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Agnews Strain Theory

Many Criminologist have come up with their own theories or reasons as to why people commit crimes. Some of the theories do make sense, but again sometimes we will never know why some people commit crimes and others do not. In 1938 Robert Merton published a ten-page article “Social Structure and Anomie” (Lilly et. al, 2011).  Merton believed that America was an unusual society that put too much emphasis of making money, and not being content with what you have. Criminologist Robert Agnew implied that theorizing in the Mertonian school of strain theory is not so much wrong, but it is just limited (Lilly, et. al, 2011). Agnew felt that Merton’s theory of strain basically only dealt with one area of strain which had to do with some individuals not being able to attain the American dream. Agnew added his own theories as to why some people committed crimes. This line of thought led to him developing a revised strain theory (Lilly, et. al, 2011). Agnew’s strain theory had three major types of strain, and then some subcategories that fall below each type of strain. The one that I agree with the most is strain that comes from being unfairly treated by others. Even though the results are not consistent for each type of strain, there is empirical evidence that exposure to strain increases the likelihood of criminal offending (Beaver). Agnew believes that strain can result from failure to achieve positively valued goals, but also from the inability to escape legally from painful situations (Agnew, 1992). I certainly have seen this firsthand in my bail bond business.  One case that comes to my mind is regarding a defendant that I posted bond for a few years ago. His neighbor was always arguing with him and complaining about something that he did wrong. He especially complained about his dogs who barked a lot. The neighbor ended up shooting one of his dogs one night and killing it. The police were called, but there was no proof that the neighbor shot his dog therefore the neighbor did not get arrested. Afterwards my client who was in a rage fired off some rounds into his neighbor’s house to seek revenge.  According to Agnew the higher the strain that a person experiences, the greater the likelihood of the person being engaged in crime or some sort of deviance (Beaver).  This individual was certainly strained, and by him shooting a weapon into the neighbor’s house certainly shows that to be true. Whenever I met him, he told me that he snapped because the neighbor nagged him all the time, and once he shot his dog it pushed him over the edge. There is some evidence that the combination of anger and strain will increase the risk of criminal conduct (Beaver).  In my opinion this true example falls under Agnew’s third major type of strain which is present or threaten to present one with noxious or negatively valued stimuli (Agnew, 1992). There are two major types of behavioral coping and they are those that seek to minimize the strains source and those that seek to satisfy the need for revenge (Agnew). That certainly sounds similar to the individual who ended up taking revenge on his neighbor.

One of Agnew’s other type of strain theory is the failure to achieve positively valued goals (Lilly, et. al, 2011).  This part of his theory I do not completely agree with. For example, he believed that if someone did not make a sports team at school or not achieving status with their groups of friends could cause deviant behavior. It certainly could cause someone to snap or decide to commit a crime, but I believe that this type of reaction is more of an isolated occurrence. Yes, some people do snap or end up committing crimes for reasons like this, but I do not believe that this is a widespread problem. In my opinion a lot of those individuals who react violently because they did not get their wish have more psychological issues going on than the person who seeks revenge because he or she is treated in negative manner. Based on an impressive review of literature Agnew distinguishes three sources of strain, one of which is failure to achieve positively valued goals (Burton & Cullen, 1992). Burton and Cullen also were not completely sold on the idea that just because someone did not obtain a personal goal that they would go onto commit crimes or engage in deviant behavior. However, they felt that Agnew succeeded in proving that his other two theories had merit. Again, those other two are strain from individuals losing something valuable, and individuals who are treated negatively by others.  Two forms of Strain, both of which fall within the umbrella of Agnew’s framework seem particularly worthwhile to explore, and they are relative deprivation and stressful life events (Burton & Cullen, 1992). In their article Burton and Cullen presented research that agreed with their statement. The table in their article had various types of strain measures listed, and the results of the research. For Agnew they listed the strain measure as individual, school, and success goal achievement, and the findings from the research shown were not supported (Burton & Cullen, 1992).



Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency. Criminology. Vol. 30, No. 1. Pg. 47-87.

Dr. Kevin Beaver Power Point Presentation. Individual-Level Strain Theory. Florida State University (2021).

Burton, VS. Jr., & Cullen, FT., (1992). The Empirical Status of Strain Theory. Journal of Crime and Justice, Vol. XV, No. 2. Pg. 1-30.

Lilly, JR., Cullen, FT., & Ball, RA., (2011). Criminology Theory: Context and Consequences 5th edition. Thousand Oaks, Ca.

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