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When initially proposed, General Strain Theory’s (GST) primary emphasis was on explaining why some people are more likely to offend than others. In more recent years, it has been extended to address within-person patterns of offending, or more specifically, why some individuals continue to offend well into adulthood while most limit their involvement in delinquency to adolescence. Explanations of both inter-and intra-individual differences rely on the same central principle: Patterns of offending can be accounted for by differences in exposure and reaction to strain between people and over time. This research paper provides a brief review of the theoretical and empirical literature on GST explanations of between-and within-person differences in offending. Emphasis is on understanding the manner in which individual characteristics, such as personality traits, social support, and social control, affect the types and quantity of strains to which a person is exposed as well as their tendency to respond to strain using illegal coping mechanisms. After assessing the state of our knowledge regarding GST explanations of between-and within-individual differences in offending, some of the most pressing questions that remain to be answered on this topic are outlined.
In 1992, Robert Agnew took traditional strain theory in a new direction with his General Strain Theory (GST). GST conceptualizes strain as a psychosocial concept that can explain individual-level offending. The crux of this theory is that strain – resulting from exposure to noxious stimuli, the removal of positive stimuli, or blocked goals – elicits negative emotions including fear, depression, and most importantly, anger. Illicit coping mechanisms, including offending, substance abuse, and other problem behaviors, may be used in an effort to relieve these negative emotions. As originally proposed, GST set out to explain between-individual differences in offending, or why some people are more likely to offend than others. Specifically, the theory states that people will be more likely to offend if they are exposed to higher levels of certain types of strain (e.g., victimization, work in the secondary labor market, abusive peer relations, negative secondary school experiences, poor parenting). Strains are most likely to lead to crime when they have the following characteristics: (1) are seen as unjust; (2) are viewed as high in magnitude; (3) are associated with low levels of social control; and (4) create pressure for criminal coping (Agnew 2001). People are also more likely to offend if they have a tendency to respond to strain with crime. Both exposure and reaction to strain are influenced by characteristics of the individual, including personality traits, social support, and social control; therefore, individual differences are critical to understanding between-person differences in offending.
In recent years, GST has been extended to explain within-person patterns of offending or more specifically, why some individuals continue to offend well into adulthood while most limit their involvement in delinquency to adolescence (Agnew 1997, 2006b). Similar to GST explanations of between-person differences in offending, Agnew argues that for most individuals offending temporarily peaks in adolescence because youth are exposed to more criminogenic strains and are more reactive to the strains they experience during this period of their lives. Likewise, the small proportion who engage in chronic offending do so because they experience stable, high levels of strain and because they possess characteristics that make them more likely to cope with strain by using crime.
This research paper provides a brief review of the theoretical and empirical literature on GST explanations of between-and within-person differences in offending. Emphasis is on describing the types of individual characteristics hypothesized to affect both exposure and reaction to strain, and outlining how these individual differences are key to understanding patterns of offending. This work is not intended to be an exhaustive review; rather, I focus on select characteristics that are most central to these issues, such as negative emotionality and low constraint. I also discuss in detail work that has received less attention in the literature, including GST explanations of offending over the life course.
Between-Person Differences In Offending: Explaining Differences In Exposure And Reaction To Strain
Strain is often viewed as part and parcel of modern life. Given the pervasiveness of strain, one of GST’s biggest challenges has been identifying why some people react to strain with crime, while others do not. GST argues that between-person differences in offending can be accounted for, in part, by individual differences that shape the types and amounts of strain to which people are exposed. They also affect the likelihood a person will respond to strain with criminal coping and moderate the relationships between strain, negative emotions, and offending. Individual differences that are central to GST include social support and social control, associations with criminal others, coping skills, and the personality traits of negative emotionality and low constraint. The contributions of each of these characteristics to understanding why some, but not others, engage in offending are discussed below (see Agnew 1992, 2006b for a more in-depth discussion of these issues).
