"When people get mad, they act bad." (Robert Agnew)

    Durkheim's theory of anomie is the basis for strain theory, at least in so far as "anomie" is translated as "deregulation."  It should be noted that control theorists also trace their inspiration to Durkheim, and have translated "anomie" as "normlessness."  Durkheim's influence has been extremely broad in criminology and sociology.  His view that social forces caused crime was extremely radical at the time.

    The concept of anomie is most developed in the book, Suicide, published in 1897, although Durkheim's theory of crime is embedded in his more general theory of modernization (the progression of societies from mechanical to organic solidarity).  In mechanical societies, crime is normal (punishing criminals maintains social solidarity thru a process of invidious comparison).  In organic societies, the function of law is to regulate the interactions of various parts of the whole of society.

    When this regulation is inadequate, a variety of social problems occur, including crime.  Strain (structural strain) refers generally to the processes by which inadequate regulation at the societal level filters down to how the individual perceives his or her needs. Strain (individual strain) refers to the frictions and pains experienced by the individual as they look for ways to meet their needs (the motivational mechanism that causes crime). Let's look at what Durkheim actually said in Suicide (paraphrased, author's translation):

Whenever one's needs require more than what can be granted, or even merely something of a different sort, they will be under continual friction and only function painfully.... The more one has, the more one wants.  A regulative force must play the same role for moral needs as it plays for physical needs.... Society alone is the only moral power superior enough to do this.... It alone can estimate the rewards to be proffered for every human endeavor.  When society is disturbed by some crisis or abrupt transition, it is momentarily incapable of exercising this influence, thence the sudden rises in suicides as we have seen.... So long as the social forces freed have not gained equilibrium, their respective values are unknown and all regulation is lacking for a time.  The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate hopes and claims and those which are immoderate.  Consequently, there is no restraint upon aspirations.... Appetites, not controlled by public opinion, become distorted...and more impatient of control.  A condition of anomie results from passions being less disciplined, precisely when they need more disciplining.

    The following discussion focuses on the varieties of strain theory at the hands of Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), Cloward and Ohlin (1960), Agnew (1992), Messner and Rosenfeld (1994).  Strain theory has fairly consistently captured the imagination of criminologists for over a century, and may well be the most theoretically explored area of criminology. It served as the policy basis for the war on crime during the 1960s, the most famous program of which was Mobilization for Youth (MFY), based almost entirely on Cloward and Ohlin's theory, with the two scholars, in fact, working for the Kennedy-Johnson administration.  Today's preschool programs, legal aid clinics, mobile bookmobiles, and voter registration outreach programs are all legacies of MFY.


    The cornerstone of what is known as "the means-end theory of deviance" is that crime breeds in the gap, imbalance, or dysjunction between culturally induced aspirations for economic success and structurally distributed possibilities of achievement. The theory assumes fairly uniform economic success aspirations across social class, and the theory attempts to explain why crime is concentrated among the lower classes who have the least legitimate opportunities for achievement. "It is the combination of the cultural emphasis and the social structure which produces intense pressure for deviation" (Merton 1968). The lower classes are the most vulnerable to this pressure, or strain, and will maintain their unfulfilled economic aspirations in spite of frustration or failure. The system can be stabilized by providing rewards for noneconomic pursuits, but the stress, or "strain toward anomie" (Merton 1968:211) is still operative in exclusive concern for outcome over intrinsic satisfaction of competition. Imperfect coordination of means and ends leads to limited effectiveness of social structure in providing regularity and predictability and a condition of "anomie or cultural chaos supervenes" (Merton 1968).

    The causal mechanism in Mertonian strain theory is a matter of debate. Agnew (1987) argues in favor of tests focusing on the dysjunction between aspirations and expectations or levels of frustration. Bernard (1987b) argues for more aggregate and objective measures than frustrations or aspirations. Messner (1988) argues in favor of a dual theory, one of motivation and another of social organization, each deserving of separate empirical testing. 

    It must be remembered that Merton (1938) regarded his typology of adaptations as making links between structural inequality and individual behavior for the sole purpose of shedding light on structural strain. Behaviorally, however, Figueira-McDonough (1983) has shown that innovators tend to be more involved in property offenses, ritualists more involved in deviance, retreatists more involved in drug use, and rebels represented in all crime categories.

Adaptations: Cultural Goals: Structural Means:
Conformity + +
Innovation + -
Ritualism - +
Retreatism - -
Rebellion +/- +/-

    where + means accepting attitude toward (goals or means) and - means rejecting attitude, and a mixed accepting/rejecting attitude is represented by +/-.  Akers (2000: 144) has operationalized most of Merton's adaptations as follows:

