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In sociology and criminology, strain theory states that social structures within society may pressure citizens to commit crime. Following on the work of Émile Durkheim, Strain Theories have been advanced by Robert King Merton (1957), Albert K. Cohen (1955), Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960), Neil Smelser (1963), Robert Agnew (1992), and Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (1994). Strain may be either:
Strain/Anomie Theory Robert Merton
The very definition of the word strain can be used to help understand strain theory. According to Webster’s dictionary strain (in the form of a verb) means to be subjected to tension or stress; to cause a change of form or size in (a body) by application of external force. In the form of a noun, strain is known as a great or excessive effort or striving after some goal, object, or effect. Thus, it is rational to grasp how strain theory insinuates that social structures within society may ultimately pressure citizens to commit crime.
Like many sociological theories of crime, Robert Merton’s strain/anomie theory has advanced following the work of Emile Durkheim. In Merton’s theory anomie is very similar to the very meaning of the word strain, as he proposed anomie to be a situation in which societies inadvertently bring to bear pressure, or strain, on individuals that can lead to rule-breaking behavior. This pressure, or strain if you will, is caused by the discrepancy between culturally defined goals and the institutionalized means available to achieve these goals. To illustrate this Merton argues that the dominant cultural goal in the U.S is the acquisition of wealth, as a message was depicted that happiness often equated with material success which is often associated with wealth. The socially accepted institutionalized manner of achieving these material goals was believed to be hard work and education, meaning it is widely believed that people who apply themselves to study and work will succeed financially and that those who do not succeed are labeled as either lazy or defective. According to Merton, the problem with this type of society is that the legitimate means for achieving material success are not uniformly distributed. In other words, those from wealthier backgrounds have considerably more access to legitimate means than do those who are economically disadvantaged. As a consequence, anomie, or strain, is generated and produces certain ‘modes of adaptation’, or (simply put) coping strategies, that the disadvantaged use to deal with the pressures that are brought to bear on them.
Merton identifies five modes of adaptation: conformity, innovation, retreatism, ritualism, and rebellion. According to Merton, the innovator is the most likely to engage in criminal behavior, as the innovator accepts the socially recognized goals of society, but rejects the legitimate means to achieve these goals. Consequently, the innovator uses proceeds from crimes such as fraud, theft, and illegal drug dealing to access culturally defined goals.
Critique of Strain/Anomie theory
Although Merton’s Strain theory continues to play a role in the sociological theorization of crime today, there are limitations to this theory of crime that have been identified. The first critique of this theory, put forth by Albert Cohen, addressed the fact that there is an ample amount of crime/delinquent behavior that is “non-utilitarian, malicious, and negativistic” (O’Grady, 2011), which highlights that not all crimes are explicable using Merton’s theory. Although Merton could explain crimes such as fraud and theft on the basis of innovation, he is unable to explain youth crimes that are often engaged in for social status rather than material acquisition. Furthermore, Strain/Anomie theory fails to adequately address issues such as race and gender. Additionally, Strain/Anomie theory is unable to explain the phenomena of white collar crime.
Robert Dubin (1959) viewed deviance as a function of society, disputing the assumption that the deviant adaptations to situations of anomie are necessarily harmful to society. For example, an individual in the ritualistic adaptation is still playing by the rules and taking part in society. The only deviance lies in abandoning one or more of its culturally prescribed goals. Dubin argued that Merton's focus on the relationship between society’s emphasized goals, and institutionalized prescribed means was inadequate.
Dubin felt that a further distinction should be made between cultural goals, institutional means and institutional norms because individuals perceive norms subjectively, interpreting them and acting upon them differently. The personal educational experiences, values, and attitudes may predispose an individual to internalize a norm one way. Another individual with different experiences may legitimately internalize the same norm differently. Both may be acting rationally in their own terms, but the resulting behaviour is different.
Dubin also extended Merton’s typology to fourteen, with particular interest in Innovation and Ritualism. Merton proposed that the innovative response to strain was accepting the goal, but rejecting the institutionally prescribed means of achieving the goal. The implication seemed to be that that not only did the individual reject the means, he must actively innovate illegitimate means as a substitute which would not always be true.
Dubin also thought that a distinction should be made between the actual behaviour of the actor and the values that drove the behaviour. Instead of Innovation, Dubin proposed Behavioural Innovation and Value Innovation. Similarly, in Ritualism, he proposed Behavioural Ritualism and Value Ritualism (Dubin, 1959: 147-149). Merton (1959: 177-189) commented on Dubin’s revisions, claiming that although Dubin did make valid contributions, they took the focus off deviancy.
In 1993, Robert Agnew asserted that strain theory could be central in explaining crime and deviance, but that it needed revision so that it was not tied to social class or cultural variables, but re-focused on norms. To this end, Agnew proposed a general strain theory that is neither structural nor interpersonal but rather individual and emotional, paying special attention to an individual's immediate social environment. He argued that an individual's actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals, actual or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli, and actual or anticipated presentation of negative stimuli all result in strain.
Anger and frustration confirm negative relationships. The resulting behavior patterns will often be characterized by more than their share of unilateral action because an individual will have a natural desire to avoid unpleasant rejections, and these unilateral actions (especially when antisocial) will further contribute to an individual's alienation from society. If particular rejections are generalized into feelings that the environment is unsupportive, more strongly negative emotions may motivate the individual to engage in crime. This is most likely to be true for younger individuals, and Agnew suggested that research focus on the magnitude, recency, duration, and clustering of such strain-related events to determine whether a person copes with strain in a criminal or conforming manner. Temperament, intelligence, interpersonal skills, self-efficacy, the presence of conventional social support, and the absence of association with antisocial (e.g., criminally inclined) age and status peers are chief among the factors Agnew identified as beneficial.