Agnew argues that individuals with low levels of conventional social support are more likely to react to strain in a criminal manner. Social support, which is defined as assistance that is used to meet an individual’s needs, can come from many sources (e.g., parents, teachers, friends, intimate partners, employers) and may take the form of advice, comfort and assurances, direct assistance with problems, and material goods. Individuals who can turn to others for help will be less likely to respond to strains in a criminal manner because they have a conventional support system that can provide them with resources to cope with their problems using legal means. Although not discussed by Agnew, it is also possible that people with more social support will experience fewer strains because they are better able to extricate themselves from stressful situations before these situations affect other life domains. For example, someone with high levels of social support may draw on these resources to find work before unemployment leads to financial problems.
A second factor that can explain between-person differences in offending is social control. Individuals who are low in social control generally have less direct supervision, weaker emotional bonds with others, and do not believe in conventional social norms. People with these characteristics will be more likely to react to strain with illegal behavior because they experience fewer negative consequences as a result of their actions. Specifically, they are unlikely to get caught because their behavior is not monitored; their lack of attachment to others means that they have few people to disappoint with their behavior; and they do not believe crime is wrong, so they experience little guilt. It is also possible that individuals with low social control will experience more strains. For example, youth whose behavior is unmonitored have more opportunities to become involved in situations that are likely to lead to conflict with others.
Associating with criminal others can also increase the likelihood that a person will react to strains in a criminal manner. Drawing on social learning theory, Agnew argues that interacting with offenders can cause one to develop a disposition for crime because criminal peers model illegal behavior, provide reinforcements for criminal activity, and teach beliefs that are favorable to crime. In addition, as individuals observe their peers engaging in crime without being caught or sanctioned, they may come to believe that crime is a low cost endeavor. This belief is reinforced as peers fail to sanction the illegal behavior of group members and instead laud offending. Associating with criminal peers can also enhance one’s exposure to criminogenic strains as criminal peer groups are more likely to engage in conflict with one another and with those outside the group.
Finally, individuals with few personal resources to draw upon, including poor problem-solving and social skills, are more likely to engage in crime because they have limited capacity to solve problems in a legal manner. Personal resources that may be particularly important for understanding between-person differences in offending are the personality traits of negative emotionality and low constraint. In fact, Agnew and others (Agnew et al. 2002) argue that these traits may be the primary factors moderating the relationship between strain and crime. Negative emotionality captures the likelihood a person will breakdown under stress. People with high levels of this trait have a tendency “to experience events as aversive, to attribute these events to the malicious behavior of others, to experience intense emotional reactions to these events.. ., and to be disposed to respond to such events in an aggressive or antisocial manner” (Agnew et al. 2002, p. 46). In comparison, low constraint characterizes individuals who “are impulsive, are risk-taking/ sensation-seeking, reject conventional social norms, and are unconcerned with the feelings or rights of others” (Agnew et al. 2002, p. 46).
Negative emotionality and low constraint are moderately stable over the life span, but relative stability (i.e., maintaining rank order compared to others) is more common than absolute stability (i.e., sustaining the level of a trait over time) (see Miller and Lynam 2001).
According to Agnew (2006b), people high in negative emotionality and low in constraint are more likely to offend for two primary reasons. First, negative emotionality affects how people perceive, and therefore react to, stimuli. In situations where the intent of the actor is ambiguous, those with high levels of negative emotionality will be more likely to attribute harmful intent to the actor and blame others for their problems (Caspi et al. 1994). These cognitive processes increase the likelihood strain will lead to anger, which is the emotion most often associated with offending and aggressive responses. Because individuals with weak constraint tend to act quickly with little thought, low constraint may enhance the effect of negative emotionality on offending by encouraging the rapid translation of negative emotions into impulsive action (Caspi et al. 1994). There is also some evidence that people with low levels of constraint perceive stressors as more threatening or negative (Taylor and Aspinwall 1996). For these reasons, negative emotionality and low constraint increase the likelihood a person will respond to strain with criminal coping.
Second, people who are high in negative emotionality and low in constraint are more likely to experience strains that are associated with offending. This is due to the fact that they have problems getting along with others and are unlikely to exert the effort necessary to excel in conventional activities. In turn, failure in conventional pursuits can result in greater exposure to strain-producing environments, like delinquent peer groups. People with these traits are also more likely to evoke negative reactions from their social environments. These responses may be stressful in-and-of themselves, or they may introduce the individual to stressful situations. Finally, the search for interpersonal interactions with others they find compatible and stimulating may lead those who are high in negative emotionality and low in constraint to environments and relationships filled with stressors.