 Conformity  Merton recognized conformity as the most common type of the five modes. During this mode, people strive to obtain success by the most pure conventional means available.
Innovation  During innovation, Merton identified a miniscule, but substantial change in the perspective of the people whose mode is still in conformity and that of whom has shifted to innovation. The people continue to seek success; however by innovation they strive to obtain the success by taking advantage of illegal goals available to them in place of less promising conventional means in order to attain success.
Rebellion  Merton suggested that by the time people reach the mode of rebellion, they have completely rejected the story that everybody in society can achieve success and have loomed into a rebellious state. They neither trust the valued cultural ends nor the legitimate societal means used to reach success. Instead, these people replace such ideas with irrational objectives to include the violent overthrow of the system altogether.
Retreatism  Identified by Merton as the escapist response of the five modes, retreatism occurs when people become practically dropouts of society. They give up all goals and efforts to achieve success because they view it as an impractical, impossible, almost imaginary, and irrational possibility. Merton attributes this mode as the one to which drug addicts, alcoholics, vagrants, and the severely mental ill function because their reactions to not being able to obtain success by legitimate means represses them from society.
Ritualism During ritualism, the final mode, people realize that they have no real opportunity to advance in society and accept the little relevance that they have. It is in this mode that people concentrate on retaining what little they possibly gained or still have in place of concentrating on a higher yield of success. They return to adhering to conventional norms in hopes of maintaining the few possessions or possible gains that they have attained. For many members of the urban lower socioeconomic populous and disadvantaged minorities this period of short-lived and slightly increased gains takes nearly a lifetime to obtain and to recognize its worth in a modern industrial society.

    There's not much agreement on the appropriate ways to measure strain in Merton's theory.  All that Merton said was that all persons have high economic aspirations, and that social class aspirations are linked independently to crime.  Liska's (1971) review suggests that high aspirations (income, education, or occupational goals) combined with low expectations (perceived chances of achieving these goals) is the proper strain measure.  Studies that used a measure of educational goals over educational expectations (Hirschi 1969; Liska 1971; Quicker 1974) were generally unconvincing with Hirschi (1969) suggesting income as a better component to use. Other studies used occupational goals over occupational expectations (Short 1964; Johnson 1979; Elliott, Huizinga and Ageton 1985) with only Short (1964) reporting any ordering with criminal involvement. Using occupational components for individually reported status, Epps (1967) found little support for Merton's theory. Farnworth and Leiber (1989) find reason to suggest using the convention of an income over education measure.

    The components of income, education, and occupation (hereafter referred to as expectations) seem to be of some utility in measuring strain. They are indicators of goal blockage.  When income expectations exceed educational expectations, structural strain is present. These economic concerns can be hypothesized to predict an innovative pattern of involvement in crime. 

    Perception of blocked opportunities (Datesman, Scarpitti, & Stephenson 1975) as well as variation in aspirations (Cernkovitch & Giordana 1979a) have been looked at, predicting both male and female crime. Simons and Gray (1989) found lower class black males respond to structural strain the same as middle class white males. Cernkovitch and Giordana (1979b) found white females more responsive to structural strain, but Hill and Crawford (1990) found the criminality of black females more directly tied to structural forces while white female criminality was mediated by socio-psychological variables. 

    A review of Mertonian concepts is not complete without mentioning the reference group. Merton (1968) used it to illustrate how relative deprivation could mediate between social structure and interpersonal patterns of behavior. Indeed, while Merton (1968) is vague on why individuals choose certain adaptations over others, he is clearly explicit at pointing to normative concerns as evidence of anomie at the individual level, all the time denying that anomie is a concept applicable to the individual level (Merton 1964).  At that level, however (sometimes called the anomia level), individuals presumably compare themselves to similar others, evaluating their own condition by reference to the general conditions of their peers and associates. Runciman (1966) made a useful distinction in this regard between egoistic and fraternal deprivation, the one referring to injustices within one's group, the other referring to injustices against one's group. The latter seems to be consistent with Merton's (1968) discussion of the reference group concept.


    Cohen's fundamental point is that, except perhaps for the category of rebellion, Mertonian strain theory is incapable of explaining purposeless crime, just for the "fun" of it (Cohen 1955). Cohen's thesis is that class based status frustration is the origin of subcultures; malice, nonutilitarianism, and negativism form the content of subcultures; and young, working-class males explain the distribution of subcultures. Cohen's focus is on school based achievement status. The institution of the school embodies middle class values for honesty, courtesy, personality, responsibility, and so forth ("middle class measuring rod"). It is this milieu where competition takes place for status, approval, or respect. Strain for Cohen is therefore not structural, but interpersonal, located at the level of group interaction. "Group interaction is a sort of catalyst which releases potentialities not otherwise visible" (Cohen 1955:136).

    Losers in the competition for status experience strong feelings of frustration or deprivation. Most of them adopt a corner boy attitude (Whyte 1955), accepting their fate, but a significant number turn to crime. For Cohen as opposed to Merton, the working class, a configurative term including lower, working, and qualitatively similar middle class (Cohen & Short 1958), are more or less incapable of revising their aspirations downward (Rodman 1963). What distinguishes those who turn to crime is the social variable of peer influence and the psychological variable of reaction formation. These two variables, representing a type of interpersonal and normative strain, respectively, and cannot be understood without clarification of Cohen's more important concept of status frustration.

