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An Exploration of General Strain Theory and its Applications in the Real World

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2064 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Exploration of General Strain Theory

General Strain Theory, revised by Robert Agnew, instantaneously took center stage of Criminology (Moon et al., 2009). It’s interesting to figure out what Agnew had revised to make a criticized theory in 1970s turn into a widely acclaimed one. This paper briefly talks about the content of General Strain Theory and some experiments to support or object the theory. Finally, with a real-world event to verify whether General Strain Theory could really apply in our world.

Origins of [Agnew’s General Strain Theory]

Strain theory is first developed by Robert K. Merton and revised by Robert Agnew in 1992. It originally focuses on the inability of adolescents to achieve the goals of economic success (Agnew, 1985), which is later categorized as failing to achieve valued goals by Agnew. Agnew broadened the theory to explain why individuals engage in delinquency (Agnew, 1985). It focuses on negative relationships with others and relationships leads to negative effect, especially anger, and finally cause delinquency (Agnew, 1992). 

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This theory is trying to explain what may lead to crime in micro-level perspective. As delinquency may be a method for alleviating strains (Agnew, 1992), knowing what cause the strain and how to depress it could prevent the later delinquency. Agnew states that there are three major types of strain: (1) prevent one from achieving positively valued goals, (2) remove or threaten to remove positively values stimuli that one possesses, (3) prevent or threaten to present one with noxious or negatively valued stimuli. For the first strain, three more major strains that may explain the delinquency. They are strains as the disjunction between: (1) aspiration and expectation/actual achievements, (2) expectation and actual achievements, and (3) just/fair outcomes and actual outcomes (Agnew, 1992). These three strains mostly cover all situations prevent one from achieving positively valued goals.  All these strains will increase the negative emotions. For those emotions, anger is the key emotion leads to crime (Averill 1982; Berkowitz, 1982; Kemper, 1978; Kluegel and Smith,1986: Ch. 10; Zillman, 1979). Despite of those, strains are said to be most likely to result in crime when they (1) are seen as unjust, (2) are seen as high in magnitude, (3) are associated with low social control, and (4) create some pressure or incentive to engage in criminal coping (Agnew, 2001).

To alleviate crime, we should either know what cause these strains and prevent these strains occurs or we should find a way to correctly cope with these strains, not as crimes. Agnew said that we should first figure out whether the initial goal is able to cope or not. Some of these goals receive strong social and cultural support and have few alternative goals/values/identities, which is difficult to diminish strain (Agnew, 1992). For those alternative goals, individual traits and social environment can also influence the coping strategy. 

Testing [Agnew’s General Strain Theory]

After Agnew published his revision of Strain Theory, he and White tested his theory in 1992 with Rutgers Health and Human Development data set. General Strain Theory suddenly became a famous theory that hundreds of studies have been published to test some aspect of GST or to apply GST to crime, delinquency, or other deviant behaviors (Brezina, 2017).

 In Agnew and White’s experiment, Agnew tested two things: the first test is about the three types of strain will have positive effects on delinquency and drug use. The second test is effects of strain on delinquency and drug use will be conditioned by several variables. Anger, as supposed to be a key component was not tested, but focused on delinquent friends and self-efficacy. These two variables are also central to Agnew’s theory and they provided a good contrast to one another (Agnew, 1992). However, Agnew did not have enough data to fully test every strain and every situation. For those three supplemental strains from the failure to achieve positive goals, expectation and actual achievements and just/fair outcomes and actual achievements cannot be tested because of lacking data. The experiment based on randomly found 1,380 New Jersey adolescents age 12,15,18 as Wave 1 and 95% of adolescents age 12 and 15 attended the second test as Wave 2. They tested eight strain measures, eight social controls and differential association measure, age, and sex with a total of 47 scales. Results about hypothesis 1 show that five of strain variables have a significant effect on delinquency and drug use, especially Negative Life and Life Hassles. For other variables like low grades or occupational and clothing goals, which relates to represent the removal of positive stimuli and associated with other noxious stimuli in the past, they reduced the support for strain theory and increases the support for social control theory, which are not supposed to happen. Agnew explained this as the lack of data. Results about hypothesis 2 shows that the relationship between delinquent friends and delinquency is linear. Delinquent friends are also an interactive term created by multiplying strain. Self-efficacy is quite different from delinquent friends. It only interacts with delinquency but not with drug use. This experiment is the first test done with the newly revised General Strain Theory, so it mainly verified the core concept of this new theory. At the same time, Agnew pointed out that new tests should be done to fully explain all these relations. It is an encouraging theory as the first original theory in this area, though there are regrets for the lack of key data.

