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Application of General Strain Theory to Youth Crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2857 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Select one of the criminological theories or perspectives that we studied this semester and evaluate whether it is useful for understanding the ‘problem’ of youth crime in Victoria. As part of your evaluation, you should consider whether any other theories or perspectives might help to address its explanatory limitations. You must provide evidence and specific examples to support your analysis.

Youth crime has become a significant area of study within the broad subject of criminology, especially when we consider its prevalence in Victoria in the last few years. In particular, youth gang formations and their related violence has become an increased concern to Victorians, with troubling incidents such as the Moomba riots and gangs such as Apex rising. To help understand the ‘problem’ of youth gangs, strain theory can be applied. Strain theory refers to the concept that society exerts a pressure to succeed but some may individuals lack the legitimate means or opportunities of achieving his success. They will then be under strain, which could result in “negative emotions, such as frustration and anger” (Agnew and Scheuerman, 2011) and they may turn to illegitimate or illegal means of achieving these goals such as crime. Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory (GST) built upon the classic strain theory but individualised it. Reflecting on the limitations of Merton’s strain theory, he recognised that there are various strains, and each is unique to the individual and their circumstance. Providing a more subjective theory, Agnew identified different types of strains that can result in criminal coping. He also identified various individual factors that influence whether the strain would result in criminal behaviour. To try to understand youth gangs and their behaviour, the concept gender and strains is also used, particularly when looking at youth gangs and the high representation of males within them.

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GST, developed by Agnew (1992, 2011), linked strains and negative feelings to deviant behaviour. Strain refers to “relationships in which others are not treating the individual as he or she would like to be treated” (Agnew, 1992, p.48). The major strains he outlines are : “ (a) the loss of positive stimuli; (b) the presentation of negative stimuli; and, (c) the failure to achieve positively-valued goals” ( Barn, 2012). He believed that as a consequence, these strains will manifest into negative emotions and frustrations. These frustrations had the capability of then transforming into criminal behaviour. These behaviours may be internalised such as substance misuse or externalised through violent  behaviour (Baron, 2004; Mazerolle & Maahs, 2000). Negative emotions triggered may include anger, fear, disappointment, that may all compel a “coping response” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). Whether an individual will resort to criminal behaviour as a response to strain, will depend on various factors that will be discussed further on but it is important to note that not everyone will turn to crime. GST attempts to answer a major question often asked in criminology, which is why that at adolescence, offending and criminal behaviour tends to peak (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). “Agnew (1997, 2006) argues that, compared to adults and children, adolescents are more likely to experience criminogenic strains, such as exposure to adverse social environments and conflicts with parents and teachers” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). Additionally, adolescents may experience a ‘maturity gap’, particularly when they view themselves as self-directed and ‘free’ however their views don’t coincide with the “legal and social privileges” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017) that they are given. It was also noted that “partly due to their undeveloped cognitive appraisal skills” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017), young adults are more likely to feel the impact of their adverse circumstances and thus result in more anger or frustration. There also may be an increased presence of negative role models in their lives such as “delinquent peers” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017), a decreased level of social control, such as guidance from parents and a tendency to not express their feelings or problems and obtain support (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). All of this coupled, can result in a limited ability to cope with the strain through legal or legitimate means. When referring to the example of the Moomba Riots of 2016, in which 10 were found to have links with the Apex gang (Hurley, 2016), we can examine some of the strains they may have experienced. In an interview A Current Affair, two individuals related to the Apex gang which had sprung terror onto the city of Melbourne through  carjacking, muggings and robberies stated that they felt that their gang was their “family”. Most of them, as young as 14 years old who had fled the war-ridden south of Sudan, were displaced and lived on the ‘streets’, with no family or proper support system. They interacted with adolescents in the same situation and the Apex gang formed as a loosely connected group of these adolescents who felt strain in their respective situations. According to them, they felt that they did not have the resources or opportunities to make a life for themselves, and to make money, they felt that these crimes were necessary and justified. One stated, “you have to do what you can do to get your life back” (A Current Affair, 2017). They believed that a “gang is your best friend” (A Current Affair, 2017). The loss of their homes, family, friends and old lives back in Sudan all create strains for these young adults, resulting in frustration at the lives they must lead now. This frustration, especially in its collective form is seen to result in violent and criminal acts, a coping mechanism for these adolescents. Being a part of a gang can help diminish status and financial strains. It will limit social  control, “including ties to conventional society and concern for official sanctions; fosters beliefs that justify or approve of criminal coping” (Agnew, 2013). As such, reasons as to why individuals may choose to turn to crime, can be explained by a variety of strains experienced by an individual in a unique situation.

