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Building on the Foundation of General Strain Theory: Specifying the Types of Strain Most Likely to Lead to Crime and Delinquency

NCJ Number
Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency Volume: 38 Issue: 4 Dated: November 2001 Pages: 319-361
Robert Agnew
Date Published
43 pages
This article builds on the foundation of general strain theory by describing the characteristics of strain most likely to lead to crime and delinquency.
General strain theory (GST) argues that strains or stressors increase the likelihood of negative emotions like anger and frustration. These emotions create pressure for corrective action, and crime is one possible response for reducing tension. GST builds on previous strain theories in several ways: most notably, by pointing to several new categories of strain, including the loss of positive stimuli (e.g., loss of a romantic partner, death of a friend), the presentation of negative stimuli (e.g., physical assaults and verbal insults), and new categories of goal blockage (e.g., the failure to achieve justice goals). This article describes the characteristics of strainful events and conditions that contribute to crime. Strains were most likely to lead to crime when they 1) were seen as unjust, 2) were seen as high in magnitude, 3) were associated with low social control, and 4) created some pressure or incentive to engage in criminal coping. Based on these characteristics, it was argued that certain types of strain would be unrelated or weakly related to crime, such as the failure to achieve educational or occupational success (the types of strain that have dominated the research of strain theory). Strains that were viewed as more strongly related to crime included types that have received attention in the criminology literature (e.g., parental rejection; erratic, harsh parental discipline; child abuse and neglect; negative school experiences) and types that have received little attention (e.g., the inability to achieve selected goals, peer abuse, experiences with prejudice and discrimination). The arguments presented in this article should have a fundamental impact on future efforts to test GST because they identify those types of strain that should and should not be related to crime. Notes, references