After Agnew and White’s experiment published, many follow up experiments were done. Some theorists believed the Strain Theory have too many shortcomings. For example, an experiment conducted by Paternoster and Mazerolle in 1994. They argue that none of their test result could confirm what Agnew believes that if unpleasant effects of strain can be managed or coped with, it will be expected to have a diminished effect on behavior (Paternoster and Mazerolle, 1994). Other theorists have faith in General Strain Theory and use more experiments to perfect this theory. One of the most controversial issues was whether anger could mediate the effect of strain (Brezina, 2017). Here is this supportive experiment which shows that youth may commit crime as a way to alleviate the negative emotional consequences of strain. Brezina used the second and third waves of the Youth in Transition survey on a sample of 2,213 males public high school student. They found that the effects of strain gradually diminish as participation in delinquent behavior is high. This pattern is most evident in the case of anger. As Table 1, the effects of strain on anger are many times greater when Delinquency is low than when Delinquency is high (Brezina T., 1996). In sum, strain is positive associated with the experience of several negative emotions, and delinquency appears to reduce the impact of strain on those emotions (Brezina, 2017). From longitudinal test, they found that as participation in delinquent behavior increases, the effect of strain on anger gradually diminished in size, controlling other variables (Brezina T., 1996).

With all these mixed findings and experiment outcomes, General Strain Theory is an evolving theoretical framework. As Agnew (2001,2013) is still specifying the types of strain that are relevant to offending, Tests of GST, however point to other areas where further specification may be required. For instance, different types of strain may have distinct emotional consequences, leading to distinct behavior outcomes (Brezina, 2017).  General Strain Theory does not only applying in America, but also worldwide (Moon et al., 2008). Social relationship is quite different in Korean and America, leading to the mismatch outcomes in two places.

General Strain Theory’s core idea is basically approved with the above and many more data supports. As new data emerge, this theory is still under developing.

[Agnew’s General Strain Theory] in Context

 General Strain Theory may apply to Santa Fe High School Shooting. The incident is briefly summarized as follow. “Gunfire erupted at the school, about 20 miles outside Galveston, not long after art classes began around 7:30 a.m. CT,” CNN News reported by Jason Hanna, Dakin Andone, Keith Allen and Steve Almasy. The killer first shot three students in the classroom and then police officers arrived, four minutes after they received the alarm. CNN News reported “He was arguing with the cops. They wanted him to put down his guns and surrender, but he said they’d shoot him. He was firing off rounds every so often.” BBC News reported that “After shot injured by policeman, he surrendered.”  CBS News reported that “Nine students and a teacher were killed and at least 13 others were hurt, including a school resource officer.”

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 He was bullied in school, so he presented a noxious negative value, which is general strain theory 3. He was also rejected by his loved girl one week before shooting, so preventing him from achieving positively valued goals. His family do not know about his negative emotions but he posted “Born to kill” picture on social media. Another photo included a coat decorated with an Iron Cross. The symbol has associations with Nazism and white supremacy, although it is sometimes used for shock value or to symbolize rebellion without the association of those ideologies, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Thus, he did not find nonharmful ways to alleviate strain. “Dimitrios advised he did not shoot students he did like so he could have his story told.” This means that he sought for a way to make a name for himself, a way to gain positive valued stimuli. Gov. Greg Abbott said Pagourtzis had planned to kill himself after the shooting, but that Pagourtzis told police “that he didn’t have the courage to commit the suicide.” This shows that the killer avoided negative valued stimuli-losing his own life.

 General Strain Theory could explain most part of information that released till now, but what strange is that many classmates of the killer stated that he seemed happy for the most time.

 If his parents had found out his aggressive picture on the internet and his negative relationship with his classmates in school and had dealt with proper method, this carnage would have prevented. Because of the incomplete message released by the police, General Strain Theory could partly explain the motive of the killer.


This paper demonstrates the revision of Strain Theory-General Strain Theory-with experiments to support it. Then applying the theory to a real-life event show the partly correction of this theory. 


  • Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for generalism strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology 30(1), 47-88.
  • Agnew, R.; White, H. (1992). An empirical test of general strain theory. Criminology 30(4), 475-500.
  • Brezina, T. (1996). Adapting to strain: An examination of delinquent coping responses. Criminology 34(1), 39-60.
  • Brezina, T.  (2017, February 27). General Strain Theory. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology. Ed. Retrieved 18 Nov. 2018, from http://criminology.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264079-e-249.
  • Moon et al., (2009). General strain theory, key strains, and deviance Journal of Criminal Justice, 37 (2009), pp. 98-106
  • PATERNOSTER, R., & MAZEROLLE, P. (1994). General Strain Theory and Delinquency: A Replication and Extension. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 31(3), 235–263. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427894031003001


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