Group Characteristics and General Strain Theory Research Paper

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Although general strain theory was developed to explain differences in offending across individuals (Agnew 1985, 2006), recent scholarly efforts suggest that the theory offers significant insight into group differences in offending. These efforts suggest that group differences in exposure to strain, emotional reactions to strain, and access to resources for dealing with strain and negative emotions contribute to different rates of offending across various groups. In applying this argument to sex differences in offending, the theoretical emphasis has been on how patriarchal structures inform gender socialization and gendered roles, which ultimately shape stress exposure, emotional and behavioral responses to stress, and the efficacy of legitimate coping resources for dealing with strain (Broidy and Agnew 1997). Explications of race differences in offending emphasize the role of additional structural arrangements and race discrimination in shaping the relationship between strain and offending (Kaufman et al. 2008). Cross-national research guided by general strain theory has been somewhat sparse, but explanations for research findings on samples of non-United States residents have emphasized that cultural values shape the strain process in ways that may contribute to understanding differences in offending cross-nationally. A particular strength of general strain theory for understanding group differences in offending is that it allows for consideration of how structural arrangements and cultural values coalesce to create group variations in crime and delinquency. An important direction for future research is to consider the ways in which the structural arrangements emphasized in the race literature and cross-national studies coalesce with the cultural beliefs about gender at the heart of the literature on sex differences to provide insight into variations in offending across groups and individuals situated at various junctures in gender-race-class hierarchies and race-gender-nationality locations.


General strain theory is among the most prominent individual-level explanations of offending (Agnew 1985, 2006). The theory posits that strain leads to negative emotions – including anger, frustration, and depression – that promote offending when resources for legitimate coping are limited. Although the theory was developed to explain differences in offending across individuals, recent scholarly efforts indicate that the theory also offers significant insight into group differences in offending. Generally, theoretical and empirical efforts suggest that group differences in offending can be attributed in part to structural and cultural forces that shape group differences in exposure to strain, emotional reactions to strain, and access to resources for dealing with strain and negative emotions. This broad argument has been applied most commonly to understanding differences in offending across sex, race, and neighborhood groups but likely applies equally well to societies and to groups situated at various junctures at the intersections of race-gender-class and race-gender-nationality.

Sex Differences

A gendered extension of general strain theory offers that the theory can explain why males are more likely to engage in illegal behaviors than are females, positing that the strains most frequently experienced by females and males, emotional and behavioral reactions to strain, and the availability of legitimate coping resources are shaped by gendered roles and gender socialization (Broidy and Agnew 1997). The first hypothesis in this gendered perspective centers on sex differences in the types of strains most often experienced by females and males.

One of the crime-producing strains emphasized by general strain theory is failure to achieve positively valued goals. Drawing on gender research, Broidy and Agnew (1997) note that gender socialization emphasizes different goals for females and males. Females in patriarchal society traditionally are socialized to be concerned with maintaining relationships, finding meaning in life, and how people are treated in interactions; by contrast, males are taught to focus on economic success, personal achievement, and outcomes of interactions. As a result, females and males are likely to experience different types of goal-related strains. Relational strains – such as conflict in close relationships, network events, and suicide attempts of loved ones – align with feminine concerns, whereas, agentic strains – including economic failure, academic failure, mistreatment by others, and criminal victimization – are linked with masculine concerns. Consistent with these gendered concerns, adults often occupy gendered roles that require more emotion work and caretaking from females and emphasize the primacy of economic responsibilities for males (e.g., Kessler and McLeod 1984). Like gender socialization, the gendering of social roles in patriarchal society informs the types of strains – relational and agentic – to which males and females are most exposed and those they are most prone to experience as stressful (e.g., Kessler and McLeod 1984).

Broidy and Agnew (1997) propose that the differentiation of relational and agentic strains is pertinent for understanding sex differences in offending because agentic strains are more likely than relational strains to promote crime. For instance, criminal victimization and mistreatment may be particularly conducive to violent crime; failure to achieve economic goals can provoke property crime. Relational strains are less likely to encourage illegal behavior because such behavior can threaten social relationships or harm others.

Although some empirical evidence documents that females report more exposure to relational strains and males report more agentic strains (e.g., Kessler and McLeod 1984; De Coster 2005), there is little evidence that agentic strains are more criminogenic than relational strains (see Agnew 2006). This lack of evidence can be attributed to the fact that empirical assessments of general strain theory most often use composite scales of strain that do not separate relational and agentic strains. Studies that differential between types of strain typically include measures of either relational or agentic strains or include measures of both but do not examine which is more criminogenic.