Additionally, Agnew emphasises that there are certain factors that can impact if strain goes on to result in crime. There are conditioning factors which exist that include “poor coping skills and resources, low levels of conventional social support, low social control, association with criminal others, and exposure to situations where the costs of crime are low and the benefits are high” (Agnew and Scheuerman, 2011). It is stated that several factors combined to increase the likelihood of criminal coping (Agnew, 2013). Chronic or compounded strains has a much more severe impact on an individual, limiting their resilience and ability to deal with the strain, and making it more likely for them to take the rational choice to turn to crime. The strains must be “perceived high in magnitude and unjust, they are associated with low control, and they create some pressure or incentive for criminal coping” (Agnew, 2013). The General Strain Theory suggests that they are “individual characteristics that increase the likelihood of criminal coping, such as low self-control, negative emotionality, low social control, beliefs favourable to crime, and association with criminal peers, including gang members” (Agnew, 2013). The General Strain Theory draws on the routine activities perspective, it is suggested that resorting to crime as a coping mechanism is more likely when the “costs of crime are low (e.g. capable guardians are present) and the benefits are high (e.g. attractive targets for crime are present).” (Agnew, 2013). Resorting to crime is also likely to occur when the “social learning of crime” is fostered, meaning when criminal behaviour is encouraged. As such, to help understand how certain strains can manifest into crime, there are a range of individual factors that must be considered.

The General Strain Theory for the most part, has been used to understand the variance in crime in accordance to individuals. However we can zone in on gender and focus on the differences in offending when it comes to groups. GST has been applied to the dynamic of gender and crime and it has been suggested that due to the increased likelihood of males experiencing strains which can result in crime; their reactions to strain is more likely to be met with anger and frustration, externalising their emotions in the form of violence whereas women are more likely to internalise their anger, often resulting in depression (Broidy and Agnew, 1997). There has been differences noted in the “emotional and behavioural responses to strain, criminogenic influences, and availability of protective resources”. The emotion of anger is common for both genders as noted, however anger from males is often “characterised by moral outrage resulting from external attributions of blame” whereas “female anger is often accompanied by emotions such as fear and anxiety, resulting from internal attributions of blame” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). It is suggested that there is a variation in the exposure to strain for both the genders (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). Males may experience strains such as “harsh discipline and victimisation, which are often of high magnitude and associated with low social control and perceived injustice” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). It is suggested that for males, often the most prominent strain is when there is a limited ability to obtain status and masculinity. Females on the other hand, are affected by “interpersonal strains”, have an increased likelihood to be impacted by “sexual abuse and gender discrimination”, which aids in understanding the motivation for females to engage in crime but to a smaller magnitude (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). This analysis can aid us in responding to vital questions when it comes to the association of gender and crime. It helps explain why “males are often overrepresented as offenders and why some females engage in crime” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). There is a distinction when it comes to the behavioural responses to strain. For males, the coping mechanism to strain is often characterise by “external venting of their frustrations”, such as physical and verbal violence and assault. Whereas, for females, their common response is to “engage in emotional self-destructive coping” such as “eating disorders and drug use” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). These variations in emotional and behavioural responses can be linked to gender stereotypes and a differing “socialisation process” for the genders (Broidy and Agnew, 1997). This could include males feeling that physical violence is an appropriate demonstration of their masculinity. This is contrasted with the fact that “females are exposed to a greater level of social control and experience higher levels of social support compared with males”, a factor that decreases their tendency to drift to crime to cope with their strains (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017).  This analysis helps us understand youth crime today when it comes to youth gangs and the prominence of males in these groups. As a response to their strain, young males may feel the need to express the anger and frustration of their lives by forming these groups, and committing violence acts such as assault, mugging and carjacking. There is existing evidence to demonstrate the gendered strains that males and females experience. “Data from the Australian Personal Safety Survey shows that while males are overrepresented in the overall violence victimisation statistics, females more commonly experience certain types of violence such as sexual assault and intimate partner violence (ABS, 2014)” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). The Sex Discrimination act 1984 in Australia, which involves the prohibition of “discrimination based on sex”, “females still  face significant barriers to gender equality, including lower workforce participation rate, higher commitment to unpaid care work and gender pay gaps (Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2016)” (Eriksson and Broidy, 2017). Therefore, we can examine the relationship between gender and strain when trying to understand the problem of youth crime.

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As can be seen, the General Strain Theory can aid in understanding the problem of youth crime, particularly, youth gangs.  The General Strain Theory can be used to understand variances in criminal behaviour by linking it to the strains experienced (Peck, 2011). Firstly, the relationship between strains and negative relationships must be examined, and their capability of manifesting into crime through a build up of emotions such as anger and frustration. The individual level factors that impact the level and type of strain experienced must also be considered which will have a direct impact on whether the strain will result in crime. This for example can include strains being compounded or chronic, having an adverse impact onto the individual. Additionally, the relationship between strain and gender must also be considered, with gender causing variations in the emotional and behavioural responses to strain experienced, and therefore if that strain will result in crime. The General Strain Theory can strongly be used to explain the problem of youth gangs particularly, focusing on the the theory’s study of delinquency at a peak in adolescence and the tendency of males to externalise their anger, resorting in gang formations in some instances.


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