The question most consistently asked throughout time is; why do people commit violent crimes? Various perspectives, derived from one of two original theories: classical or positivist, have been pondered trying to discover an answer to this question. One modern-day theory, stemming from the positivist theory, that may be able to best explain the reasoning as to why people commit violent crimes is strain theory. There are two takes on strain theory, Merton’s classic strain theory, and Agnew’s general strain theory, that have been developed in order to solve this puzzling question, both perspectives having their own strengths and weaknesses.
Within violent crimes, there are two types subtypes: expressive and instrumental. Expressive crimes are not committed for an individual to benefit or gain from the act but instead are committed out of rage, anger, or frustration (Siegel, 2017). Whereas instrumental crime has more of a purpose to the actions. A person may commit an instrumental crime to improve his/her financial or social status (Siegel, 2017). There are several factors that are drawn upon when discussing the cause of a violent crime, such as personal traits, human instinct, exposure to violence, substance abuse, and culture and national values (Siegel, 2017). The four main violent crimes committed are rape, murder, assault and battery, and robbery. These violent crimes are categorized as part one crimes, meaning these crimes are only four of the most serious offenses. Rape is non-consensual sexual intercourse inflicted by another on either male or female and is one of the most misunderstood crimes (Siegel, 2017). Murder is the unlawful killing of a person or people with intention and is considered the most serious crime (Siegel, 2017). Assault and battery are actually two separate crimes. Battery being actual physical contact during the offense, such as punching, against the victim, while assault does not involve physical contact, but rather intention or threat of harming the victim (Siegel, 2017). Lastly, robbery is the taking of something valuable from an individual by use of force, threat, or violence (Siegel, 2017). The occurrence of violent crimes can be explained by both Merton’s and Agnew’s strain theories.
The classic strain theory, presented by Merton in his work “Social Structure and Anomie” in 1938, developed during a time when issues dealing with widening social class divisions started to arise from urbanization growth (Toth, 2019). It is a micro-level theory, which helps to explain why individuals or groups are more likely to engage in criminal activity (Toth, 2019). Specifically, how strain is produced on disadvantaged minority individuals and groups, as well as the lower class, because these people do not have equal access to legitimate opportunities for success (Akers & Sellers, 2013). This strain coming from blocked opportunity causes the individual or group to lean towards using illegal means in order to achieve success. Merton goes on to explain in “Social Structure and Anomie” that there are five ways an individual can adapt to the strain produced on them: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. Conformity, being the most common, is when an individual accepts the strain and still strives for success within the institutionalized means available (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Stability and continuity of a society are still maintained through this adaptation (Toth, 2019). Innovation is when a person still strives for success, however, the individual rejects the institutionalized means, therefore, leading him or her to take advantage of illegal means in order to reach his/her goal (Akers & Sellers, 2013). This adaptation occurs more often where there is limited opportunities for people to achieve success (Toth, 2019). Ritualism is when a person does not intend on reaching his/her goal, however, the individual still accepts the institutionalized means. The individual does not gain much from this adaptation, but simply just goes through the motions (Toth, 2019). Retreatism is when one gives up on both the goal itself, as well as the means to reach that goal (Akers & Sellers, 2013). This adaptation, being the least common, is more of an escape mechanism in which Merton placed those being, but not limited to, alcoholics, drug addicts, and the severely mentally ill within (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Lastly, rebellion is when a person rejects the entire system, both the goal itself and the means of reaching the goal, but replaces them with a new set of goals and means, these usually contrasting those of conventional society (Toth, 2019).
Merton’s classic strain theory explains the cause of violent crimes. If an individual experiences more strain from being blocked from using institutional means to achieve his/her goals, then the individual is more likely to be lead to criminal activity, specifically violent criminal activity. To start a person might be lead to commit murder if he/she is experiencing strain from another standing in his/her way. To specify by using an extreme circumstance, an individual may be blocked from progressing in his/her workplace, also known as a promotion, due to another employee. If the individual needs this promotion in order to increase his/her financial success they might be lead to commit murder of said other employee to gain this promotion. This can fall under the innovation adaptation to a stressor of classic strain theory due to the individual striving for that success, however, rejecting the institutionalized means to acquire the goal caused by a lack of available opportunities to gain a promotion. Robbery can also be explained by Merton’s classic strain theory, which can occur because of an innovation adaptation to strain as well. If one values financial success a great deal, then that may be a goal he/she is striving for. Thus, the individual can reject the institutional means of achieving wealth because some view obtaining a job harder than using illegal actions, such as robbery (a violent crime).
