Strain theory (sociology)
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In sociology and criminology, strain theory states that social structures within society may pressure citizens to commit crime. Following on the work of Émile Durkheim, strain theories have been advanced by Robert King Merton (1938), Albert K. Cohen (1955), Richard Cloward, Lloyd Ohlin (1960), Neil Smelser (1963), Robert Agnew (1992), Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (1994).
Strain theory is a sociology and criminology theory developed in 1938 by Robert K. Merton. The theory states that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (such as the American dream), though they lack the means. This leads to strain which may lead the individuals to commit crimes, examples being selling drugs or becoming involved in prostitution, to gain financial security.
Strain may either be:
- Structural: this refers to the processes at the societal level which filter down and affect how the individual perceives his or her needs, i.e. if particular social structures are inherently inadequate or there is inadequate regulation, this may change the individual's perceptions as to means and opportunities; or
- Individual: this refers to the frictions and pains experienced by an individual as he or she looks for ways to satisfy his or her needs, i.e. if the goals of a society become significant to an individual, actually achieving them may become more important than the means adopted.
Robert King Merton was an American sociologist who argued that society can encourage deviance to a large degree. Merton believed that socially accepted goals put pressure on people to conform. His theory was largely developed due to the social and economic circumstances occurring in the United States's society during the early 1900s. Robert Merton's Strain Theory stems from a fundamental question that he posed on why the rates of deviance were so different among societies. He thought that there could be deviance where there is a difference between what defines success and what the proper means are to achieve these goals. He found the United States as a prime example of high levels of deviance because there is a high value in achieving success, primarily monetary success, but there are contradictions for the means of achieving success. The college educated worker is respected, but the robber barons who stole for their money were also admired, showing success is seen as more important than the means to achieve success. In addition, he also saw how minority groups were unable to get good educations, and if they could then they could not get a good paying job with it, but the same high standard for success is set for everyone even though not everyone could reach those standards through conventional means. These contradictions led him to develop strain theory because of how high the US held success. People are forced to work within the system or become members of a deviant subculture to achieve the desired goal. Merton's belief became the theory known as Strain Theory. Merton continued on to say when individuals are faced with a gap between their goals (usually finances/money related) and their current status, strain occurs. When faced with strain, people have five ways to adapt:
- Conformity: pursuing cultural goals through socially approved means. ("Hopeful poor")
- Innovation: using socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain culturally approved goals. Example: dealing drugs or stealing to achieve financial security. ("surviving poor")
- Ritualism: using the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive goals (more modest and humble). ("passive poor")
- Retreatism: to reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it, then find a way to escape it. ("retreating poor")
- Rebellion: to reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them. ("resisting poor") not accepting any goals and means
General Strain Theory
General strain theory (GST) is a sociology and criminology theory developed in 1992 by Robert Agnew. Agnew believed that Merton's theory was too vague in nature and did not account for criminal activity which did not involve financial gain. The core idea of general strain theory is that people who experience strain or stress become distressed or upset which may lead them to commit crime in order to cope. One of the key principle of this theory is emotion as the motivator for crime. The theory was developed to conceptualize the full range of sources in society where strain possibly comes from, which Merton's strain theory does not. The theory also focuses on the perspective of goals for status, expectations and class rather than focusing on money (as Merton's theory does). Examples of General Strain Theory are people who use illegal drugs to make themselves feel better, or a student assaulting his peers to end the harassment they caused.
GST introduces 3 main sources of strain such as:
- Loss of positive stimuli (death of family or friend)
- Presentation of negative stimuli (physical and verbal assaults)
- The inability to reach a desired goal.
Institutional Anomie Theory
Institutional anomie theory (IAT) is a criminology theory developed in 1994 in by Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld. The theory proposes that an institutional arrangement with a market, where the market/economy is allowed to operate/dominate without restraints from other social intuitions like family will likely cause criminal behavior. Derived from Merton's Strain Theory, IAT expands on the macro levels of the theory. IAT's focus centers on the criminal influences of varied social institutions, rather than just the economic structure.
Illegitimate Opportunities Theory
Illegitimate opportunities is a sociology theory developed in 1960 by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin. The theory states that crimes result from a high number of illegitimate opportunities and not from a lack of legitimate ones. The theory was created from Merton's strain theory to help address juvenile delinquency.
Role Strain Theory
The theory of "role strain", developed by sociologist William J. Goode in 1960, states that social institutions are supported and operated by role relationships. Due to these role relationships that individuals may feel "role strain", or difficulty fulfilling their sociological duties in the relationship. It is through this "role strain" that social action and social structure are maintained. With these relationships, come social obligations that members of that society are required to follow, which people are usually not forced to fulfill. In order for the society to continue existing, these obligations must be fulfilled at the volition of the individuals in it, which the theory states is what most people are inclined to do. Due to the fact that there is no force involved in maintaining these role relationships, there will be individuals who can not, or will not, conform to these societal expectations.
In addition, the individuals within the society are not bound to one role relationship. In fact, all individuals will be part of multiple role relationships. Possession of multiple relationships can account for the conflicts of interest often faced in social settings. According to Goode, however, due to these multiple relationships, an individual will almost always have a total amount of role obligations that demand more than what the individual can give, whether it is in terms of time, emotional favor, or material resources. This can give rise to "role strain", which can lead the individual to attempting to fulfill socially acceptable goals in means that may not be socially acceptable (as explained in General Strain Theory).