    Frustration is generally regarded as an aversive internal state due to goal blockage or any irritating event (Berkowitz 1993). In criminology, it has often been implicated in explanations of unexpected acts of violence (Glueck & Glueck 1950; McCord, McCord & Zola 1959). Unexpected acts of disrespect for property could just as easily be predicted by Cohen's strain theory since versatility in offending is assumed. Frustration due to lower status origins would appear to be associated with more serious, repetitive offending, according to some aspects of the theory and Gold's (1963) research. Incidence of crime among a low status group was found to be explained by low expectations in spite of aspirational downgradings. High status repeaters did not anticipate failure at getting a prestigious job, but showed the same aspirational concerns for self-respect. The combination of high ascribed status with low achieved status has been found to be particularly frustrating (Jackson & Burke 1965).

    Stinchcombe's (1964) research demonstrated the pervasiveness of status frustration in all social classes and for each gender using a measure of anticipated social class over expected prestigious job attainment, which significantly differentiated those who thought school was unfair and those who did not. Perceptions of unfairness were associated with more diffuse status concerns, such as personality, intelligence, and grooming. Reiss and Rhodes (1963) found feelings of deprivation about clothes and housing to be related to deviant involvement with negligible social class, ethnicity, and gender differences (Reiss & Rhodes 1963). These findings suggest that status frustration is intimately involved in peer comparisons regardless of the referent. Beliefs about what are fair allocations of tangible and intangible rewards are also important causal factors.

    While theoretical importance in Cohen's strain theory is granted to the more immediate goal of intangible rewards (Short & Strodtbeck 1965; Greenberg 1977), another line of related research focuses upon tangibles in the school failure experience. Proponents of "school status theory" (Polk 1969; Kelly & Balch 1971) ignore status deprivation altogether claiming poor performance in school alone is responsible for crime and deviance. School failure in terms of grades, spelling ability, language usage, and general intelligence has been found to lead to crime and deviance even when perceived deprivation (Phillips 1975), familial based class (Kelly & Pink 1975), and outside misconduct (Phillips & Kelly 1979) were controlled. These researchers argue that ascription based stratification and tracking systems in schools lead poorly skilled students to reject being taught and create their own failure (Polk & Schafer 1972). These same researchers also take issue with the idea that higher status groups are equally involved in crime, but do not contest the idea that peer influences can provide the belief that crime will be status rewarding.

    According to Cohen's strain theory, there is no abrupt, discontinuous leap from a pressure situation to crime. Instead, action is "tentative, groping, advancing, backtracking, and sounding out" (Cohen 1965:8). The psychological variable, reaction formation, is necessary to complete the causal chain from frustration to crime. Middle class values, such as honesty, are not just rejected but flouted. At the same time, dishonesty represents a desperate need for status approval according to precepts of Cohen's reaction formation as well as related tenets of alternative theories (Matza 1964). Cohen does not go quite so far as saying criminals are pathological liars, but his reaction formation concept suggests they are convinced of their own truthfulness. Liebow (1967) has documented the kind of fictions deprived people live by. Many interpersonal problems are self created. There is some research supporting the idea that status frustration leads to dishonesty of the kind that can be measured by use of social desirability scales (Allison & Hunt 1959; Stephenson & White 1968). 

    For Cohen (1977), the importance of having deviant friends is to help deal with a common problem of legitimacy. There is no need for attachment, as control theory postulates (Hirschi 1969). Actors become insulated from conventional standards, resolving their inner doubts and conflicts. They may even plan offenses that will legitimate their group. There is some evidence from case studies in recidivism to suggest that youths in trouble do derive psychological satisfaction from their peer groups in this fashion (Haskell 1961). More recent research on serious offending indicates that peer groups have some of the same characteristics as gangs, and affect both males and females in the same directions (Morash 1986).


    The main emphasis of the "theory of differential opportunity systems" (Cloward & Ohlin 1960) is on the intervening variables that account for the particular forms that crime and deviance can take (Cullen 1988). Cloward (1959) had earlier shown how blocked access to illegitimate as well as legitimate opportunities would be a logical extension of Mertonian strain theory. An illegitimate opportunity is more than simply the chance to get away with a criminal or deviant act; it involves learning and expressing the beliefs necessary for subcultural support. These beliefs constitute the main intervening variables in Cloward and Ohlin's strain theory.

    The theory relies upon previous work showing that communities vary by the extent criminal and conventional values are integrated (Kobrin 1951). While the form that behavior takes depends on how well criminal beliefs are learned, the causal mechanism is a class linked sense of injustice from actual or anticipated failure at achieving status by conventional standards. "Our hypothesis can be summarized as follows: the disparity between what lower class youth are led to want and what is actually available to them is the source of a major problem of adjustment" (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960:86).

    An individual's search for solutions to their adjustment problem will be triggered by a gap between their aspirations and expectations. The effect of this gap will vary depending upon precisely what it is that the individual aspires toward. Cloward and Ohlin (1960) believe that many individuals aspire to a middle class lifestyle but that many others simply want money without having to improve their lifestyle or change their present social class membership. These latter types (Type III) are then under the most pressure to become criminal or deviant because of their desire for money and need for conspicuous consumption. Thwarted in their materialistic aspirations, they turn to "seeking higher status within their own cultural milieu" (Cloward & Ohlin 1960:96). Because such individuals resent the push for social mobility but are led to believe that money is the means for success, the gap they experience would be predictive of more serious criminal involvement. Bernard's (1984) review shows that Cloward and Ohlin's theory merits considerable support when the focus is on more serious and persistent crime.