The second hypothesis offered in Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) gendered perspective proposes that emotional reactions to strain are shaped by gender socialization. Agnew (1985) has given primacy to the negative emotion of anger, positing that anger is the emotion most likely to lead to offending because it energizes individuals for action and leads to a desire for retaliation. Given that males and females are equally likely to respond to strain with anger, Broidy and Agnew (1997) emphasize that understanding sex differences in offending requires consideration of qualitative distinctions in the experience of anger among males and females. Specifically, they propose that female anger is more likely than male anger to be accompanied by depression, anxiety, and sadness because females are socialized to view anger as inappropriate and also may worry that their anger may jeopardize valued social relationships.

This distinction in how males and females experience anger is relevant for understanding why males are more likely to offend than females, according to Broidy and Agnew (1997), because the depression that accompanies female anger may mitigate anger’s impact on law violation. Although research demonstrates that female anger is more likely than male anger to be accompanied by depression and sadness, limited evidence suggests that depression actually exacerbates the impact of anger on offending (De Coster and Zito 2010). Since the feminine experience of anger – concurrently with depression – is more conducive to offending than the masculine experience, the key to understanding links between gender, emotions, and illegality in general strain theory may reside in gendered expressions of emotional responses to strain rather than in gendered experiences of emotions.

An emphasis on expressions of emotional responses to strain is consistent with a large body of work on emotional displays and with Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) proposition that illegitimate responses to strain and negative emotions may be shaped by gender socialization, gendered roles, and cultural beliefs about gender and emotional displays in patriarchal society. Consistent with much prior theorizing, they note that femininity is the antithesis of crime and violence but that masculinity is consistent with and may even promote illegality. In addition, feminine roles are more likely to limit access to crime as a coping strategy than are masculine roles. As such, males with limited access to legitimate coping resources are likely to respond to strains and negative emotions with illegal behaviors; similarly situated females may respond with eating disorders, suicidal ideation, distress, or other mental health problems. Indeed, empirical evidence demonstrates gender distinctions in the expression of problems (e.g., Horwitz and White 1987; Kaufman 2009).

The final hypothesis in Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) gendered perspective offers that males are more predisposed to illegality and have fewer legitimate coping resources. That is, males are more likely than females to engage in crime without thinking (predisposition) and are more likely to lack the social skills necessary for legitimate coping and the maintenance of socially supportive relationships. These differences are linked once again to the fact that gender socialization emphasizes the development of relational concerns for females and agentic concerns for males. The expectation is that legitimate coping resources, social support, and noncriminal predispositions – buffering factors – protect females to a greater degree than males from offending in the face of strain and negative emotions. Although research often supports the claim that females possess more coping and social support resources than males (Thoits 1995), these resources do not buffer the impact of either strain or negative emotions on offending more for females than for males (e.g., Morash and Moon 2007; Jennings et al. 2009). However, criminal predispositions – captured with measures of aggressiveness and low self-control – exacerbate the impact of strain on illegal behaviors more for males than for females (e.g., Liu and Kaplan 2004; Cheung and Cheung 2010).

Overall, Broidy and Agnew (1997) propose that general strain theory can effectively explain why males engage in more law violation than do females. Their overarching framework emphasizes that males and females occupy gendered roles in society and are socialized to have concerns and goals that are consistent with traditional expectations for their gender. This shapes their experiences of strain, emotional reactions to strains, and their coping resources, social supports, and criminal predispositions. Empirical studies support the propositions that the types of strains to which males and females are exposed, emotional responses to strain, and expressions of negative emotions are gendered. However, current evidence does not support the claim that the gendering of strains and emotional responses to strain are relevant for understanding sex differences in illegal behaviors. Instead, sex differences appear to emerge because males are more likely than females to express negative emotions illegally and because the effect of strain on offending is more likely to be exacerbated by criminal predispositions for males than for females.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of the empirical literature to date is the failure to differentiate sex from gender. That is, tests of the propositions specified by Broidy and Agnew (1997) typically have assumed that gender socialization is perfect, ignoring variability within groups of females and males with respect to how much traditional gender socialization and gendered expectations shape their goals, emotions, predispositions, and reactions to strain and negative emotions. Research that includes direct measures of the extent to which individuals embrace traditional definitions of gender would provide a more accurate assessment of Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) hypotheses than what has been offered to date.

Race And Neighborhood Differences

Theory and research on race and offending in criminology most often emphasizes the broad structural forces that shape offending. Consistent with this, discussions of race and offending from a general strain perspective emphasize the role of discrimination and neighborhood disadvantage in the etiology of race patterns of offending.

