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5.9: Strain Theories

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    Strain theories assume people will commit crime because of strain, stress, or pressure. Depending on the version of strain theory, strain can come from a variety of origins. Strain theories also assume that human beings are naturally good; bad things happen, which “push” people into criminal activity.

    [1] Moreover, the “social structure” of American society restricts some citizens from attaining it. Most, if not all, Americans know of the “American Dream.” No matter how you conceptualize the dream, most people would define the American dream as achieving economic success in some form. The culturally approved method of obtaining the American dream is through hard work, innovation, and education. However, some people and groups are not given the same opportunities to achieve the cultural goal. When there is a disjunction between the goals of a society and the appropriate means to achieve that goal, a person may feel pressure or strain. Everyone is aware of the definition and promotion of the American dream. When someone does not achieve this goal, he or she may feel strain or pressure. A person could be rejected or blocked from achieving a cultural goal. Merton claimed there were five personality adaptations between the goals of a society and the means to achieve them.

    Personality Adaptation Cultural Goals Institutionalized Means
    I. Conformity + +
    II. Innovation +
    III. Ritualism +
    IV. Retreatism
    V. Rebellion + / – + / –

    [2] Cohen wanted to know why most juvenile crimes occurred in groups. He explained that many youths, especially those in lower class families, rejected education and other middle-class values. Instead, many teenagers would seek status and self-worth as a new value system. When teens have no status, reputation, or self-worth, it led to severe strain. To achieve status, youths commit a crime to gain status among their peer group. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) claimed more serious delinquents sought “fast cars, fancy clothes, and well dames” (p. 97).[3] Assuming youths had no legitimate opportunities to improve their economic position, youths would join gangs to pursue illegitimate opportunities to achieve financial success. Criminal gangs provided youths illicit opportunities to gain money, conflict gangs permitted youths to vent their frustrations, and retreatist gangs were double failures; they had no legitimate or illegitimate means to increase income.


    Coping Mechanism Example

    1. Merton, R.K. (1938). Social structure and anomie.American Sociological Review, 3.
    2. Cohen, A.K. (1955). Delinquent boys: The culture of the gang. New York, NY: Free Press.
    3. Cloward, R.A., & Ohlin, L. (1960). Delinquency and opportunity: A theory of delinquent gangs. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
    4. Agnew, R. (2006). Pressured into crime: An overview of general strain. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    This page titled 5.9: Strain Theories is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.