Merton’s classic strain theory has both strengths and weaknesses when referencing the explanation of violent crimes. To start, classic strain theory really has an emphasis on economic inequality being a main stressor, leading to violent crimes. Support for this prior statement has been found showing that economic deprivation does seem to have an effect on community differences in crime rates (Toth, 2019). However, this strength also comes with a weakness because it has otherwise been shown that economic deprivation is not as strongly correlated to societal differences as it is does on community differences (Toth, 2019). This being stated, not everyone views economic success as being valuable and, therefore, may not consider it to be a strain. In this case, being economically unsuccessful would not lead to violent crime. Another weakness to Merton’s theory is it does not account for various strains other than the separation between goals and presumptions (Toth, 2019).
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After Merton’s classic strain theory came Agnew’s general strain theory, which is micro level as well. Agnew approaches the outlook on strains by broadening stressors beyond the goals and institutionalized means of reaching said goals of society by arguing there are several sources of stress an individual can experience. Agnew’s strain theory perspective arose during a time in which issues with widening social class division occurred due to increasing societal pressures. Within Agnew’s “Pressured into Crime: General Strain Theory,” he discusses how people engage in crime due to experiencing stressors that result from one of three negative relationships. These include relations that prevent or threaten to prevent the achievement of positively valued goals, remove or threaten to remove the achievement of positively valued goals, and present or threaten to present negatively valued stimuli (Toth, 2019).
The first relation, that of which prevents or threatens to prevent the achievement of positively valued goals, features three subtypes. The first usually includes the traditional concept of stress relating to long-term goals and the means of achieving said goals stated by Merton’s classic strain theory, however, Agnew expanded this idea (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Agnew not only included long-term goals, but also short term, as well as the fact that an individual may not achieve said goals due to individual inabilities or lack of skills, rather than only due to blocked opportunities (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The second subtype includes the strain an individual feels when he/she believes he/she deserves a reward but that reward is never produced (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The strain comes from the resentment the person may feel from this disappointing circumstance. The third subtype comes from when an individual believes he/she deserves more than the outcome he/she received (Akers & Sellers, 2013). An example of this could be when one person feels as if he/she is putting more effort into a relationship the other person, therefore, feeling as if he/she is not reaping any benefit from said relationship.
The second relation, that of which removes or threatens to remove the achievement of positively valued goals, usually falls within the adolescence period. This occurs when one loses “something or someone of great worth” (Akers & Sellers, 2013). Losing someone can include a family member passing away or the breaking up with a girlfriend/boyfriend. Losing something can consist of getting fired from a job or being suspended from school.
The third relation, that of which prevents or threatens to present negatively valued stimuli, includes events in which a person has to deal with the negative actions of others. These events can be anything from child abuse to adverse school experiences (Akers and Sellers, 2013). An individual can not necessarily escape from family or school during childhood and adolescents so they may be lead to use illegitimate means in order to escape said events. Although strains may develop from these three negative relations, strains can also be divided into two categories: objective and subjective.
Objective strains are events that most people would find stressful. These events include being physically assaulted or deprived of food and shelter (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2014). Messerschmidt (1993) also states that questioning a male’s masculine status can cause stress to most men. Objective strains can be measured by interviewing a sample of people.
Subjective strains pertain to how different people evaluate the same events. Although an event may be objectively stressful, an individual might only mildly dislike the event, where another could strongly dislike it (Toth, 2019). The evaluation of stressful events is due to factors, such as an individual’s personality traits, goals, values, and prior experiences (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2014).). An example of a subjective strain is a divorce. It was found by Wheaton (1990) that some positively viewed their divorce because of the poor quality of their prior marriage.
Strains may also be further divided into three sub-categories: experience, vicarious, and anticipated. Experienced strains are stressors one has personally experienced. This type of strain should “bear the strongest relationship to crime” (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2014). Vicarious strains are strains on an individual due to stressors experienced by those around him/her, specifically those closest towards the individual, such as a family member or a friend (Toth, 2019). Anticipated strains are when one believes their current stressor(s) may continue into the future or a new stressor may arise in the future (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2014).