Strain theorists highlight several mechanisms through which race discrimination can produce elevated rates of offending among Blacks in particular. Perhaps the most obvious argument is that discrimination is a form of strain – failure to achieve the valued goal of justice or presentation of a negatively valued stimulus – that produces negative emotions and criminal coping (see Kaufman et al. 2008). Indeed, Agnew (2001) defines race discrimination to be among the strains most likely to produce crime because it is likely to be seen as unjust and is high in centrality/magnitude because it threatens core values and identities. Consistent with this, research demonstrates a link between race discrimination and offending among Blacks that is mediated at least partially by anger and depression (Simons et al. 2003).

Race discrimination can also influence race patterns of offending by situating Blacks in neighborhoods where strains proliferate, they are exposed to angered/frustrated individuals, and access to legitimate coping resources is limited (Kaufman et al. 2008). Much research demonstrates that the racial segregation of disadvantaged urban neighborhoods arises in part from economic constraints (often produced by discriminatory practices in the labor market and discriminatory practices in housing markets).

Given this, Agnew’s (1999) general strain theory of neighborhood crime rates provides important insights into elevated rates of crime among Blacks, who often are concentrated in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

One mechanism through which disadvantaged neighborhoods create elevated crime rates, according to general strain theory, is through the generation of strain (Agnew 1999). Consistent with this, research shows that residents of disadvantaged areas are more likely than those in more advantaged areas to experience a wide array of strains, including harassment and threats, criminal victimization, and witnessing violence (e.g., Warner and Fowler 2003; Kaufman 2005). Importantly, studies demonstrate that the disproportionately high offending rates among Blacks can be attributed partially to their greater exposure to major events, such as criminal victimization and witnessing serious violence (Eitle and Turner 2003).

The concentration in disadvantaged areas of individuals who experience a wide array of strains translates into a high concentration of angered/frustrated individuals in these areas, which increases the chances of interacting with angry/frustrated people in what can be thought of as a “charged environment” (Bernard 1990; Agnew 1999). This, of course, is an additional source of crime-provoking strain for residents in disadvantaged neighborhoods. When confronted with this and other forms of strain generated by disadvantage and race, individuals are likely to blame their situation and their angry feelings on external factors, which increases the chances of illegitimate coping (Bernard 1990; Agnew 1999).

The likelihood of illegitimate coping is also increased by the fact that disadvantaged neighborhoods provide individuals and groups with few legitimate coping resources. For instance, retaliatory crime is a means through which groups can deal with victimization of self or loved ones, particularly when models of effective coping and access to police, court, and psychiatric resources are largely unavailable. Retaliatory crime, in fact, may become a necessity in these areas to help avoid the strains of future victimization and identity threats (Mullins et al. 2004).

In sum, general strain theory offers that elevated offending rates among Blacks may be explained both directly and indirectly by discrimination experiences. Race discrimination has been shown to be a source of strain that leads to negative emotions and offending (Simons et al. 2003), but it impacts crime also through the role it plays in concentrating minorities in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are characterized by high rates of offending in part because they expose residents to strains – such as victimization of self and loved ones, mistreatment/harassment, and hostile interactions with angry people – that are particularly criminogenic. Limited access to legitimate coping resources in disadvantaged areas only exacerbates the criminogenic nature of these strains.

Although research supports the argument that strains emanating from disadvantaged neighborhoods help mediate the impacts of race and neighborhood disadvantage on offending (e.g., Kaufman 2005), much less emphasis has been placed on assessing whether legitimate coping resources interact with strain in the production of race and neighborhood crime patterns. Perhaps this is because some studies find that race differences in levels of exposure to strain are relevant for understanding racial patterns of offending, but differences in the likelihood of responding to strain illegally are negligible in explicating these patterns (Eitle and Turner 2003). This might imply that differential access to coping resources is not of primary importance for understanding race and neighborhood patterns of offending. Given that research on neighborhoods, race, and strains is relatively sparse, however, the role of coping resources – particularly at the neighborhood level – requires further exploration.

National/Societal Differences

Although cross-national research from a general strain perspective has been relatively sparse (see Agnew 2006), there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the theory has meaningful insights to offer for understanding variability in rates of offending across societies or nations. For instance, cross-national comparative studies show that nations with high rates of economic inequality – a structural source of strain – have higher homicide rates than nations characterized by less inequality (e.g., Messner 1989; Pratt and Godsey 2003). Importantly, the impact of economic inequality on homicide rates is tempered by national-level social support resources (see Pratt and Godsey 2003). This suggests that cultural values – the value of being supportive of citizens – may significantly shape the extent to which strain impacts offending across nations.

