An Overview of General Strain Theory

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An Overview of General Strain Theory
Bryan S.

In modern criminological research and debate, general strain theory (GST) remains at the forefront. The aim of this paper is to discuss general strain theory (GST), what it is, and how it came to be. Details on specific research regarding general strain theory, however, lie beyond the scope of this writing. This paper will instead focus on GST’s place among other criminological theories, and why it stands where it is today. Therefore, to get a proper perspective on this theory, it is prudent to begin with an overview on its origins. General strain theory sprang from the standard strain theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Agnew, 1992). Up until the wane of the 1960’s, strain theory had become the preeminent theory on deviance. As the 70’s rolled through, however, various differential-association theories, as well as social learning and social control theories, replaced strain theory and left it in near ignominy. There it remained, for the most part, until the rise of GST (Cole, 1975). But what, then, is strain theory? Stemming from the work of Émile Durkheim and Robert Merton, strain theory revolves around the concepts of anomie and, of course, strain. The central idea is that, while society in general may share common goals of self-sufficiency and wealth, the means to achieve those goals is limited by socioeconomic class. The disparity between what is expected and what is possible, and the resulting strain, leads to anomie, a state of normlessness, where the standard of conduct becomes skewed and self-regulatory values are rejected (Featherstone & Deflem, 2003). Strain is said to drive the deprived into following a life of deviance as a means to achieve otherwise impossible goals. An individual under strain might also replace those goals with something more readily achievable, such as “toughness” or “respect”. While there are variations on standard strain theory, they...
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