The General Strain Theory (GST) was developed by Robert Agnew in 1992. Its focused was finding out the factors that contribute to delinquency especially among youth. Agnew sought to expand on the strain theory which had initially been propounded by Robert King Merton but which focused on positive relationships. The general strain theory stands out as the first theory put forward to examine negative relationships with others namely where others have affected an individual in a negative way. He argues that adolescents or youths are pressured into engaging in delinquent activities by the negative affective states such as anger and emotions that come about because of the negative relationships. The General train Theory as put forward by Agnew has proven to be a solid theory to explain delinquency especially among the youth. Consequently, there has been a significant amount of empirical tests conducted on the theory to determine its relevance and validity. This paper is a commentary of such an empirical test conducted through the use of 1,380 New Jersey’s adolescents by Rutgers University.
It must be distinguished from the outset that prior strain theories that had been put forward prior to the General Strain theory by Agnew were weak for the main reason that the variables derived from them had only little or no linkage to delinquency or drug abuse. The general strain theory was an improvement on this and built on the earlier theories by making use of more recent research and considering the criticisms that had been leveled at the earlier strain theories. The central hypotheses proposed by the general strain theory are the subject of this commentary.
Agnew argues that the GST focuses on negative relationships of individuals with others and is distinct from the social control and differential association theory. On one hand, the social control theory concerns itself with the absence of positive relationships with conventional others and in most instances these individuals usually have no attachment. On the other hand, differential association theory is concerned with positive relationships with deviants and seeks to explain why people engage in crime after associating with other delinquents. It therefore comes into being that the strain theory as put forward by Agnew, seeks to fill the gap left in a complementary manner as it explicitly examines negative relationships and further argues that youths engage in delinquent activities due to the negative affect that emanates from the negative relationships. In particular, he stresses that three types of strain occur when others prevent or threaten to prevent an individual from achieving positive values or goals, when others remove or threaten to remove positive valued stimuli possessed by an individual or when they present or threaten to present a negatively valued stimuli to an individual.
Agnew further posits that strain usually has the effect of increasing the possibility that an individual will experience negative emotions such as depression, fear and anger. The negative emotions that are experienced necessitate the need for corrective or remedial measures to be taken of which the individual responds by engaging in delinquency. Therefore, delinquency can be viewed as a way of alleviating the strain either in the form of achieving positive goals, retrieving a positive stimuli or escaping from negative stimuli. More so, delinquency may serve as a revenge measure of an individual. Similarly, it is submitted that delinquency may arise as the youths struggle to manage their negative affect by way of illicit drug use. To this end, it can be thus said that the General Strain Theory has the potential of giving solid explanations for several forms of delinquency such as aggression, theft and drug abuse. It is also instructive that Agnew recognizes that not all responses to strain will involve indulgence in delinquent activities. He notes a valid point that some people will respond to strain by interpreting the objective strains in a way that seeks to mitigate the impact of such strain. Yet others engage in legal behaviors that eliminate strain while others will manage the negative effect occasioned by the strain through legal means such as meditating and performing exercises. To this extent, the GST as expounded by Agnew is solid as it does not generalize the real findings for the purpose of validating itself. On the contrary, Agnew stated that people are likely to be delinquents as a response to strain whenever the constraints to good behavior are high and the constraints to coping with delinquency is low. Another occasion would arise where an individual has a high disposition for delinquency which probably obtains from his temperament, peer pressure, social control or his problem-solving skills.
Some of the hypotheses stated by the theory are put to empirical tests to determine their validity. the first hypothesis from the GST and which is now tested is the one to the effect that measures of the three types of strain described above will have a positive effect on delinquency and drug abuse, with measures of the other theories being constant. It is stated that this is especially the case for measures involving school, a neighborhood or family. It is true, as stated by Agnew that youths or adolescents possess few non-delinquent coping mechanisms for dealing with strain. Most of the times, the adolescents are unable to escape legally from school, neighborhood or family. The adolescents are also devoid of the power of negotiation with parents and teachers and thus, chances of behavioral coping of a non-delinquent nature, is never an option in such scenarios. In addition, the youths are constantly and regularly reminded of the significance of their environment, thereby leading to a persistent strain in such environments. The upshot of this is that it becomes difficult for the youths to minimize the severity of the strain as explained above.
Another hypothesis central to the strain theory as put forward by Agnew and which is also the subject of empirical tests in this study is that the effect of strain on delinquency and drug use is conditioned by several variables. Some of the key variables cited by Agnew as conditioning the impact of strain and which were tested in this study are delinquent friends and self-efficacy. It is argued that delinquent friends usually increase the impact of strain while self-efficacy has a diminishing effect. Adolescents with delinquent friends were more likely to respond to strain with delinquent activities because their friends act as delinquent role models and instill these values in them. These friends also affect the constraints to delinquent and non-delinquent coping of the adolescent. For instance, the friends may make available the drugs consequently reducing the delinquent coping ability of the individual. Again, the friends may also make some types of non-delinquent coping even the more onerous, by say, reminding the youth of the strain events that they have experienced.
On the second limb of this hypothesis, adolescents with high self-efficacy were found less likely to respond to strain with delinquency for possible several reasons as had been explained by Agnew. One of the reasons is that the youths feel that they are in control of their lives and are thus more likely to attempt non-delinquent coping mechanisms. Further, these youths were found to be less likely to cast blame for the strain on other people thereby reducing the probability that they will react to the strain with anger which is the single most important cause of delinquency according to this theory. In view of the empirical tests conducted by Rutgers University and the findings, it was submitted that the general strain theory as proposed by Robert Agnew was, and still is, a solid theory of explaining delinquency especially among the youth.
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