This suggestion bears out most prominently in studies of general strain theory on non-United States samples, which often invoke cultural arguments to explain why certain strains may be more or less criminogenic in other nations than in the United States. Research findings support the applicability of general strain theory in samples of Chinese, Philippine, South Korean, Israeli, and Ukrainian samples (Landau 1997; Maxwell 2001; Bao et al. 2004; Morash and Moon 2007; Botchkovar et al. 2009; Cheung and Cheung 2010). However, the conclusions of these studies generally suggest that cultural values shape the types of strains that may be most relevant for understanding offending within various nations. For instance, mistreatment by teachers appears to be a particularly important source of crimeproducing strain among South Korean adolescents. Morash and Moon (2007) propose that the importance of this strain may be rooted in both South Korean cultural norms that emphasize emotional and physical punishment as achievement motivators and Confucian values that emphasize academic achievement as a prerequisite for success in social and economic realms.

Studies that fail to replicate links between specific strains and offending that have been established in American samples most often conclude that cultural differentiation provides the key to understanding why some strains are relevant in some nations and not others. For example, the strain of coercive parenting leads to delinquency among American adolescents but not among Chinese adolescents (compare Hay 2003 and Cheung and Cheung 2010). An explanation offered for this difference is that coercive parenting is consistent with the collectivist ideology of China, which encourages the subordination of the individual to family and community. In American society, where individualism is lauded, coercive parenting is likely to be experienced as a stressful infringement on individuality, thereby resulting in delinquent responses (Cheung and Cheung 2010). Youths from the Philippines respond to aggression between caretakers with delinquency but are not vulnerable to delinquency when faced with physical aggression by their caretakers. Maxwell (2001) explains this by offering that the general cultural acceptance of physical punishment in the Philippines may buffer the relationship between caretaker aggression and delinquency often reported in samples of American youths (e.g., Smith and Thornberry 1995). Finally, Botchkovar and colleagues (2009) conclude their study of general strain theory in Ukrainian, Greek, and Russian samples by noting that their general strain scale may have proven ineffective in the prediction of offending decisions among their Greek and Russian samples because it failed to consider that cultural values may shape the types of strains that are most relevant for understanding criminal intentions (Botchkovar et al. 2009).

Generally, these studies suggest that general strain theory has much to offer for understanding rates of offending across nations. To date, the majority of studies have provided ad hoc cultural explanations for why various strains are particularly relevant or irrelevant for explicating offending in different nations. Research on the applicability of general strain theory across societies would be strengthened by a theoretical framework that takes into consideration structural and cultural variations between nations and derives hypotheses about how these variations might shape the types of strains, emotions, and coping resources most relevant for understanding variations in offending across societies.


Despite the fact that general strain theory was developed to explain individual offending, recent scholarship demonstrates the theory’s relevance for illuminating sex, race, neighborhood, and societal rates of offending. Explanations for sex differences in offending have focused primarily on gender socialization and gendered roles rooted in patriarchal structural arrangements; race differences have been discussed as emanating from neighborhood structural arrangements that are shaped by race discrimination and economic factors; and societal-level arguments have focused on economic structures and cultural values. A strength of general strain theory for understanding group differences in offending is in its ability to consider how structural arrangements and cultural beliefs coalesce to predict offending rates across groups. Given the emphasis on intersectionalities and crime in the broader literature on offending, an important next step for general strain theorists may be to further unite some of the cultural and structural arguments that have been offered in the literature to help explicate patterns of offending across race-sex-class or race-sex-nation groups.

One avenue for pursuing this goal would be to consider that some of the structural factors discussed as relevant for understanding race and neighborhood patterns of offending may shape the gendered roles and socialization that Broidy and Agnew (1997) propose shape strains, emotions, coping resources, and offending across sex groups. Intersectionality theorists propose, for instance, that race discrimination and economic disadvantage have made it such that the feminine roles and ideals lauded in patriarchal society have never applied to Black girls and women. As such, Black families socialize their daughters in ways that differ from how White families socialize their daughters. This means that Black females are less likely than their White counterparts to embrace the cultural form of femininity and feminine roles highlighted in Broidy and Agnew’s (1997) discussion of sex and crime. This insight may prove relevant for understanding how race discrimination, community disadvantage, and gender socialization operate simultaneously in a general strain theory framework to help explicate patterns of offending across gender-race-class. One can also envision consideration of how variability across nations in cultural beliefs about gender may shape the strain process differently for males and females in different nations, thereby providing insight into variability in the size of the sex-gap in crime across nations.


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