Akers (2000: 159) has operationalized Agnew's version of the Strain Theory, as follows:
Up to this point, strain theory had been concerned with types of strain rather than sources of strain whereas the stress of events can be shown to interfere with the achievement of natural expectations or just and fair outcomes. These may be significant events or minor "hassles" that accumulate and demoralize over time. Frustration leads to dissatisfaction, resentment, and anger — all the emotions customarily associated with strain in criminology. It is natural for individuals to feel distress when they are denied just rewards for their efforts when compared to the efforts and rewards given to similar others for similar outcomes. Agnew (1992) treats anger as the most critical emotion since it is almost always directed outwards and is often related to breakdowns in relationships. Research shows that the stress/crime relationship appears to hold regardless of guilt feelings, age, and capacity to cope when events occur simultaneously or in close succession.
The strain theory of suicide postulates that suicide is usually preceded by psychological strains. A psychological strain is formed by at least two stresses or pressures, pushing the individual to different directions. A strain can be a consequence of any of the four conflicts: differential values, discrepancy between aspiration and reality, relative deprivation, and lack of coping skills for a crisis. Psychological strains in the form of all the four sources have been tested and supported with a sample of suicide notes in the United States and in rural China through psychological autopsy studies. The strain theory of suicide forms a challenge to the psychiatric model popular among the suicidologists in the world.
The strain theory of suicide is based on the theoretical frameworks established by previous sociologists, e.g. Durkheim (1951), Merton (1957), and Agnew (2006), and preliminary tests have been accomplished with some American (Zhang and Lester 2008) and Chinese data (Zhang 2010; Zhang, Dong, Delprino, and Zhou 2009; Zhang, Wieczorek, Conwell, and Tu 2011).
There could be four types of strain that precede a suicide, and each can be derived from specific sources. A source of strain must consist of two, and at least two, conflicting social facts. If the two social facts are non-contradictory, there would be no strain.
When two conflicting social values or beliefs are competing in an individual’s daily life, the person experiences value strain. The two conflicting social facts are competing personal beliefs internalized in the person’s value system. A cult member may experience strain if the mainstream culture and the cult religion are both considered important in the cult member’s daily life. Other examples include the second generation of immigrants in the United States who have to abide by the ethnic culture rules enforced in the family while simultaneously adapting to the American culture with peers and school. In China, rural young women appreciate gender egalitarianism advocated by the communist government, but at the same time, they are trapped in cultural sexual discrimination as traditionally cultivated by Confucianism. Another example that might be found in developing countries is the differential values of traditional collectivism and modern individualism. When the two conflicting values are taken as equally important in a person’s daily life, the person experiences great strain. When one value is more important than the other, there is then little or no strain.
If there is a discrepancy between an individual’s aspiration or a high goal and the reality the person has to live with, the person experiences aspiration strain. The two conflicting social facts are one’s splendid ideal or goal and the reality that may prevent one from achieving it. An individual living in the United States expects to be very rich or at least moderately successful as other Americans do, but in reality the means to achieve the goal is not equally available to the person because of his/her social status or any other reasons. Aspirations or goals can be a college a person aims to get in, an ideal girl a boy wants to marry, and a political cause a person strives for, etc. If the reality is far from the aspiration, the person experiences strain. Another example might be from rural China. A young woman aspiring to equal opportunity and equal treatment may have to live within the traditional and Confucian reality, exemplified by her family and village, which interferes with that goal. The larger the discrepancy between aspiration and reality, the greater the strain will be.
In the situation where an extremely economically poor individual realizes some other people of the same or similar background are leading a much better life, the person experiences deprivation strain. The two conflicting social facts are one’s own miserable life and the perceived richness of comparative others. A person living in absolute poverty, where there is no comparison with others, does not necessarily feel bad, miserable, or deprived. On the other hand, if the same poor person understands that other people like him/her live a better life, he or she may feel deprived because of these circumstances. In an economically polarized society where the rich and poor live geographically close to each other, people are more likely to feel this discrepancy. In today’s rural China, television, newspaper, magazines, and radio have brought home to rural youths how relatively affluent urban life is. Additionally, those young people who went to work in the cities (dagong) and returned to the village during holidays with luxury materials and exciting stories make the relative deprivation even more realistically perceived. Increased perception of deprivation indicates relatively greater strain for individuals.
Facing a life crisis, some individuals are not able to cope with it, and then they experience coping strain. The two conflicting social facts are life crisis and the appropriate coping capacity. All people who have experienced crises do not experience strain. A crisis may be a pressure or stress in daily life, and those individuals who are not able to cope with the crisis have strain. Such crises as loss of money, loss of status, loss of face, divorce, death of a loved one, etc. may lead to serious strain in the person who does not know how to cope with these negative life events. A high school boy who is constantly bullied and ridiculed by peers may experience great strain if he does not know how to deal with the situation. Likewise, a Chinese rural young woman who is frequently wronged by her mother-in-law may have strain if she is not psychologically ready to cope with a different situation by seeking support from other family members and the village. The less capable the coping skills, the stronger the strain when a crisis takes place.
O'Grady W. (2011). "Crime in Canadian Context." Strain/anomie theory 92-94