Type of Youth: Middle Class
Type I + +
Type II + -
Type III - +
Type IV - -

    Generally, the distinction between materialistic and lifestyle aspirations has been supported by research on different success symbols, such as housing versus clothing (Reiss & Rhodes 1963). Studies have reliably shown incarcerated youth differ significantly in terms of rejecting lifestyle values such as self improvement, work, courtesy, education, and wealth (Landis, Dinitz, & Reckless 1963; Landis & Scarpitti 1965). Lower educational expectations combined with expectations of improvement in economic position were found to be associated with anticipated failure and effectively distinguished gang and nongang members (Rivera & Short 1967). Higher job goals than educational expectations would make an adequate measure of Cloward and Ohlin's structural strain.

    Whether the proper focus of Cloward and Ohlin's theory is serious crime is questionable. My contention is that they were concerned with persistence, not seriousness.  Elliott's (1962) research showed that lower class youths do aspire to middle class status in terms of jobs but engage in crime only when they do not expect to go far in school. Further, the relationship held when social class position was held constant. Spergel's (1964) research showed low educational expectations explained both lower and middle class crime regardless of illegitimate opportunity structure. Both Epps (1967) and Hirschi (1969) found variation in expectations to be more significant in explaining self reported crime and deviance. Inability to revise aspirations downward signifies persistence with deviance or trivial crime because of an unwillingness to expect being "less well remunerated" (Cloward & Ohlin 1960:94). 

    Central to Cloward and Ohlin's strain theory are intervening variables that further help to determine the specific form that crime and deviance will take. These intervening variables have generally not been seen in the empirical research (Ireland 1990). Probably the most important of these is degree of integration between criminal and conventional values in a community environment. Spergel's (1964) study and more recent research by Bursik (1980) show that some degree of specialization can be predicted by a community organization variable. Briefly, the theory predicts that actors are not free to assume any role they like, but that well integrated communities offer more illegitimate opportunities for property offending, disorganized communities for violent offending, and if neither theft nor violent subcultures exist, retreatist crimes emerge. The causal chain is similar to Cohen's strain theory except that inner conflict is demonstrated by a tendency to attribute blame for actual or anticipated failure to the "social order or himself". In fact, internal attributions are associated with solitary adaptations, and outside the scope of the theory. Research by Simons and Gray (1989) indicates that system blaming helps an individual to overcome feelings of guilt or remorse and is associated with experience of more repeated anticipatory failures. System blaming points to persistence, and because the individual is still conflicted, they are likely to engage in more deviance than crime until they learn more subcultural beliefs.

    The intervening variable that stabilizes inner conflict and prepares the individual for recruitment into a subculture, is withdrawal of legitimacy. Cloward and Ohlin (1960:3) discussed this variable as a "challenge to the legitimacy of the basic institutions of the society", separating crime from deviance. The beliefs that a subculture looks for are signs that an individual has given up hope of any fairness in the world. Withdrawal of legitimacy can be hypothesized to predict involvement in serious crime.


    Agnew's (1984a) effort to uncover success goals not linked to social class or cultural variables can be seen as part of efforts to refocus strain theory on self generated norms (Coleman 1961) and more nebulous strivings such as a life free of hassles (Mizruchi 1964). Acute rather than simple anomie is the focus, a distinction made by DeGrazia (1948), characterizing individuals rather than society. Strain for Agnew is neither structural nor interpersonal, but emotional, involving a breakdown of beliefs in the role others play for expectations about normally occuring events (Mizruchi & Perrucci 1962).  Agnew himself often distinguishes between trait anger (long term) and state anger (episodic), with the latter being his theory's focus.  Avoidance of noxious events affect the ability to establish or maintain relationships, leading to alienative reactions, as Parsons (1951) once pointed out. Perception of an adverse environment will lead to strongly negative emotions that motivate one to engage in crime. Involvement in crime is sporadic for Agnew (1985), and people would "desist" if not for persistent negative events and affect (Shoham & Hoffman 1991).  Akers (2000: 159) has operationalized most of the variables in Agnew's strain theory, as follows:

Agnew’s Three Major Types of “Deviance-Producing Strain”

Failure to Achieve Positively Valued Goals -- The first of the three major types, the failure to achieve positively valued goals, is subdivided into three further categories. These are the traditional concept, the gap between expectations and actual achievements, and the difference between the view of what a person believes the outcome should be and what actually results. Under the first subcategory, Agnew includes personal goals that are both long term and immediate. In addition, he adds the personal realization that some of the set goals will never become true because of certain circumstances that are unavoidable in life, which include individual weaknesses and blocked opportunities. The second subtype continues to increase personal disappointment and the final subtype encourages the person to stop desiring to put as much effort into relationships.

Removal of Positively Valued Stimuli -- The next major type of “deviance-producing strain” identified by Agnew occurs primarily during adolescents when a dramatic change or loss happens. Examples of this type include experiencing the stressful impact felt before and after moving and when a death or serious illness befalls a family – to include close friends or other individuals that have close ties to the person.
Confrontation with Negative Stimuli -- The last major type of “deviance-producing strain” also applies most to adolescents than any other age group. Usually the individual is forced to remain among negative actions that through an anger-induced response create deviant behavior. Examples of negative inescapable stimuli include peer pressure and child abuse.

