Robert Agnew developed the general strain theory, sometimes referred to as GST, in 1992. The theory recognizes that people in society are placed under several different forms of stress. Depending upon the type of stress they encounter, there is a greater likelihood that certain individuals may choose to commit a crime.
Unlike other forms of strain theory, Agnew suggests that any negative experience can lead a person to experience stress. That stress creates a strain on the person and on society in general, which requires a coping mechanism to reduce its influence. The severity of the strain increases or decreases the risks of criminal conduct.
The 4 Characteristics That Lead to Crime
Agnew suggests that there are 4 characteristics that can be seen in specific strains on people that will increase the chances that they will commit a crime one day.
#1. When a strain is seen as unjust.
#2. When a strain is perceived as being high in magnitude.
#3. When a strain has been associated, real or perceived, with low levels of social control.
#4. What a strain creates pressures or incentives to engage in coping that includes criminal conduct.
Although these characteristics can be seen in any general strain a person might experience, Agnew suggests that there are only three categories of strains that typically lead a person toward delinquency.
- When there is an inability to achieve a goal that contains a positive value for the individual involved.
- When there is a threat to remove or the removal of stimuli that has been positively valued by the individual involved.
- When there is a threat presented to an individual which involves stimuli with noxious or negative values.
In these characteristic categories and definitions, Agnew attempts to explain the higher rates of delinquency that are found in men when compared to women. The general strain theory looks at gender differences and how strains are perceived. Do those perceptions lead men to have a different response to the stressors involved compared to women?
What Happens When People Encounter Strain?
Agnew discovered that men and women have distinctively different reactions to strains they encounter in society. Depending upon the severity of the strain being experienced on a personal level, an equitable response increases the risk of criminal conduct occurring.
Men, according to Agnew’s general strain theory, are more concerned with material success when compared to women. Because of that concern, men are more likely to commit violent crime and property crime. Men also typically face more conflict with their peers, which means they are more likely to become a victim of a crime. Those risks make failure a strain on men, which can also lead them toward committing violent crime or property crime.
As for women, Agnew suggests that they are more concerned with creating close bonds with others and maintaining their relationships. Because that strain doesn’t involve material items, there is a lower risk of committing a violent crime or a property crime. Women are also more likely to face discrimination and other forms of negative treatment, such has a high level of demand from family members. Their behaviors are often societally restricted, which means a failure to achieve goals often leads to self-destruction instead of crime.
Men and women have different emotional responses to strains they experience as well.
Men are more likely to respond with anger, whereas women are more likely to respond with depression. When men become angry, the next step tends to be some form of moral outrage. When women become angry, the emotion is often followed by guilt, fear, or even shame.
Agnew suggests that men are faster to blame other people for the strains they experience and are unconcerned if their coping mechanisms may hurt others. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to blame themselves for the strains they experience. They are more likely to worry about how their anger affects other people, which limits their coping response.
For men, when enough moral outrage is present, crime becomes a possible coping mechanism. For women, when enough anger is present, there will also be high levels of self-destructive emotions that may lead to mental health concerns and negative coping behaviors which may include crime.
The Robert Agnew general strain theory suggests that the biological differences between men and women are responsible for how each reacts to the strains they experience. If coping is possible, then crime can be avoided. If coping is not possible, however, then not is crime an option, but some people may begin a path toward self-destruction.