The strain theory states that social structures in the society can pressurize citizens to commit crime. As such there is need to examine the extent to which strain can be used as a reliable framework to explain crime in the society. This will entail establishing a balance between the strengths and limitations of strain theory based on varying contextual situations in which criminal activities occur. In doing so, the main arguments of the paper will focus on how strain can serve as a catalyst by encouraging one to meet their needs, how strain can elevate one’s stress levels leading to criminal activities, and how gender as a factor may magnify the probability of strain in relation to crime. The opposing view will examine how strain theory puts more emphasis on racial and socioeconomic factors regarding crime involvement, how assumptions in strain theory are actually affecting the level of its application, and how the predictive capabilities, parental involvement, and goal seeking factors associated with strain theory can appropriately be used to analyze crime and juvenile delinquency.
Firstly, strain can act as a catalyst prompting one to look for means of acquiring what he or she requires at a point in time. For instance, lack of money can become overwhelming such that it can prompt one to think creatively on genuine means of acquiring money. However, in as much as creativity may be beneficial, the actual implementation of the idea is limited by the availability of resources. For example, there are special requirements needed for one to achieve loan facilities from financial institutions (Mark 2009, p.28). When people encounter such obstacles, this becomes a negative stimulus towards criminal activity. Hence, depending on the extent of frustration, one may respond to the negative stimuli by resorting to unscrupulous methods of acquiring money or wealth (Mark 2009, p.28). Such reactions may make the frustrated to individuals to come up with risk free methods of engaging in criminal activity by avoiding friction with law enforcement authorities. Cullen, Ball and Lilly (2010, p. 73) observed that strain situations may lead one to take part in easy income-generating criminal activities such as drug use. In as much as it may not be realistic that everyone who experiences strain will resort to shortcuts of acquiring wealth, the degree of response will depend on one’s coping strategies.
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In practice, there are multitudes of coping methods, which may be emotional, cognitive, or behavioral. These strategies can be utilized to reduce strain level in an individual by helping them to counter negative stimulus (Mark 2009, p.31). For example, the cognitive coping strategy facilitates one to rationalize stressors in a diverse manner. This may take several approaches. The first is to reduce the relevance of the strain causing circumstance or negative stimuli. Eventually it will lead to an individual putting less significance on a particular objective so that he escapes the strain which he feels because they have not achieved a particular objective. The second approach entails individuals maximizing on the positive while reducing the negative results of an occurrence. This is a method of ignoring negative occurrence. The third method of cognitive coping with strain is used by individuals taking responsibility for negative outcomes (Mark 2009, p.31).
Secondly, strain can elevate elevated one’s stress levels consequently encouraging them to participate in criminal activities. More specifically, strain resulting from external environment may spur negative feelings towards other people or event. It may also lead to the occurrence of mixed feelings of fear and despair. It is important to note that the feeling that is mostly applicable to crime is anger (Williams 2008, p. 11). Usually people become angry or emotionally charged when they encounter potentially negative events or situations, which in turn affect their relationships with others (Agnew 2006, p.29). Anger provokes an individual to act irrationally by lowering one’s level of self-consciousness. Hence, by acting irrationally, one may seek to satisfy their craving for something by through illegal mechanisms. There are situations in which anger has been used to justify crime. Agnew stressed that persons subjected to continuous strain have a higher chance of committing crime. This is because at the time coping strategies for strain are extremely taxed, consequently limiting one’s ability to deal with the situation (Agnew 2006, p.29). As a result, the individual may exhibit pent up emotions, which may make them to become aggressive and hostile. These are ingredients of potentially dangerous reaction, which may prompt one to engage in unwanted activities.
Thirdly, the level of susceptibility to strain is dependent on the gender of an individual. In practice, females experience more strain compared to men, but they have different level of susceptibility (Mark 2009, p.34). This implies that the capability to handle high strain levels is dependent one’s level of masculinity and femininity. Interestingly, males commit more crimes compared to female. There are several reasons that can be advanced towards this observation. In many cases, females are concerned with establishing and maintaining close links through beneficial relationships with others, which lowers their chances of crime (Newburn and McLaughlin 2010, p. 96). On the other hand, males are concerned with material gain. This implies that they have higher a higher level of submissiveness to crime. Additionally, females experience negative treatment, for instance, discrimination, high expectations from the family, and restricted behavior (Mark 2009, p.35). On the other hand, males have similar experiences, but on top of that they experience more conflict with their peers and friends. This is driven by the tendency of males to attach more value on self value, which is driven by some aspect of their ego. Consequently, males may engage in criminal activity due to high strain placed upon them by the society (Mark 2009, p.35). Culturally, the social structure of the society is male dominated; hence, more pressure is placed on them to achieve the outcomes.