Differences In Within-Person Patterns Of Offending
Originally, GST was formulated to explain between-individual variations in offending. More recently, it has been extended to explain within-individual patterns of behavior, including why some individuals engage in persistent offending over the life span while most others engage in normative delinquency that is limited to adolescence (Agnew 1997, 2006b). In his explanation of these within-individual patterns of offending, Agnew draws on many of the same concepts he uses to explain between-individual differences including poor problem-solving skills, lack of conventional sources of social support, low social control, association with delinquent peers, and negative emotionality and low constraint. Moreover, the fundamental explanation regarding the patterning of criminal behavior remains the same. Life-course persistent offenders experience high levels of criminogenic strains throughout their lives and have time stable characteristics that make them more likely to respond to strain with crime. In comparison, adolescent limited offenders experience a relatively short-lived peak in criminogenic strains and in the characteristics that promote criminal coping during their teenage years and will generally limit their offending to adolescence.
Life-Course Persistent Offending
GST posits four mechanisms that contribute to stability in offending over the life course. All but one of these mechanisms rely on the relatively time stable traits of negative emotionality and low constraint, directly or indirectly, to explain continuity. In the first explanation, people with these traits are theorized to be more reactive to potential sources of strain. As described above, during interactions, they will be more likely to attribute harmful intent to the actions of others, more likely to respond aggressively, and more likely to believe that aggressive responses will be effective. These perceptions increase the probability they will respond to any given strain with offending at all points in their life.
Second, individuals who are high in negative emotionality and low in constraint will persist in offending because they experience more strains over their life course. They have difficulty in getting along with others and succeeding in conventional pursuits, which generates strain and increases the likelihood they will end up in aversive environments and situations. People possessing these traits also actively seek out environments or relationships that are high in strain. In turn, experiencing strain contributes to the maintenance of negative emotionality and low constraint. In these first two explanations, it is the relative stability of traits overtime, and therefore continuity in exposure and sensitivity to strain, that accounts for persistent offending.
The third explanation Agnew proposes to explain continuity involves passive selection into an aversive home environment. Children who are high in negative emotionality and low in constraint are likely to have parents who possess these traits, partially because there is a hereditary component to these characteristics and partially because parents who are high in negative emotionality and low in constraint are likely create a family environment that promotes the development of these traits in their children (Rutter et al. 1997). Parents with these characteristics are impatient and irritable and typically create home environments for their children that are high in strain. Youth rarely have recourse to change their living arrangements, and therefore, stability in offending results from consistent exposure to criminogenic strains in the family environment.
The remaining pathway is the only explanation for continuity in offending outlined by Agnew that does not rely on the traits of negative emotionality or low constraint. Instead stability is attributed to state-dependent mechanisms in which offending and its negative ramifications have a causal effect on future behavior by increasing exposure and reactivity to strain. In this process, individuals facing persistent poverty and underclass status are initially more likely to offend because they are exposed to more strain, are more sensitive to the strain they experience, and are more likely to respond to strain with offending. Offending then creates its own set of consequences, like decreased social control. It can also disrupt the normative timing of life events, such as the birth of a child, making these events more stressful. These aversive circumstances increase exposure and reactivity to strain and make offending more likely. Therefore, offending is maintained over time by its reciprocal relationship with strain.
More recently, Slocum (2010a) has extended Agnew’s explanations of stability. Drawing on the sociology of stress literature and the life-course perspective, she proposes two additional ways that GST may account for persistent offending. First, she argues that when experienced early in life, particularly before age 10, trauma and severe chronic strain can have long-lasting effects on how a person reacts to later strain. The size and force of these early stressors can be great enough to overwhelm available coping mechanisms, decreasing the amount of additional stress an individual can withstand. In this manner, early stressful experiences can lead to stability in offending through their lasting effect on stress reactivity.
