Free Understanding Strain Theory in Criminology Essay Sample


Nowadays the scientists developed various theories for the explanation of criminal behaviors. As per personal understanding, the strain theory explains the decision to commit crime in the best possible manner.  The general description o this theory and examples of its application will be provided below. The manner how this theory explains the behavior of criminals and the empirical support of its applicability provide the understanding that it will decrease the amount of crimes after its application in the criminal justice system.

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Literature Review

The current research paper is based on the information taken from various sources for the providing of the universal description of strain theory and its application in the real life. The history of the development and the major ideas of the theory are given in the work Strain theory. However, this work does not provide any evidence of the applicability of strain methodology into real life. Empirical studies which support the ideas developed by Robert Merton and Robert Agnew are described in the works of Michaela Siobhan McGivern, David Eitle, and the study performed by Jenifer Wareham, John Cochran, Richard Dembo, and Christine Sellers. The examples of the practices directed on the elimination of criminal behavior connected with strains which can be used in the criminal justice are taken from the book written by Gennaro Vito and Jeffrey Maahs and official site of Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services.


The search of information for the preparation of the current work was performed via the Internet. The additional attention was paid to the relevance of sources and their connection with the chosen theory. The search of the data was performed by using the following keywords: strain theory, studies of Robert Merton, application of strain theory. The anticipated problems were reflected in the insufficient amount of studies concerning the effectiveness of the application of strain theory. Also, there was lack of information concerning the policies which can be adopted by the criminal justice system for the lowering of the amount of crimes.

Analysis and Discussion

Which Theory do You Think does the Best Job of Explaining Criminal Behavior?

As per personal understanding, strain theory explains the criminal behavior in the most appropriate manner. This theory is based on the understanding that, notwithstanding the fact that the majority of people have similar aspirations, the discrepancies in their abilities and impossibility to meet social expectations by using approved means (like, work) facilitate the raise of attempts to becoming successful by committing the crime.

This understanding was formed by Robert Merton in 1938 and presented in his work Essay on strain under the name “social structure and anomie”. The author noted that biological deviance and statistical variation do not in fact account for crime. He considered that strain behavior can be described by the situation where an individual feels the lack of fit between the goals determined by the culture where this person lives and appropriate ways of reaching of these goals. He noted that there are two major factors which form the background of the strain behavior: the acceptable models of reaching goals; and goals and interests defined by culture.  Sometimes, people may feel that they are forced to use alternative methods (like, commitment crime) for obtaining culturally defined goals. In real life it is reflected in the goal to become wealthy, because wealth symbolizes the success in the modern society. Some people decide to commit crime for obtaining money

People adapt to the disjunct between the acceptable models of reaching goals and goals defined by culture by using the following ways: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. The majority of criminalists who use the strain theory are mostly interested in innovation. It considers the crime commitment as the result of inadequate socialization that facilitates the increase of deviance of behavior. As per personal opinion, strain theory through innovation explains the commitment of crimes by personal intend of individuals from the lower class to move up in social class. Often, these people can not achieve this purpose by the legal method, because manual labor does not provide the desired income and “avenues available for moving towards goals are largely limited”.  Hence, they became frustrated and decide to kill, steal, sell drugs, become a prostitute, and etc.

Robert Agnew proceeded further development of the strain theory by shifting its focus from “social structural to social psychological. He provided better explanation of factors which influence the formation of the criminal behavior. These factors are reflected in various community differences, like economic and racial inequality. He noted that the society where an individual lives effects personal perception of the outer environment. Robert Agnew stated that criminal behavior is influenced by both internal and external factors. The internal factor is represented by the personal ability to adapt to strain that is based on the stainfull experiences of people within their communities. The external factor is represented outer environment and the society that surrounds the individual. Also, he made the emphasis that averse and negative relations with other can facilitate the formation of the criminal behavior. As per personal understanding, Andrew’s studies provide broader explanations of reasons why people commit crimes. The scientist investigated the reasons of wrongdoings which differ from obtaining money, personal and social expectations for future, and personal position in the social class. He pointed out that frustration that leads to formation of negative behavior can be caused by the bad treatment by the other representatives of the society. That means that the strain theory explains the reasons of commitment crimes from numerous perspectives by the elimination of lop-sided considerations. Consequently, the backgrounds of the great variety of crimes (including murder) can be explained by this theory. Numerous researches and studies support these ideas.  

Hence, as per personal understanding the strain theory provides the best explanation of the criminal behavior because it studies both inner and outer factors which have the influence on the individual. The great relevance of this methodology lies in the fact that it pays attention both to the personal ability to withstand to stresses and the influence of the society and culture on the individual. As per personal opinion, only the combination of these two factors can facilitate the commitment of crime.

Has the Theory been Empirically Supported?

The empirical support of this theory was provided by Michaela Siobhan McGivern. The author determined the interrelations between personal delinquency, demands of the society and individual’s resources. The author supported the ideas presented in the strain theory by analyzing of the behavior of 14,239 students. He found out that the delinquency and the behavior of the grown up students is shaped by the numerous factors. These factors are social control, control over personal emotions, and the outlived stain.

The changes in criminal behavior of young across time by determination of factors which facilitate continuance of their engaging in crimes during adulthood are presented in the work of David Eitle.  The researcher found out that individuals who had the lowered exposure to social stresses are less likely to commit crimes. The people with low level of angry disposition had increased involvement in criminal activity “as exposure to chronic stressors increases”.

The authors of the work Community, strain, and delinquency: A test of a multi-level model of general strain theory investigated the extent on which the characteristics of the community influence personal levels of strain. The analysis of the data from 430 students showed various stressful factors (unfair teacher relationships, unfair parent relationships, and negative peer relationships) have different effect on representatives of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged communities. Highly disadvantaged communities block individual’s abilities to reach positive goals and lead to “loss of positive stimuli, exposing members to negative stimuli, and increasing overall relative deprivation”. Hence, the possibility that members of these communities will reflect anger and commit crimes is greater.

What Policies could be Implemented if the Theory were to be Adopted by the Criminal Justice System?

The outcomes of these studies may be used for the development of special policies directed on the lowering of the rate of crime commitment and their further implementation into the criminal justice system. Such interventions can be directed on the lowering the exposure of people to strains which are conducive to commitment of crimes. These strains are connected with school and work problems, lack of social control, seen unjust.  Also, such interventions may have the goal to decrease the likelihood that people will cope with strains through wrongdoing. This can be reached by strengthening of the institution of family through “the provisions of family leave, employer-provided child care, flexible work schedules, pro-family economic policies”, and etc. Also, such policies can be represented by learning of the ways of management of anger and negative emotions for lowering the stress.


In conclusion, it should be noted that the current work provides the general understanding of the strain theory as the theory that considers that crime commitment is facilitated by the discrepancies in personal abilities and impossibility to meet social expectations by using approved means. It was described in the works of Robert Agnew and Robert Merton. As per personal opinion, this theory provides the best explanation of the criminal behavior, because it identifies the reasons why people perform various wrongdoings: they became angry and frustrated because they cannot reach goals established by the society, cannot manage their negative emotions and  become suppressed by the external environment. The empirical support of this theory is shown in various studies outlined in this paper. The theory can be adopted by the criminal justice system through the policies directed on the decreasing of the exposure to strains, lowering of the ability of coping with strains through wrongdoing, and initiatives directed on management of anger and negative emotions.


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