    General strain theory is primarily concerned with "types of strain rather than sources of strain" (Agnew 1992) which means that it aims at ultimately collecting multi-item measures of injustice.  The contributions of previous strain theorists ought to be necessary for development of a complete model, and Agnew (1992) does suggests drawing upon other disciplines, but he is not inclined to pursue psychological variables.  For example, Agnew's theory strongly holds that strain causes personality, not personality leads to strain.  The concept that best expresses the idea that strain causes personality is irritability.  Solitary adaptations may also be possible with two of the theory's main causal factors, stress and hassles, but little or no variation by socio-demographic categories is postulated.  There is also a third causal factor, inequity or sense of injustice, which has unfortunately seen little coverage in the literature (see O'Connor 1993 and perhaps others' unpublished dissertations).  It may be possible to measure inequity qualitatively or quantitatively, but most researchers in this tradition have their hands full exploring interaction effects with the various types of more directly noxious strain.

    Stressful events interfere with achievement of existentially based expectations or just/fair outcomes. "All manner of positive stimuli" previously experienced or observed constitute expected goals, and their frustration leads to "anger, resentment, rage, dissatisfaction, disappointment, and unhappiness--that is, all the emotions customarily associated with strain in criminology" (Agnew 1992). General strain theory claims that actors do not enter interactions with specific outcomes in mind, only that certain distributive justice rules will be followed in establishing equitable relationships. Distress occurs when individuals feel unrewarded for their efforts compared to the efforts and rewards of similar others for similar outcomes. The negative emotions associated with negative relationships may be more successfully handled by engaging in delinquent behavior than in nondelinquent behavior (Brezina 1996).

    Environmental aversion was measured by Agnew (1985) as being compelled to live with one's family in a certain neighborhood, to go to a certain school, and to interact with the same group of people repeatedly. Unhappiness in these contexts was scaled, had a direct effect on anger, and had indirect effects on serious crime and aggression. Anger, in turn, had a significant impact on all measures of crime and deviance. Frustration was not due to interference with valued goals, but to inability to escape from or cope with persistent reminders about the importance of these contexts. Much crime among students fits this description (Ba-Yunus 1971).

    In the first test of general strain theory (Agnew and White 1992), environmental aversion was redefined as stressful life events and hassles because the complete theory includes other types of strain such as loss of positively valued stimuli and presentation of noxious stimuli (Agnew 1992). Most versions of stressful life event scales (Holmes & Rahe 1967; Dohrenwend & Dohrenwend 1974) contain items indicating some kind of loss or nuisance. Unweighted scales purged of positive and crime related events are used in criminological research, and most studies find little more than ten percent variance explained using stressful events as sole predictors (Rabkin & Struening 1976). Agnew and White's (1992) test explained more than forty percent variance but added variables from other theories and had interaction terms in the equation.  Robert Agnew and his co-researcher and co-writer, Helene Raskin White, have produced definitive empirical evidence that suggested that general strain theory was positively able to relate delinquents and drug users. They further concluded by the use of this theory that the strongest effect on the delinquents studied was the delinquency of their peers.

    Tests of general strain theory are just now emerging, but other research indicates that anger is related to crime and deviance. It has been found to be a major influence on middle class delinquency (Richards, Berk & Forster 1979). Agnew (1992) treats anger as the most critical emotion since it is almost always outer directed. Daum (1992) found anger a better predictor than anxiety and other measures of psychological distress. Stress related anger seems to be related to breakdowns in relationships (Spencer 1964) as the theory specifies, and the stress/crime relationship appears to hold regardless of guilt feelings (Schlesinger & Revitch 1980), age (Molof 1980), and capacity to cope when events occur simultaneously or in close succession (Linsky & Straus 1986). Studies indicating the nonspecific nature of stress with respect to criminal behavior have been reviewed by Mawson (1987). In general, both positive and negative events (Dobrin 1993) can predict the kind of incautious behaviors that bring one in contact with authorities (Masuda, Cutler, Hein, & Holmes 1978; Linsky & Straus 1986).

    The determinants of deviance may be different according to general strain theory. Drug use as deviance was given special treatment in Agnew and White (1992) because it did not really represent an attempt to direct anger or escape pain, but "is used primarily to manage the negative affect caused by strain."  A distinction between stressful live events and life hassles may be useful in connection with what Agnew (1992:57) curiously regards as "events" and "nonevents."  Hassles are clearly nonevent "microstressors" that irritate, frustrate, and in some way characterize everyday transactions with the environment (Monat & Lazarus 1991). While nonspecificity can be expected with hassles, it is more likely to be associated with deviance because the reaction is one of more caution instead of less. Hassles were measured by attitudinal scores on everyday concerns and difficulties and found to have slightly more explanatory power for drug use than crime in Agnew and White (1992). Hassles demoralize, leading to emotional withdrawal from the rules of compulsory role interaction (Merton 1968). Generalized role stress has been equated with everyday tension and found to explain minor forms of crime and deviance (Palmer 1981; Friday 1983). 