The second explanation for stability proposed by Slocum is based on the process of stress proliferation, which occurs when initial stressors expand into aspects of the same life domain that were previously unaffected or when they disrupt patterns of social interactions, obligations, and expectations, leading to problems in other life domains (Pearlin et al. 1997). For example, the loss of a job may lead to financial problems which, in turn can create marital strain. Importantly, stress proliferation can lead to chronic strain, which Agnew (1992) argues is likely to be dealt with through illicit coping.
Adolescent Limited Offending
GST is also able to account for the fact that most individuals engage in normative delinquency beginning in early to mid-adolescence, but then leave this behavior behind as they move into adulthood. This theory attributes the adolescent peak in delinquency to two factors: (1) Compared to other age groups, adolescents are more likely to experience criminogenic strains and (2) they are more likely to react to these strain using criminal forms of coping. I discuss each of these explanations in turn.
Youth are more likely to encounter the types of strains associated with criminal behavior; therefore, the peak in crime during adolescence partially is due to greater exposure to strain. Adolescence is a time of great change. The center of youths’ world shifts from their families to their peers, they become increasingly independent and mobile, and they transition from middle school to larger high schools. As a result “adolescents.. .experience a dramatic increase in the size and complexity of their social world” (Agnew 1997, p. 114). At the same time, they are less monitored by parents and their bonds with conventional adults become weaker. Therefore, these new relations are often accompanied by adversity because they require youth to engage in unchartered patterns of interactions without the guidance of their parents or other adults. Adolescents also have more interactions with delinquent peers who are likely to treat them poorly and initiate conflict with one another as well as with parents, teachers, and other adults. Agnew argues that another source of increased strain in adolescence is the blockage of goals. The most important of these goals are autonomy and popularity among their peers, both of which can be achieved through delinquent behavior. Moreover, the desire for autonomy brings youth in conflict with those who attempt to exert social control over them, namely, parents and teachers, and can lead to frustration and anger. Importantly, adulthood is associated with diminishing exposure to these types of strains. The social world of adults is often more limited compared to that of adolescents; adults settle down with a romantic partner, move into the more socially limited world of work, and have less contact with delinquent peers. In addition, adults get the autonomy that they so desired as adolescents and the importance of peer popularity and of other goals that can be achieved through delinquency declines with age. Therefore, according to GST, the decline in crime that accompanies adulthood is explained, at least partially, by a decrease in exposure to strain.
In addition, adolescents are also more likely than other age groups to define the events they experience and their relationships as aversive (Agnew 2006b). That is, not only are they more likely to experience objective strains (i.e., events and circumstances most people would find aversive), but they are also more likely to experience subjective strains. Important cognitive changes occur during adolescence. Compared to childhood, youth are capable of increasing abstract thought that enables them to empathize with others and take on their emotional burdens. At the same time, adolescents are egocentric, and thus, they feel that their actions are always being monitored and judged by others. This self-centeredness, combined with the fact that adolescents’ lives are lived in the public sphere, makes it more difficult for them to cognitively reinterpret or minimize their strains. Youth are also more likely to blame their problems on others, which increases the likelihood they will react to strain with anger, and in turn, delinquency. The tendency to interpret events as aversive declines as youth mature, becoming less self-centered and learning not to blame their problems on others. This leads to a corresponding decline in illicit behavior.
The adolescent peak in offending can also be explained by the fact that this age group is more likely to respond to strain with delinquency than other age groups. As youth become more independent, there is an increased expectation that they will handle their own problems; however, they have little experience with coping since in their younger years, they could turn to adults to help them solve their problems. As a result, they may be forced to use less effective, illegitimate forms of coping mechanisms, such as delinquency. Adolescents also lack the resources and the power to escape from their problems, so this is one less coping mechanism that is available to them. Because adolescents have few social ties to prosocial adults and have more associations with delinquent peers, the costs of engaging in delinquency are lower and this behavior may even be rewarded. Thus, for youth, illicit behavior may be a relatively attractive way to cope with strains. As youth age, they have more opportunities to engage in prosocial coping and many of the factors that enhance the likelihood an individual will respond to strain with delinquency (e.g., low social control and exposure to delinquent peers) diminish.