As a result, males face challenges in achieving the highly valued goals of a male dominated society. The stress transcends beyond manageable levels, failure to attain the valued goals results, the fear of disappointment sets in, and in an attempt to salvage this fallen initiative, they fall as victims of crime (Mark 2009, p.36). The case of gender differences in handling strain is a legitimate issue in explaining limitations of strain theory. Male participation in crimes has been explained in various theories, for instance, differential association and control theories (Mark 2009, p.36). It has been found that males have low social control as seen in their preference to socialize in big hierarchical peer group, while females prefer to maintain social ties in small groups (Mark 2009, p.36). Consequently, males have a high chance of responding to criminal activity because they will most likely respond to the demands of the hierarchical peer group. However, individual traits may vary regardless of one’s gender. Some of the individual traits are inherent due to issues like family history or interaction (Mark 2009, 43). In essence, these traits may make an individual turn to delinquency as a method of relieving tension. These undesirable emotions of anger and frustrations can be contained by many individuals. Tracing family histories of various criminal minds, it is possible to associate certain personal traits along the lineage. However, still one can point particular strains making the individuals to act in the manner in which they do.
To bring in a new perspective into the continuing argument, strain tends to put emphasis certain racial and socioeconomic to explain involvement in crime. As such strain may unknowingly heighten the levels of racial discrimination in racial diverse societies. Some researchers have attempted to explain the infamous “American Dream” by highlighting some of the racial and socioeconomic factors affecting families that choose to live in private households. In this particular research study, two distinct groups were used to accomplish the sampling design. In this research, samples of people residing in private households and former institutionalized offenders were used to analyze the association between race, socioeconomic status, and crime (Schnell 2010, p.4). When these were conceptualized in materialistic and career terms, it was evident that the African-American desire for the American dream was lively; however, low incomes and high levels of unemployment remained a common phenomenon (Schnell 2010, p.4). Moreover, the fact that majority of African Americans lack of materialistic objects and money they attach a lot of significance to the American dream, which results in a high wave of criminality and delinquency all in an attempt to bridge the gap (Schnell 2010, p. 4).
There are several assumptions taken to ascertain the applicability of strain theory. For instance, available research speculates that strain theory pursues a selective approach whose framework is solely focused on identifying hardship factors (Mark 2009, p.47). For example, the research on the ‘American Dream’ reveals elements of deviance and the criminal activity among individuals who have already attained their higher goals. Despite their advantageous economic situation, it is hard to understand why some individuals opt to risk to accumulate a few additional dollars? Majority of crimes reported are those committed by the less educated individuals, but less focus is given to ‘white-collar crimes’. How does strain theory provide an explanation for the average person who does not prescribe to the ‘American dream’? It is a mere coincidence that people in small villages globally commit major crimes?
Applying this argument in the American context, or a global application, it is important to thoroughly examine the unique circumstances precede criminal situations or activity. For instance, using the ‘American dream’ as a rationale in a different context needs a modification of the strain theory. Thus, it is pretty clear that race cannot be the only causative factor, especially when making reference to non-racially diverse communities. Strain theory ought to provide a platform for understanding these unique contexts. It should recognize that crime constitutes various factors apart from strain. For instance, in some cases, juvenile delinquency is caused by peer pressure and not strain as stated in the strain theory. According to the strain theory individuals who commit crimes are mostly non-white, poor, with negative emotionality, and low social status (Mark 2009, p.67). What is the rationale behind many poor people who do not commit the crime? What about individuals who are satisfied with being poor? In a normal society, fate is used as a definitive factor to determine one’s status in society. In this regard, there are individuals who embrace this philosophy. Thus, it is quite clear that all individuals are not the same. If all individuals could be equal in their reasoning then there are two situations which are sure to happen. These are: there would be more crimes than the ones which are currently being experienced and on the other hand, the world will be a secure place since there would be no crimes being committed.
Rationally, if we were to follow the assumptions stated by strain theory, certain facts would be hard to explain. For instance, why do Caucasians commit most of the crimes and delinquent acts globally? The theory cannot clearly explain the rationality behind this observation, apart from the reality that the assumption that Caucasians possess traits of low negative emotionality. But what about individuals who commit delinquent acts and crimes, but do not have these traits? Why then is that they are doing what they are doing? Agnew stated that juveniles who posses traits of low constraint and negative emotionality, consequently they are the ones who to strain, what about those individuals who are not juveniles? It is obvious that the persons ought to have these traits, but what happens if they do not have? What made them commit crimes as they did?
The strain theory has limitation with regard to its predictive capabilities. Hence, even though negative feelings may increase the chances of one committing crime, this may not always be the case. For instance, sociopaths and psychopaths do not possess these negative feelings whenever they are involved in criminal activity. Generally, the society elements play a major role in determining criminal activity by influencing individual variables of crime. According to Agnew (2006, p.102) juveniles commit delinquent acts and crimes since they respond to some of the acts through association with others, for example, their peers. This is the main logic behind problems that crop up later in life of most juveniles. However what about individuals who cannot desist from crime when they grow older? Why do they continue to commit crimes? What about individuals who never commit these crimes when they are juveniles but begin later in life? Individuals have coping mechanisms to tackle strains in life that they did have when they were juveniles and therefore they ought to stop delinquency and crime, but what happens if they do not?
