General Strain Theory, as explained by Robert Agnew, attempts to elucidate the reasons of why individuals take part in criminal behavior. General Strain Theory is a sociological theory that supplies an explanation for delinquency as a function of an individual's social relationships (Agnew, 1992). The emphasis of General Strain Theory is on the apparent correlation between the amount of strains that one encounters in his/her life, and how prone they are to engaging in illegal activities. Agnew created the General Strain Theory in order to revise the Original Strain Theory (OST), because the OST had a very limited scope of what strain actually entails. Agnew revised the concept of "strain" as stipulated by OST, redefining it as "relationships in which the individual is not treated as he or she want to be treated" (Agnew, 1992, p. 48). These strains, according to Agnew, have the potential to elicit criminal behavior if the individual does not have the proper coping skills required to disengage them from their negative mindset. The negative emotions elicited by the strains that Agnew talks about may include hostility, fear, anger, and possibly even frustration (Froggio, 2007).
Agnew (2001) produced three different categories of strain that have the potential to induce a negative reaction. These categories include: being in the presence of negative stimuli, not being able to get past goal blockages, and the loss of positive stimuli. In context of the category of strain related to being in the presence of a negative stimulus, a negative stimulus can be described as any stimulus that has undesirable consequences. Some examples of negative stimuli include but are not limited to: sexual abuse, physical abuse, harassment, teasing, bullying, or any form of violence. With regard to strain as it relates to goal blockages, this form of strain involves an individual failing to meet their desired goals for one or more various reasons. An example of goal blockage would be when someone is unable to attend a prestigious private college because they cannot afford to pay tuition. Finally, in regard to the last category of strain, the loss of positive stimuli, "positive stimuli" can be operationally defined as a loss of a stimulus that has a desirable consequence. An example of one such positive stimulus would be an end to a desired relationship, or loss of a loved one. In addition to these three categorical theories of strain, Agnew (2001) came up with the idea that there are two different ways by which to measure strain: subjectively and objectively.
Agnew (2001) says that subjective strains refer to conditions and events that are not liked by the people who are actually experiencing the m. In other words, subjective strains are personal conditions that someone has an aversion towards based on their experiences. Conversely, objective strains refer to negative conditions/ events that are not liked by most of the members of a specific group (Frggio & Agnew, 2007). A powerful and common example of objective strain would be when people are or feel they are being deprived of basic human necessities. Agnew (2001) stated that almost all of his research on General Strain Theory involved using dealings of objective strain, with barely any measures of subjective strain. After Agnew came out with the aforementioned statement about not using as much subjective strain research as objective strain research, he became worried that other researches would undermine the integrity of Strain Theory on the basis that objective strains occasionally form minor subjective strains (Agnew, 2001). What Agnew was suggesting in supporting objective strain over subjective strain was that emphasis needs to be placed on objective strain research; he never discredited the role of subjective strain research at any point..
As stated in the introduction, not everyone who experiences strains goes on to commit crimes. Instead, the vast majority of individuals have coping mechanisms that aid in the diversion from taking part in criminal behaviors. Agnew (2001) stated that it is only when these coping mechanisms fail that criminal activity may ensue. Agnew (2001) discusses four different types of characteristics that can potentially lead to coping by means of criminal behavior. The four different characteristics that will most likely lead to crime in the instance that coping mechanisms fail to provide sufficient relief from the experience of strain include: unjust, high in magnitude, associated with little to no social control, and strains that create stress or incentive to engage in criminal activities (Agnew, 2001).
First, strain is more prone to lead to criminal behavior when it is seen as unjust or unfair, as this perception has the potential to trigger negative emotions, such as anger. When anger comes in to the picture, the individual will potentially think irrationally, making it easier for them to engage in criminal actions (Agnew, 2001). These crimes are often called crimes of passion. An example of a crime of passion can be seen in a husband assaulting a man he discovers his wife cheating on him with. Second, individuals turn to crime if the strain is perceived to be high in magnitude. More specifically, if an individual perceives strain as being significant, they are more likely to commit criminal activity than they would be if the strain was not as significant. For example, someone with a small amount of debt is less likely to engage in delinquent behavior than someone who has a large amount of debt.