In summary, GST explanations of between-and within-individual differences in offending are very similar – offending is more likely when individuals experience more criminogenic strains and when they possess the characteristics that increase the probability they will cope with strain in a criminal manner. The next section briefly reviews the research on these explanations.
State Of The Art
Between-Person Differences In Exposure And Reaction To Strain
A number of tests using diverse samples have examined whether the effect of strain on negative emotions and criminal offending is stronger for individuals who possess certain characteristics, such as low social control, limited social support, and poor problem-solving skills, and for those who associate with criminal others. Support for GST has been mixed at best (see Agnew 2006a, b for a review). For example, in one study that looked at 96 interaction effects, only 6 of these were consistent with GST (Aseltine et al. 2000). In a more recent comprehensive test of GST that uses a sample of Korean youth, Moon et al. (2009) also found mixed support: Good problem-solving skills and high levels of social control mitigated the effect of strain on many types of delinquent behaviors, but contrary to GST, the effect of strain on offending was weaker for individuals with more delinquent peers. Looking across studies, there are few conditioning mechanisms that have received universal support. For example, some studies (e.g., Moon et al. 2009) have found that delinquent peers condition the effect of strain on offending, while others (e.g., Tittle et al. 2008) have not. There is some evidence, however, that conditioning effects may better explain the link between strain and affective responses than strain and delinquency (see Aseltine et al. 2000).
Research examining the conditioning effects of negative emotionality, low constraint, and related traits is generally more consistent with GST. For example, Agnew and colleagues (2002) found that the relationship between self-reported strain and delinquency was stronger for youth who had high scores on a measure that combined negative emotionality and low constraint. Additional research has examined whether related traits moderate the strain-offending link. For example, some studies indicate that individuals with low self-control are more likely to react to strain with delinquency (e.g., Hay and Evans 2006; Mazerolle and Maahs 2000), but other research has found that youth with low self-control are less reactive to strain (e.g., Ousey and Wilcox 2007). It is possible that self-control enhances the effect of strain on some outcomes, but not others (Peter et al. 2003). Methodological limitations with many of these studies including improper causal ordering and limited measures of key concepts make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the moderating effects of negative emotionality and low constraint. Still, this is a promising avenue for future research.
Few tests of GST have examined whether individual characteristics affect exposure to the types of strain likely to lead to offending, but there is a good deal of evidence to support this idea (see Agnew 2006b for a partial review). For example, individuals involved in delinquent peer groups are more likely to be victimized and come into conflict with others, and negative emotionality, low constraint, and related characteristics have been linked to greater exposure to stressors.
Differences In Within-Individual Patterns Of Offending
Compared to other aspects of GST, there has been relatively little research that has examined the ability of this theory to account for within individual patterns of offending across the life span, although research on development generally supports Agnew’s explanations of continuity and the adolescent peak in offending (see Agnew 1997, 2006b, and Slocum 2010a for reviews). Only one study has attempted to examine all of the pathways expected to promote stability in offending simultaneously. Using data spanning approximately 30 years, Slocum (2010b) examined whether individual differences, childhood experiences, and social location account for the continuity of strain and illicit drug use from adolescence through adulthood. As hypothesized by GST, negative emotionality/low constraint had a direct effect on adolescent drug use, and strain in adulthood had a stronger effect on depression and substance use for individuals with these traits. Contrary to theoretical expectations, individuals higher in negative emotionality/low constraint did not experience more stressors than other individuals and there was no support for the passive selection hypothesis. More support was found for dynamic processes including the reciprocal relationship between strain and offending and stress proliferation. Overall, the findings suggest that traits play a role in maintaining substance use from adolescence to adulthood, but that dynamic aspects of the stress process may be more important for explaining continuity.
Studies testing GST explanations of adolescent limited offending are also rare. Hoffmann and Cerbone (1999) used hierarchical growth curve modeling to relate increases in stressful life events to the escalation of delinquency in adolescence. Consistent with GST, they found that experiencing an increasing number of life events was related to intra-individual growth in delinquent activity. Although this study did not examine whether GST could explain the later decrease in offending observed in adulthood, other researchers have examined desistance from a GST perspective. Using seven waves of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Gunnison and Mazerolle (2007) found that youth who reported lower levels of negative relations with adults were more likely to desist from minor delinquency even after controlling for other factors theoretically predicted to account for desistance. There was no relationship, however, between decreases in other types of strain and desistance, and none of the strain measures accounted for desistance from more serious delinquency.