The strain theory strongly associates criminal activities with areas of low socioeconomic status. It is common knowledge that most crimes occur in slums compared to any other area. But what about those crimes which do not happen in slums? What is the rationality behind the occurrence of these crimes? The strain theory may explain that individuals have high negative emotionality and low constraint; however what if individuals are not juvenile? It is also clear that crimes not only occur in slums, what about those crimes which do not occur in areas which are not near slums? Another important element which is not stated in the strain theory is the reason behind the occurrence of hate crimes. Why does terrorism occur? Why does war occur? The strain theory does not have solid reasons for occurrence of crimes. Additionally, in most instances non-white are not ahead in achievement of American dream than whites. Discriminating someone cannot further someone’s chances of attaining the American dream, therefore why does discrimination occur?
Strain theory attempts to explain why some races and classes commit crimes and delinquent acts compared to others. Even if the theory does not expressively state why some people who are in the lower class do not commit crimes. Maybe they possess stronger coping methods compared to other individuals, maybe additional factors are involved. The issue of other elements is where many other theories go wrong and I think this is where strain theory does a satisfactory job of clearly stating and explaining deviance and crime.
Most of the individuals who commit crimes perceive themselves to be normal. According to Friedman and Briggs (2009, p. 195) individuals who commit crimes fluctuate back and forth between law-abiding and criminal-minded citizens. The ‘criminals’ may buy groceries, go to school, pay their bills and engage in activities which are acceptable in the society. In fact, some of the criminals perceive themselves to be normal members of the community by rationalizing their criminal behavior. In other words, most criminals neutralize society’s anticrime aspects with their own excuses.
According to Friedman and Briggs (2009, p. 195) criminals use various techniques so that they can neutralize their criminal acts. For instance, denying responsibility, a person who has abused someone may say that it was an accident or it is not his fault since his father abused him. Secondly, the individual may deny the harm; a person who has just bought drugs may claim that buying drugs does not harm anyone. Thirdly, denying a victim, for instance, an individual who has stolen someone’s car may claim that he can afford it. Fourthly, condemning persons in authority, for instance, most criminals often call authority individuals corrupts jerks or hypocrites.
Parents play a significant role in influencing criminal behavior among their children. This is not explained in the strain theory. Studies show that parents who are criminals have high chances of engaging their young ones in criminal acts. Nonetheless, this trend does not necessarily imply that criminality is genetically transmitted (Friedman and Briggs 2009, p. 207). Criminal children may come from criminal father or mother for various reasons such as; children learn criminal acts from parents, criminal parents do not emphasize the significance of education, criminal parents are more likely to allow their children to hang out with other delinquents this therefore reinforces criminal values. On the other hand, the theory explains why parents who are not criminal have children who are criminals. To some extent the theory poorly predicts characteristics of the offenders. It predicts that criminals possess high long term aspirations and long-term expectation, however statistics consistently prove otherwise. When delinquency researchers seek to estimate the long-term aspirations, they find that individuals who commit crimes tend to possess low aspirations compared to others (Friedman and Briggs 2009, p. 207). They have also found that expectations for success in future have a tendency of being idealistically high among criminals, rather than being low as the theory predicts.
According to Siegel (2011, p. 202) strain is directly related to criminal motivation. Individuals who feel socially and economically humiliated might perceive the obligation to disgrace others in return. Several psychologists have warned that in these conditions, those who perceive themselves to be losers develop fear and envy the winners who are doing pretty well compared to them. The sharp difference between the poor and the rich develops an environment of mistrust and envy which may result to aggression and violence. Individuals who are deprived because of their economic class standing or envy may result to aggression and violence. The unfortunate begin to lose trust in the society which caused social inequality (Miller and Gaines 2010, p. 50). The effects of inequality become greatest when the less fortunate population believe that they are not able to compete in a society where balance of social and economic power is drifting towards those who are already affluent (Siegel 2011, p. 202). Finally, Strain theory argues that delinquencies result from inhibition of goal-seeking behavior. However, there are other major causes of delinquency and frustrations. In most cases adolescents are forced to stay in certain surroundings such as school and family. If these surroundings are encouraging, the adolescent can do little in order to escape legally. This can be very frustrating and may result in anger or illegal escape attempts.
In a nutshell, the strain theory strives to explain why instrumental crimes take place in today and past societies. Monetary gain and the attainment of the American dream have been mentioned as being racially and socially defined. Coping strategies may be used to alleviate emotional breakdown arising from strain. It has been said that money makes the world go round; however, it is because of pursuit for more money that many crimes occur in the world. The theory’s theoretical framework is also subject to assumptions such as its selective approach towards race and socioeconomic status. Consequently, this essay shows that even though the strain theory has some faults, it has helped to explain why crimes occur in the society.