., Giordano, P.C., & Rudolph, J.L. (2000). Race, crime, and the American dream. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency, 37(2), 131-38.
  3. Seigel, L.J., and McCormick, C. (2003). Criminology in Canada: Theories, patterns, and typologies. (2nd ed.). Canada: Nelson, Thomson Canada Ltd.
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