Another study examined both GST explanations of desistance and persistence. Eitle (2010) used five waves of data collected from a sample of middle school males who were followed through age 25. He found that decreases in both chronic strain and negative life events were associated with decreases in the number of different types of delinquency in which a person reported engaging. This is consistent with GST, which posits that desistance is partially due to a decrease in strain. Eitle’s study also provided some support in favor of GST explanations of stability: The effect of chronic strain on delinquency was exacerbated for individuals with an angry disposition, a trait similar to negative emotionality. Other predictions from GST were not supported. None of the measures of personal and social resources, including social support, moderated the effect of changes in strain on changes in delinquency nor did peer delinquency. Therefore, there was no support for the idea that adolescents desist from crime because they are better able to cope with strain in a prosocial manner or because factors that promote antisocial coping diminish over time. Moreover, strain was found to decrease during adolescence, rather than increase.
Finally, a study using data from the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth that covered ages 9 through 16 found support for GST explanations of intra-individual patterns of offending. Youth who experienced persistent poverty were more likely to have conduct disorder throughout the study period, while those who could be classified as desisters only experienced transitory poverty. Some of the findings are also consistent with the idea that stress is produced through a dynamic process, such as stress proliferation. Specifically, changes in the family configuration were associated with residential instability, suggesting that strain in one life domain can have a causal effect on strain in a different domain.
In summary, research suggests that exposure to strain is determined, in part, by characteristics of the individual. Although there are a number of studies that examine conditioning mechanisms, the results are too inconsistent to reach a definitive conclusion on the empirical validity of GST regarding this issue. In comparison, studies using GST to explain within-individual patterns of offending have been limited in quantity and scope, but they offer some support for this theory.
Open Questions And Controversies
There are a number of unresolved issues regarding GST and individual differences in exposure and reaction to strain. Perhaps the most pressing issue is that of moderating effects. Studies that examine whether the effect of strain on offending is contingent on the characteristics of the individual have produced markedly inconsistent findings. As Agnew (2006b) suggests, this might be partially due to the difficulty of detecting interaction effects in survey research. One solution to this problem is to use research designs that are better suited for detecting interactions (Agnew 2006a). For example, an experiment could be conducted in which the treatment group participated in a program intended to reduce stress exposure and reactivity by improving problem-solving skills, increasing social control and social support, and reducing exposure to delinquent peers. GST would be supported if, compared to the control group, individuals in the experimental group experienced fewer strains and were less likely to respond to the strains they experienced with delinquency.
Another potential explanation for the mixed support for conditioning effects is that the importance of specific moderators may vary based on the characteristics of the population being studied, the types of strain that are measured, and the outcome of interest. For example, the relationship between strain and offending might be stronger for youth with delinquent peers, but not for adults for whom friends take on a less important role in offending (Tittle et al. 2008). Therefore, to fully understand the contingent relationship between strain and offending, researchers might need to explore not just two-way, but also three-way interactions. The decision regarding what variables to explore in these complex interactions should be guided primarily by theoretical expectations, but might also be informed by the empirical literature on conditioning effects. This would require a systematic review of the studies that have tested hypotheses on why some people, but not others, react to strain with crime so that researchers can better specify the conditions under which individual differences are likely to moderate the effect of strain. A meta-analysis of the GST literature would be one way to conduct such a review.
It is also necessary to consider that important moderators may exist that have not yet been identified by GST or that have been identified but not well studied. Tittle et al. (2008) suggest that criminal opportunity is a potential moderator that has not received enough attention. Other potential moderators include past experiences with strain (Slocum 2010a) and coping styles (Aseltine et al. 2000).
