Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Street Youth, Relational Strain, and Drug Use

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Street Youth, Relational Strain, and Drug Use

Article excerpt

Using data from 300 street youths interviewed in Toronto, Canada, this study draws on general strain theory to examine the influence of 'relational' strains (including background abuse, the severing of positive relationships by leaving home, and victimization at the hands of peers on the street) on the use of soft and hard drugs. Results reveal that the loss of quality street girlfriend/boyfriend relationships and the number of relationships ended by death are associated with soft drug use, while backgrounds of physical abuse and criminal victimization by peers influence hard drug use. Further, the effects of various forms of relational strain on hard drug use are conditioned by low self-esteem, delinquent peers, deviant values, and low self-efficacy. In contrast, the relationship between forms of relational strain and soft drug use are conditioned by greater self-esteem and fewer delinquent peers. The results are discussed in light of general strain theory and suggestions for future research are offered.


Since its publication in the early 1990's, Robert Agnew's general strain theory (GST) has gained theoretical prominence in criminological research. Agnew ( 1 992, 2001, 2006) proposed that delinquency is the product of attempts to take action to correct or minimize adversive situations. Strain is seen to arise out of "negative relations with others... in which others are not treating the individual as he or she would like to be treated" (Agnew, 1992, p. 50). More specifically, Agnew identified three general categories of strain, (a) the failure to achieve any positively valued goal, (b) the removal (or threatened removal) of positively valued stimuli, and (c) the presentation (or threat) of noxious stimuli.

The failure to reach positively valued goals may include situations regarding disjunctions between aspirations and expectations, the disjunction between expectations and actual outcomes, and violations of equity or, "the disjunction between just/fair outcomes and actual outcomes" (Agnew, 1992, p. 53). Agnew's conception of achievement failure is broadly defined and takes into account any situation in which a person's goals are blocked.

The second broad type of strain, the actual, threatened, or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli, involves the loss of "things" that the individual places a subjective value on. The link to delinquency is dependent upon the context of the strain but is said to stem from: (a) attempts to prevent a loss, (b) attempts to retrieve lost stimuli, (c) taking revenge against the party/parties responsible for the loss, or (d) coping with, "the negative affect caused by the loss by taking illicit drugs" (Agnew, 1992, p. 58).

The third broad form of strain, the presentation of negative stimuli, deals with immediate noxious, negative, painful, uncomfortable, or irritating stimuli. Delinquency may arise as a result of these negative conditions in an attempt to: (a) escape or avoid a particular stimulus, (b) eliminate or minimize the negative effects of the stimuli, (c) exact retribution against the source, or (d) psychologically cope with the strain through drug use.

Agnew (1992, 2001, 2006) argues that strain will not necessarily lead directly to crime. Instead, a number of key intervening and conditioning variables may play a role in the relationship between strain and crime. First, the experience of strain is expected to result in feelings of negative affect which pressure the individual to engage in corrective, often delinquent, actions to reduce the psychological impact of the emotion. Agnew offers that strain may result in depression, anxiety, frustration, fear, and disappointment. However, the most salient emotion mediating the relationship between strain and delinquency is anger, "because it increases the individual's level of felt injury, creates a desire for retaliation/revenge, energizes the individual for action, and lowers inhibitions" (Agnew, 1992, p. …

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