    Messner and Rosenfeld (1994) developed an institutional anomie theory similar to Merton's, sometimes called "American Dream" theory.  The American dream is a broad, cultural ethos that entails a commitment to the goal of material success, to be pursued by everyone, in a mass society dominated by huge multinational corporations.  Their argument is not only that concern for economics has come to dominate our culture, but that the noneconomic institutions in society have tended to become subservient to the economy.  For example, the entire educational system seems to have become driven by the job market (nobody wants to go to college just for the sake of education anymore), politicians get elected on the strength of the economy, and despite lip service to family values, executives are expected to uproot their families in service to corporate life.  Goals other than material success (such as parenting, teaching, and serving the community) are just not important anymore. 

    The cause of crime is anomie, and the American Dream fosters anomie.  Since the emphasis is upon seeking the most efficient way to achieve economic success, crime is often seen as the most efficient way to make immediate monetary gain.  Beliefs, values, and commitments are the causal variables, and the closer they are to those of the marketplace, the more likely the logic of the economy (competitive, individualistic, and materialistic) will dictate a powerful social force that motivates the pursuit of money "by any means necessary."  Since this lawlessness-producing emphasis is caught up in society's structural emphasis upon the economy (and little else), none of the many "wars" on crime will ever be successful (since they indirectly attack the economy).

    While commitment to the goal of material success is the main causal variable, other variables consist of values and beliefs.  Two of the values that make up the American dream are achievement and individualism.  Achievement involves the use of material success to measure one's self-worth.  Individualism refers to the notion of intense personal competition to achieve material success.  Other beliefs that are related to the American Dream include universalism, the idea that chances for success are open to everyone.  This belief creates an intense fear of failure.  Another belief is the "fetishism" of money, which in this instance, refers to the notion that there are no rules for when enough is enough, when it comes to money.


    Today, anomie strain theory continues to attract attention and support as the empirical evidence acquired from constant testing and research increases its empirical validity.  Strain theory has been (and can be) taken in a variety of different directions.  In fact, what is often called "anomie strain theory" has progressed steadily in the field of criminology.  Many fine ideas (and debates) have been perpetuated over the years, such as studies on the sociological phenomena of altruism, egoism, and other things that Durkheim pointed out, and there is, in fact, a fairly useful modern perspective (mostly owing to Parsons and not Durkheim) called neofunctionalism (O'Connor 1994), differentiation theory (Alexander & Colomy 1990), or just Parsons' scheme for a comprehensive and coherent sociology (Fox et al. 2005).  Merton's more narrowed use of anomie has prompted many academic studies of societal incoherence, and Merton will probably always be remembered for phrases such as "role model" and “self-fulfilling prophecy."  Consider the following from an anomie/strain perspective:

During a Congressional hearing, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden made the following remarks to a presenter:

    ...I respectfully suggest they have responsibilities slightly above your pay decide whether or not to take the nation to war alone or take the nation to war part-way, or to take the nation to war half-way.  That's a real tough decision.  That's why they get paid the big bucks.  That's why they get the limos and you don't.  Their job is a hell of a lot more complicated than yours.

    Think about the above quote.  The most important sets of words are "have responsibilities slightly above your pay grade" and "they get paid the big bucks."  U.S. Senator Joseph Biden is saying that someone who gets paid not so much is not smart and that people who get paid a lot are smart, and U.S. Senator Joseph Biden is suggesting--How dare you question higher authorities or your superiors.  However, it can also be said that how much a person makes does not equate with how smart a person is.  A person can be, for instance, a politician and be paid a lot of money and still be stupid, uninformed, et cetera.  Professional baseball players, football players, hockey players, and actors can make millions and millions of dollars a year, and their making that much money has nothing to do with the ability to think (at least, beyond matters related to sports); also, anyway, it is usually the agents of players who do the negotiating on behalf of the players with employers and potential employers.  In America, some people may define themselves as better than you are by the money they make, and/or smarter than you are, because they make more money than you make.

    Strain theories do a good job in providing structural-functional explanations, and there's some of it in conflict theory and many other approaches too.  A purely structural explanation ("how things work") locates a process, event, or factor within a larger structure by empasizing locations, interdependencies, distances or relations among positions in that structure.  A functional explanation uses a structural explanation to analyze how interdependent parts fit into and sustain an overall system ("why things happen").  All systems depend on various parts working together, and any failure (or "strain") on a critical part or combination of parts will have disasterous consequences in terms of system failure unless "repair" or replacement is done.  Functionalists (and neofunctionalists, to a lesser extent) usually assume long-term survival or continuity over time.  For example, with the world as a whole, a functionalist will often assume "master trends" like secularization or modernization, and some unit or part, like education, may or may not keep up with these trends.  Functionalists further assume that as a society progresses or changes, it becomes increasingly differentiated and more complex.  It evolves a specialized division of labor and develops greater individualism.  Specialization and individualism create temporary disruptions (or "strain") until the system (people in the system) generate new methods of social relations and/or the system as a whole generates new ways to fulfill old functions (left behind by the decline in traditional ways of doing things).  Parsons (1951) is considered the grand master of structural-functionalist explanations.  A modern treatment of Parsons can be found in Fox et al. (2005). Some classic reading on structural-functionalism is listed below.