Another characteristic of strain is observed when a strain is coupled with little to no social control, which increases the likelihood of an individual committing a crime. Agnew (2001) says that this category of low social control can be broken down in three smaller subcategories: commitment, attachment, and absence of direct control. The fourth and final characteristic of strain that can lead to criminal behavior occurs as a result of strains that create stress or incentive to engage in criminal activity. One way stress can cause an individual to engage in criminal behavior can be seen occurring in response to financial hardships. For example, if a family is struggling financially, the son from this family may resort to physically assaulting other kids and stealing their money or possessions. Another example that would work for the fourth characteristic would be if the individual observes his/her model committing a crime.
On Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 at about 11:00 a.m., police responded to a report of a possible child abduction in Palmdale, California. The suspect was a seventeen year old father who had taken his five month old baby. The sheriff's department located Christopher Earl Glass and his son, Christopher Glass Jr., driving in Glass' car, and began to pursue the vehicle. During the course of the pursuit, deputies noticed Glass making stabbing movements inside the vehicle. As the sheriffs closed in, Glass crashed his white SUV, then took off on foot. A couple of deputies chased after the suspect, while others looked inside the SUV to check on the child. Christopher Glass Jr. had been stabbed multiple times. Police rushed the injured five month old baby to the hospital in a squad car. Regrettably, Christopher Earl Glass Jr. was pronounced dead at the hospital. While being pursued by authorities, Christopher Earl Glass broke in to a random house and, when cornered, charged at the police with a knife in hand, resulting in him being shot to death.
By looking at all of the facts of the case, Agnew would say that this crime falls within the classification of General Strain Theory. First, Agnew would say that the strain experienced by Christopher Glass in this case could be measured subjectively, due to the fact that Glass was under extreme emotional distress.. Christopher Earl Glass thought that having a child at age 17 was too much to handle, and cracked under the pressure of being a new father. Agnew would also say that Christopher Earl Glass was under a great deal of strain because he was in the presence of a negative stimulus, goal blockages, and because he was experiencing a loss of positive stimuli. The new negative stimulus Glass experienced was his baby's mother constantly hounding him for support and payments. Christopher was a talented athlete who was looking for the chance to get a scholarship to play collegiate basketball, but since he had a child, all of his dreams of ever going professional came crashing down. He also had a loss of positive stimulus because he was a new father who had all of these new responsibilities that kept him from going out and having fun. These negative feelings, coupled with a loss of positive feelings, caused Christopher to think that getting rid of his son was the only means he had by which to restore balance to his life.
Agnew would also say that Christopher shows all of the four characteristics that would make him want to resort to criminal behavior. In Christopher's eyes, having a child at age 17 was an unjust situation. He was probably thinking to himself, "Thousands of teens have unprotected sex every day; why did I have to be the one to have a child?" Also, his baby's mother chose not to have an abortion, and this might also have been something Christopher perceived as unfair. Because Christopher was a gifted and talented athlete, having a child at such a young age must have been perceived as a problem "high in magnitude," because the responsibilities of being a new father redefined his priorities. The next characteristic of low social control can be seen when the babysitter essentially gave the baby to her father without contacting the authorities right away. Finally the last characteristic of strains that create pressure or incentive to engage in criminal activities is present because, in the report, it was mentioned that Christopher's coach was talking to him about getting a scholarship to go and play collegiate basketball. This last characteristic of criminal coping was the final catalyst for Christopher's need to relieve strain by means of criminal activity. Agnew would argue that because Christopher did not have the coping skills to deal with his problem, he resorted to delinquent behaviors in order to deal with his situation.