Given the centrality of negative emotionality and low constraint to both between and within-individual explanations of offending, understanding the role of these traits in shaping the strain-offending link is crucial; however, there remain a number of unresolved issues. First, most studies have combined negative emotionality and low constraint into one composite measure. Other studies have used measures that capture particular aspects of these traits, but not the full range of characteristics, such as angry disposition and low self-control. Therefore, it is not known if negative emotionality, low constraint, and related traits exert independent effects or whether they interact to produce even greater reactivity to strain. Second, although research on stress has found that individuals with traits similar to negative emotionality and low constraint experience more stressors, little work has examined whether strain mediates the effect of these traits on offending. Answering this question would provide a more complete picture of the relationship between traits, strain, and criminal coping.
More generally, the etiology of strain is typically overlooked in research on GST. Studies that do consider the sources of strain tend to focus on how strain emerges from poverty, family instability, or the neighborhood environment (e.g., Foster et al. 2010). While this work is certainly important, exposure to strain is also affected by access to personal resources as well as a person’s actions and interactional styles, which partially originate from individual differences. As an emerging body of research (see Foster et al. 2010; Slocum 2010b) is beginning to make evident, strain is also produced through dynamic processes, such as stress proliferation. Given the importance placed on chronic strain in both GST and the larger stress literature, additional research is needed to understand the manner in which strain can restructure the life course to produce additional strain. Studying the etiology of strain will help to provide a more complete understanding of the causes of offending.
It is apparent that more testing of GST is needed before it will be known if this theory can explain patterns of offending over the life span. Most studies examine the relationship between changes in strain and changes in offending. With a few exceptions, they do not assess the mechanisms through which these changes are expected to occur nor do they examine the factors that cause changes in exposure to strain and the reaction to strain. In addition, most of these studies have very limited measures of emotions and therefore, they cannot assess one of the core propositions of GST – that emotions mediate the link between strain and offending. Yet, it should be noted that some (Tittle et al. 2008) have suggested that strain may have a direct effect on offending that is not mediated by affective responses. Data that are necessary to simultaneously test these mechanisms is hard to come by, especially if the interest is in moving beyond adolescence. Moreover, examining some of the mechanisms expected to lead to continuity and change in offending may be methodologically challenging. For example, future work will need to take into account the reciprocal relationships between strain, illicit behavior, and traits, which will require the use of more complex nonrecursive models.
But it is not just empirical work that is lacking; additional theoretical consideration is needed as well. Agnew’s theoretical explanations for patterns of offending over the life course are primarily intended to explain the existence of two groups of offenders: the relatively rare life-course persisters and the much more common adolescent limited offenders. Research is accumulating that suggests this typology might be too simplistic and that even chronic offenders may eventually desist from crime. GST implies that these individuals will desist from crime because they are exposed to fewer criminogenic strains and are less likely to respond to the strain they experience with criminal coping mechanisms; yet, because stability is driven by stable traits and the increasing consequences of delinquency and strain itself, it is not clear how or why these necessary shifts in stress exposure and reactivity will occur. In other words, GST explanations for continuity leave little room for change. Therefore, a broader theoretical account of desistance that extends beyond adolescence and early adulthood is needed.
GST is a broad theory that incorporates concepts from a wide range of theoretical perspectives. Therefore, in order to understand patterns of offending, both across individuals and over time, it is not enough to focus only on strain. Rather, researchers must consider the characteristics of the individual and his or her social environment as well as the complex set of interactions that occur between these two spheres. People are not passive recipients of their circumstances, but instead make decisions or engage in behaviors that shape their exposure to strain. Their decisions and actions are shaped by their social world, past history, and family background, but also by their individual characteristics. These same factors also affect reactions to strain.
These complexities have made GST a difficult theory to test empirically. Examinations of individual differences in reactivity to strain have been hampered by the inherent difficulties associated with finding interactions using survey data. Studies of within-individual patterns of strain and offending have been limited by a lack of longitudinal data that contains the full range of variables needed to examine explanations of stability and change. Yet it is critical for the advancement of the theory that more attention be paid to these issues as well as the etiology of strain. GST is no longer in its infancy and in order for this theory to remain at the forefront of criminology, it must demonstrate that it can account for observed patterns of offending. This will require systematic reviews of the best studies, additional tests of the theory using more appropriate research designs and longitudinal data, and perhaps further refinement of the theory.
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