Aberle, D., Cohen, A., Davis, K, Levy, M., & Sutton, F. (1950/1967). "The Functional Prerequisites of a Society," Pp. 317-331 in N. Demerath and R. Peterson (eds.) System, Change and Conflict. NY: Free Press.
Abrahamson, M. (1978). Functionalism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.  
Alexander, J. (Ed.) (1985). Neofunctionalism. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Becker, U. (1988). "From Social Scientific Functionalism to Open Functional Logic." Theory & Society 17:865-883.
Cohen, G. (1978/1986). "Marxism and Functional Explanation," Pp. 221-234 in J. Roemer (ed.) Analytical Marxism. NY: Cambridge University Press.
Colomy, P. (1990). "Introduction: The Functionalist Tradition." In P. Colomy (ed.) Functionalist Sociology. Brookfield, VT: Elgar Publishing.
Davis, K. (1959). "The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in Sociology and Anthropology." American Sociological Review 24:757-772.
Elster, J. (1982). "Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory: The Case for Methodological Individualism." Theory and Society 11:453-482.
Faia, M. (1986). Dynamic Functionalism: Strategy and Tactics. NY: Cambridge University Press. 
Foucault, M. (1966/1974). "Functionalism and Dialectics." Pp. 342-352 in R. Denisoff, 0. Callahan, and M. Levine (eds.) Theories and Paradigms in Contemporary Sociology. Itasca, IL: Peacock.
Gouldner, A. (1959/1967). "Reciprocity and Autonomy in Functional Theory." Pp. 141-169 in N. Demerath and R. Peterson (eds.), System, Change and Conflict. New York: Free Press.
Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol, 2, Lijeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon Press.
Moore, W. (1978). "Functionalism." Pp. 321-361 in T. Bottomore and R. Nisbet (eds.), A History of Sociological Analysis. NY: Basic.
Morse, C. (1961). "The Functional Imperatives." Pp. 100-152 in M. Black (ed.), The Social Theories of Talcott Parsons. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Pope, W. (1975). "Durkheim as Functionalist," Sociological Quarterly 16:361-379.
Turner, J. & Maryanski, A. (1979). Functionalism. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.
Turner, J. & Maryanski, A. (1988) "Is 'Neofunctionalism' Really Functional?" Sociological Theory 6:110-12.
van den Berghe, P. (1963). "Dialectic and Functionalism: Toward Reconciliation." American Sociological Review 28:695-705.

Anomie and Strain Theory Encyclopedia Article
The Durkheim Page
FSU Lecture Notes on Strain Theory (focus on Agnew)

