In modern society, there are high standards in place for people. Success is almost demanded. Societal structures are even used to gauge how much success a person has been able to earn. Within U.S. society especially, different levels of wealth, vocational skill, and creativity have carved out difference social echelons that create stress on people when a definition of success is not achieved.
Without success, the result is strain. When a person experiences strain, they are at an increased risk of taking a drastic action to change their circumstances. That includes an increased risk to commit a crime. That is the foundation of the Agnew strain theory.
An Example of the Agnew Strain Theory
Let’s meet a fellow named Joe.
Joe has spent his life working as a janitor. He has done well, advancing from an entry-level position to a management position. He supervises several work sites, earns a comfortable $20 per hour, and uses his paycheck to support three children.
Then one day, Joe walks into his office and finds an email waiting for him. He’s been fired. The company has decided to downsize and is eliminating his middle-management position.
This creates a strain on Joe. He doesn’t know what to do. He needs to provide for his children by earning a paycheck. Joe decides to come home and begin searching for jobs.
Joe applies for every janitorial management position he can find that offers a similar standard of living for him and his family. He doesn’t even receive an interview request. Next, Joe decides to apply for entry-level janitorial work so he can at least pay his bills. He receives a few interviews, but everyone says that he is over-qualified, so he doesn’t get the job.
Unemployment benefits are winding down. Joe is still out of work. The money is gone. He can’t even get employment at a fast-food restaurant. Each of these provides additional strains on Joe that increase his risk of committing a crime.
Is Joe angry? Sure, he is. It’s a righteous anger because he feels like someone else should have been fired instead of him. He blames his former employer for his current circumstances. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t find a job.
Joe turns to a food bank for help. He talks to a local church about some monetary help with his bills. It buys him a month to find a job, so the strain he feels is relieved a little. Now the risks of crime go down… and they’ll go back up again if Joe is unable to find a job before his resources completely run out.
What If Joe Is Actually Jo?
Now let’s say Joe is actually Jo and she’s the mother of three children. She finds herself in these exact circumstances. Her reaction, according to the Agnew strain theory, is going to be a little different. Jo is going to be angry at being fired, but she won’t blame her employer.
Jo is going to blame herself. She’s going to feel guilty over the fact that she might have been able to prevent her employer from firing her by doing something different. She is going to be fearful of the future because she’s unsure if she can provide for her children.
At night, Jo thinks about what would happen if she struck out with her anger at her former employer. Then she worries about what that employer might try to do to her family in return. She feels like she needs to do something, but her concern over future events creates inaction instead. That makes Jo feel ashamed of herself.
Jo feels like her confidence is taking a hit. She wonders if she is even fit to be a mother if she can’t find some type of employment soon. She also goes to the food bank and local churches to get a month’s relief, which reduces the strain she is experiencing. It doesn’t remove the guilt and shame of losing the job in the first place, however, so more coping mechanisms are needed.
Jo might turn to triple fudge brownie ice cream at first. Then she might turn to a glass of wine each night. That glass might turn into a bottle. Wine might become bourbon or scotch. The alcohol might lead to painkillers. Unless the strain can be relieved, Jo finds herself on a path of self-destruction and she feels like there is nothing she can do about it.
Unless, that is, Jo has a network of friends that can support her. Women tend to form close bonds in small groups, so if her friends are present, many of these concerns can go away.
In the Agnew strain theory, men are more likely to commit crime because they are angry with others. Women are less likely to commit crime because they are angry with themselves.