While the theory of role strain attempts to attribute the maintenance of society to role relationships, Goode also acknowledges that the theory does not account for the existence of more complex social settings, such as that of urban society. The theory of role strain does not account for several aspects of urban life, such as the fact that some individuals accept absolutely none of the society's central values, the fact that individuals vary in their emotional commitment to these societal values, how these role relationships change when individuals go through a change in social position, or how these relationships hold up during times of crisis.
Other Strain Theorists
In 1992, Robert Agnew asserted that strain theory could be central in explaining crime and deviance, but that it needed revision so that it was not tied to social class or cultural variables, but re-focused on norms. To this end, Agnew proposed a general strain theory that is neither structural nor interpersonal but rather individual and emotional, paying special attention to an individual's immediate social environment. He argued that an individual's actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals, actual or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli, and actual or anticipated presentation of negative stimuli all result in strain.
Anger and frustration confirm negative relationships. The resulting behavior patterns will often be characterized by more than their share of unilateral action because an individual will have a natural desire to avoid unpleasant rejections, and these unilateral actions (especially when antisocial) will further contribute to an individual's alienation from society. If particular rejections are generalized into feelings that the environment is unsupportive,more strongly negative emotions may motivate the individual to engage in crime. This is most likely to be true for younger individuals, and Agnew suggested that research focus on the magnitude, recency, duration, and clustering of such strain-related events to determine whether a person copes with strain in a criminal or conforming manner. Temperament, intelligence, interpersonal skills, self-efficacy, the presence of conventional social support, and the absence of association with antisocial (e.g., criminally inclined) age and status peers are chief among the factors Agnew identified as beneficial.
The strain theory of suicide postulates that suicide is usually preceded by psychological strains. A psychological strain is formed by at least two stresses or pressures, pushing the individual to different directions. A strain can be a consequence of any of the four conflicts: differential values, discrepancy between aspiration and reality, relative deprivation, and lack of coping skills for a crisis. Psychological strains in the form of all the four sources have been tested and supported with a sample of suicide notes in the United States and in rural China through psychological autopsy studies. The strain theory of suicide forms a challenge to the psychiatric model popular among the suicidologists in the world.
The strain theory of suicide is based on the theoretical frameworks established by previous sociologists, e.g. Durkheim (1951), Merton (1957), and Agnew (2006), and preliminary tests have been accomplished with some American (Zhang and Lester 2008) and Chinese data (Zhang 2010; Zhang, Dong, Delprino, and Zhou 2009; Zhang, Wieczorek, Conwell, and Tu 2011).
There could be four types of strain that precede a suicide, and each can be derived from specific sources. A source of strain must consist of two, and at least two, conflicting social facts. If the two social facts are non-contradictory, there would be no strain.
- Strain Source 1: Differential Values
When two conflicting social values or beliefs are competing in an individual’s daily life, the person experiences value strain. The two conflicting social facts are competing personal beliefs internalized in the person’s value system. A cult member may experience strain if the mainstream culture and the cult religion are both considered important in the cult member’s daily life. Other examples include the second generation of immigrants in the United States who have to abide by the ethnic culture rules enforced in the family while simultaneously adapting to the American culture with peers and school. In China, rural young women appreciate gender egalitarianism advocated by the communist government, but at the same time, they are trapped in cultural sexual discrimination as traditionally cultivated by Confucianism. Another example that might be found in developing countries is the differential values of traditional collectivism and modern individualism. When the two conflicting values are taken as equally important in a person’s daily life, the person experiences great strain. When one value is more important than the other, there is then little or no strain.
- Strain theory best applies only to the lower class as they struggle with limited resources to obtain their goals.
- Strain theory fails to explain white collar crime, the perpetrator of whom have many opportunities to achieve through legal and legitimate means.
- Strain theory fails to explain crimes based in gender inequality.
- Merton deals with individuals forms of responses instead of group activity which crime involves.
- Merton's theory is not very critical of the social structure that he says generate the strains.
- Strain theory neglects the inter- and intra-personal aspect of crime.
- Strain theory has weak empirical evidence supporting it.
Strain theory was tested following its development. Most of these test examined ideal goals such as occupational goals and individual expectations, which would most ideally lead to crimes if not achieved under rule of strain theory. However, most of the research found that this was not the case. An example of these studies was a study done by Travis Hirschi in the 1969. He analyzes a large body of data on delinquency collected in Western Contra Costa County, California that contrast with strain theory. These results and other criticisms lead to the abandonment of strain theory around the 1970s to the 80s.
In addition to the study done by Hirsch, strain theory was explored in a 2001 study conducted by Jason D. Boardman (and others). The study explored how societal strain and stress can lead to drug use by individuals, in particular how one's neighborhood environment can affect their susceptibility to drug abuse. This study specifically centered around troubled neighborhoods in Detroit, and the results were based on census data taken of these neighborhoods, mainly because this data contained information on each individual resident's use of drugs. From this data, the study found that the more disadvantaged a neighborhood is, the more its residents abuse drugs. The study credited this positive trend to higher levels of stress and fewer available resources. According to strain theory, this lack of resources may compel an individual to abuse drugs to attain the positively valued goal of happiness by using the means that are currently available, which in the case of rough neighborhoods, were drugs.
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