Strain Theory

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How does general strain theory differ from biopsychological theories? “Throughout history, one of the assumptions that many people have made about crime is that it is committed by people who are born criminals; in other words, they have a curse, as it were, put upon them from the beginning. It is not a question of environmental influences determining what they were going to do; they were ‘born bad’. Consequently, whatever society may do, these people will eventually commit criminal acts. The Mark of Cain, as it were, is upon them” (Eysenck 1964) Within the scientific world research and studies continue in an attempt to prove the link between criminal and deviant behaviour and the genetic makeup of the individual and the importance of studying human behaviour through scientific means and this essay will look at the work of theorists within this field and their positivist approach and compare those theories alongside the central ideas of Merton’s Strain Theory and Agnew’s General Strain Theory which concentrates on the effect societal strains have on the individual. Robert Merton’s Strain Theory continued with Emile Durkheim’s (Durkheim, 1938) notion that whilst crime is inevitable and a normal aspect of social life, high levels of crime did indicate a breakdown in society and Merton felt that deviance resulted from the culture and structure of society itself (Haralambos & Holburn, 1995) His is functionalist approach insisted that all members of society share the same values, a ‘value consensus’, however as Merton argues not all members of society are placed in the same economic or class position and they do not have the same opportunity to realise these shared values. It is this situation that Merton believed caused deviance. (Haralambos and Holburn 1995) Merton’s theory came at a time when ‘The American Dream’ (Adams 1931) and its set of ideals was engaging Americans with the notion that all men are created equal and life should be better, richer and fuller for everyone, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Importance and emphasis was placed on the goal of attaining success and the monetary gains this brings but paying little attention to how this goal was to be achieved and a winning at all costs mentality becomes the main focus. If as Downes and Rock (2007) argue the luxuries of today become the necessities of tomorrow, yet a large section of society are still unable through social and or economical restrains to have a means of obtaining these luxuries and achieving success goals then strains will continue and material gain, which appears to be the symbolisation of success within western societies becomes even less likely and failure more profane. Whilst Merton’s Strain Theory has received criticism it has been continually built upon by other sociologists, including Robert Agnew, in order to try and develop a better understanding of crime and deviance. Agnew believes that the decline in popularity of Merton’s strain theory was due in part to Merton’s tendency to concentrate on lower class delinquency and neglecting to acknowledge that barriers such as gender, race and intelligence could also have a great bearing. (Newburn 2007) Rather than strain theory being the result of a failure to reach one’s personal goals, Agnew believes that there are two fundamental types of strain. The first being the loss of something that is valuable to the individual, this could be the loss of privileges, opportunities or relationships, a concept shared by Cohen (1955) who argued that the inability to achieve the respect that comes with middle class status contributed to offending among working class boys. The second strain occurs when individuals are treated in a negative way by others and the greater the extent of these strains the more likely it is that the individual will display deviant behaviour. In situations where these strains become chronic or repeated the individual becomes pre-dispositioned to crime and...
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