Matt Deflem's Homepage
Sociological Theories of Deviance

Structural Strain theories
The Vault of Sociology

Adler, F. & W. Laufer. (1995). The Legacy of Anomie Theory. NJ: Transaction.
Agnew, R. (1992). "Foundation for a General Strain Theory." Criminology 30(1), 47-87. [Agnew's vita]
Agnew, R., & White, H. (1992). "An Empirical Test of General Strain Theory." Criminology 30(4): 475-99.
Akers, R. (2000). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
Alexander, J. & Colomy, P. (Eds.) (1990). Differentiation Theory and Social Change. NY: Columbia Univ. Press.
Berk, R., Lenihan, R., & Rossi, P. (1980). "Crime and poverty." American Sociological Review 45: 766-86.
Berman, G., & Haug, M. (1975). "Occupational and Educational Goals and Expectations: The Effects of Race and Sex." Social Problems 23: 166-81.
Bernard, T. (1984). "Control Criticisms of Strain Theories." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 21: 353- 72.
Bernard, T. (1987). "Testing Structural Strain Theory." J. of Res. Crime and Delinq 24: 262- 80.
Bernard, T. (1990). "Twenty Years of Testing Theories: What Have We Learned and Why?" Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 27: 325-47.
Bordua, D. (1958). "Juvenile Delinquency and Anomie." Social Problems 6: 230-38.
Brezina, T. (1996). "Adapting to Strain." Criminology 34:39-60.
Bursik, R. (1980). "The dynamics of specialization in juvenile offenses." Social Forces 58:851-64.
Cernkovich, S., & Giordano, P. (1979b). "A Comparative Analysis of Male and Female Delinquency." Sociological Quarterly 20: 131-45.
Cloward, R. (1959). "Illegitimate Means, Anomie and Deviant Behavior." American Sociological Review 24(2): 164- 76.
Cloward, R., & Ohlin, L. (1960). Delinquency and Opportunity. NY: Free Press.
Cohen, A. (1955). Delinquent Boys. NY: Free Press.
Cohen, A. (1965). "The Sociology of the Deviant Act: Anomie Theory and Beyond." American Sociological Review 30: 5-14.
Cohen, A. (1977). "The Concept of Criminal Organization." British Journal of Criminology 17: 97-111.
Cole, S., & Zuckerman, H. (1964). "Inventory of Empirical and Theoretical Studies of Anomie." In M. Clinard (Ed.), Anomie and Deviant Behavior (pp. 243-311). NY: Free Press.
Cullen, F. (1983). Rethinking Crime and Deviance Theory. Totowa, NJ: Rowman.
Cullen, F. (1988). "Were Cloward and Ohlin Strain Theorists?" Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 25: 214-41.
Dohrenwend, B., & Dohrenwend, B. (Eds.). (1974). Stressful Life Events. NY: Wiley.
Durkheim, E. (1897/1997) Suicide. NY: Free Press.
Durkheim, E. (1915). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. NY: Free Press.
Elliott, D., Huizinga, D., & Ageton, S. (1985). Explaining Delinquency and Drug Use. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Eve, R. (1978). "A Study of the Efficacy and Interactions of Several Theories for Explaining Rebelliousness Among High School Students." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 69(1), 115-25.
Farnworth, M., & Leiber, M. (1989). "Strain Theory Revisited." American Sociological Review 54: 263- 74.
Felson, R. (1992). "Kick 'em When They're Down: Explanations of the Relationship between Stress and Interpersonal Aggression and Violence." Sociological Quarterly, 33, 1-16.
Figueira-McDonough, J. (1983). "On the Usefulness of Merton's Anomie Theory." Youth and Society 14: 259-79.
Fox, R., Lidz, V. & Bershady, H. (Eds.) (2005). After Parsons: A Theory of Social Action for the Twenty First Century. NY: Russell Sage.
Friday, P. (1983). "Patterns of Role Relationships and Crime." In S. Shoham (Ed.), The Many Faces of Crime and Deviance (pp. 61-73). NY: Sheridan House.
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Hepburn, J. (1976). "Testing Alternative Models of Delinquency Causation." Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 67, 450-60.
Ireland, T. (1990). "Strain theory." Unpublished manuscript. Albany, New York: SUNY.
Kelly, D., & Balch, R. (1971). "Social Origins and School Failure: A Reexamination of Cohen's Theory of Working-class Delinquency." Pacific Sociological Review 14: 413-30.
Kelly, D., & Pink, W. (1975). "Status Origins, Youth Rebellion, and Delinquency." Journal of Youth and Adolescence 4: 339- 47.
Kornhauser, R. (1978). Social Sources of Delinquency. Chicago: Univ. Press.
Liebow, E. (1967). Tally's Corner. Boston: Little, Brown.
Linsky, A., & Straus, M. (1986). Social Stress in the United States: Links to Regional Patterns in Crime and Illness. Dover, MA: Auburn House.
Liska, A. (1971). "Aspirations and Expectations." Sociological Quarterly 12: 99-107.
Mawson, A. (1987). Transient criminality: A Model of Stress-induced Crime. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Merton, R (1938). "Social Structure and Anomie." American Sociological Review 3: 672-82.
Merton, R. (1964). "Anomie, Anomia, and Social Interaction." In M. Clinard (Ed.), Anomie and Deviant Behavior (pp. 213-42). New York: Free Press.
Merton, R (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
Messner, S. (1988). "Merton's Anomie: The Road Not Taken." Deviant Behavior 9: 33-53.
Messner, S. & R. Rosenfeld. (1994). Crime and the American Dream. Belmont:Wadsworth.
Mizruchi, E. (1964). Success and Opportunity: A Study of Anomia. New York: Free Press.
Molof, M. (Ed.). (1980). Colloquiem on Stress and Crime. McLean, VA: Mitre Corporation.
Morris, R. (1964). "Female Delinquency and Relational Problems." Social Forces, 43, 82-89.
O'Connor, T. (1992). "Was Albert Cohen a Strain Theorist?" Paper presented to annual meeting of American Society of Criminology, New Orleans.
O'Connor, T. (1993). "Inequity and Crime: An Empirical Examination of the Equity Components in Agnew's General Strain Theory." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania.
OConnor, T. (1994). "A Neofunctional Model of Crime and Crime Control," Pp. 143-58 in G. Barak (ed.) Varieties of Criminology. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. NY: Free Press.
Paternoster, R., & Triplett, R. (1988). "Disaggregating Self-reported Delinquency and Its Implications for Theory." Criminology 26(4): 591-625.
Phillips, J., & Kelly, D. (1979). "School Failure and Delinquency: Which Causes Which?" Criminology 17: 194- 207.
Polk, K. (1969). "Class, Strain and Rebellion Among Adolescents." Social Problems 17: 214-24.
Polk, K., & Schafer, W. (Eds.). (1972). Schools and Delinquency. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Quicker, J. (1974). "The Effect of Goal Discrepancy on Delinquency." Social Problems 22: 76-86.
Reiss, A., & Rhodes, A. (1963). "Status Deprivation and Delinquent Behavior." Sociological Quarterly 4: 135- 49.
Richards, P., Berk, R., & Forster, B. (1979). Crime as Play. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.
Rivera, R., & Short, J. (1967). "Occupational Goals." In M. Klein & B. Meyerhoff (Eds.) Juvenile Gangs In Context (pp. 70-90). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Rosenfeld, R. (1989). "Robert Merton's Contribution to Deviance." Soc Inquiry 59(4): 453-66.
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Tittle, C., & Meier, R. (1990). "Specifying the SES/Delinquency Relationship." Criminology 28: 271- 99.

Last updated: Apr. 27, 2013
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O'Connor, T.  (2013). "Strain Theories of Crime," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from