General strain theory also goes on to discuss how not all strains result in criminal activity. It is explained that strains are more likely to result in crime if they are seen as high in magnitude, unjust, associated with low social control, or creating some pressure or incentive for criminal coping (Toth, 2019). High in magnitude refers to how severe the individual subjectively views a stressor. If one views the stressor as more severe than the individual will have a stronger emotional response to said stressor, thus causing the person to take a more severe action to relieve him/herself of the strain he/she feels. An individual may view a stressor as more severe if it is high in degree, frequent, recent, long in duration or expected to continue, or threatens his/her core goals, needs, and values (Toth, 2019). If an individual views a stressor as “unjust,” meaning an individual did not believe he/she deserved the strain he/she feels, then it can cause the individual to become aggravated. One may deem the strain unjust if the one who inflicted it intentionally chose to do so knowing the individual would dislike the action (Toth, 2019). If a strain is associated with lowering the amount of social control on a person, he/she may react in a negative way (Toth, 2019). There are actually several types of social control one may experience: direct, emotional bond or attachment to conventional others, investment into conventional institutions, and beliefs regarding crime. Direct social control is the “extent to which others set rules prohibiting crime, monitor the person’s behavior, and sanction violations” (Toth, 2019). Emotional bond or attachment to conventional others consists of whether or not an individual cares what others think (Toth, 2019). If a person cares more about what others think, then it is more likely that a strain can have a stronger effect on the individual. Investment into conventional institutions consist of the time and resources one has put into conventional behaviors (Toth, 2019). If a person has invested more into these conventional behaviors, then he/she is more likely to not want to lose these investments through crime. Social control stemming from beliefs regarding crime involves the individual’s attitude towards the laws and whether or not he/she finds them valid (Toth, 2019). Lastly, creating pressure or incentive for criminal coping refers to how easily a stressor can be resolved by means of criminal activity, rather than conventional means. Not only do these four factors increase the likelihood of crime, but also if an individual experience two or more strains at a single time or very close together in time (Toth, 2019).
Agnew’s general strain theory can explain the cause of violent crimes. If an individual experiences more strain from the negative relationships he/she developed, as well as experiencing strain from other negative life events, then the individual is more likely to be lead to criminal activity, specifically violent criminal activity. For one, Agnew’s theory can be used to explain sexual assault crimes, such as the violent crime of rape. This can occur if a person encounters an objective, experienced strain. If an individual endures sexual assault, which can be categorized as an objective strain seeing as it is generally disliked by most people, himself/herself and lacks the ability to cope with this strain in a legal manner, then this individual is more likely to inflict sexual assault, possibly even rape, on another person. Assault and battery can also be explained by Agnew’s general strain theory. This can be seen when one experiences a vicarious strain. If someone close to the individual, either a family member or a friend, is being harmed by another, then the individual could be lead into seeking revenge, which can include physically harming or threatening to physically harm, the person negatively affecting his/her family member or friend.
Agnew’s general strain theory has both strengths and weakness when referencing the explanation of violent crimes. For one, his theory does account for other strains, rather than just disconnection between aspirations and expectations, that may lead to violent criminal actions. It has also been supported that delinquency, which can lead to violent criminal behavior in the future, is higher among those who experience one or more of the three negative relationships, as well as other various negative life events (Toth, 2019). However, just because an individual experiences strain, does not mean they will utilize illegal means to overcome it. If one has the ability to cope in a legal manner, such as having the verbal skills necessary to resolve a negative situation, then the individual will not be lead into taking illegal means, such as violent crimes, in order to overcome the strain (Toth, 2019).
Agnew has identified some policy implications in order to reduce the amount of violent crimes occurring, mostly focusing on family, as well as school, interventions. He discusses how these interventions should include four different aspects. The first is to reduce the difficulties of an individual’s social environment by training parents in skills that can better supervision and discipline of an the individual, specifying in better usage of rewards and punishments (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The second is to train individuals in their adolescence to have better social skills in order to reduce the provocation of negative reactions from others (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The third aspect is to increase support from programs, such as counseling, mediation, and advocacy, for adolescents in order for them to have an outlet to turn to before inclining towards violent criminal behavior (Akers & Sellers, 2013). The last aspect is to have anger control, problem solving, social skills, and stress management training for the youth in order for them to cope in a noncriminal way (Akers & Sellers, 2013).
To conclude, although Merton’s classic strain theory and Agnew’s general strain theory have weakness to the perspectives, the strengths are what causes it to be able to best describe why violent crime occurs. Both perspectives stemming from the positivist theory, as well as are micro level, explain that violent crime can result due to the strain of being blocked from having opportunities in order to achieve a goal, having a negative relationship, or one of the other various sub types of strain. Specifically, rape, murder, assault and battery, and robbery are the four main violent crimes that can be best explained by strain theory.
- Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2013). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application (6th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Cullen, F. T., Agnew, R., & Wilcox, P. (2014). Criminological Theory: Past to Present Essential Readings (5th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Messerschmidt, James W. 1993. Masculinities and Crime: Critique and Reconceptualization of Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Siegel, L. J. (2017). Criminology: The core (7th ed.). Lowell, MA: Cengage.
- Toth, A. (2019). Criminological Theory: Annomie & Strain Theories Part II. Criminological Theory, The University of Tampa.
- Wheaton, B. (1990). Where Work and Family Meet. Stress Between Work and Family, 153-174.