Specifying the Dynamic Relationships of General Strain, Coping, and Young Adult Crime

Article excerpt

Abstract: General strain theory has been tested critically, but the development of the theory has lagged because tests of the full model are rare, and the integration and specification of conditioning variables that affect crime and deviance are not clear. This test of general strain theory used a young adult sample (n=679) of university students to complete a comprehensive analysis of the main tenets of general strain theory with the specific inclusion of conditioning variables such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, and delinquent peers, and expansion of the traditional measures of affective states, coping strategies, and types of deviant and criminal behaviors. General support for the theory was confirmed. The results show that perceptions of success and fairness, a more traditional measure of strain, are not related to crime and deviance, but the more subjective measure of stress, consistent with general strain theory, does have a relationship with crime and deviance. Implications based on these findings are presented.

Keywords: coping; crime; delinquency; general strain; negative affect; stress


For nearly two decades, Agnew's (1992) general strain theory of crime and delinquency has generated much research and identified the need to examine critically and specify the personal, social, and psychological aspects of life related to individual criminal behavior. Agnew's theory offered extensions to the domain of strain theories by embracing traditions of the theory that centered upon an individual's appreciation for achieving or expecting to achieve personal goals, while expanding the sources of strain to include the removal or threatened removal of positively valued stimuli and the introduction of negatively valued stimuli. Agnew presented these strain sources as precursors to negative emotions that became a necessary intermediate status before leading a strained individual to delinquent or criminal behaviors. Individuals who experienced these negative emotions, however, might be able to disengage from a criminal trajectory if they were capable of evoking positive coping mechanisms, which might be cognitive, emotional, or behavioral (Agnew 2001; Brezina 1996; Broidy 2001). General strain theory proposes that strain, especially when combined with negative emotions such as anger and negative coping such as fighting, will lead to criminal behaviors. Generally, this model of how strain is connected to delinquency and crime is dynamic and identifies multiple testable propositions that relate to the individual human nature of behaviors.

The connection between strain and deviant or criminal behaviors has been empirically examined, and moderate support exists (see Akers and Sellers 2009; Kubrin, Stuckey and Krohn 2009), with several investigations confirming a relationship between negative emotions and strain (e.g., Brezina 1996; Broidy 2001; Mazerolle and Piquero 1997). Despite the vast literature, the specification of strain, and its connection to a negative affect, is incomplete and additional specification of causal pathways is needed (Kubrin, Stuckey and Krohn 2009). The validity of this causal relationship seems to be accepted, but instead of taking it for granted, it is important to continue examining general strain theory and to identify its ability to explain a range of crimes and criminals. Many tests of general strain theory tested its ability to explain adolescent delinquency (Agnew and Brezina 1997; Agnew, et al. 2002; Aseltine, Gore, and Gordon 2000; Baron 2007; Brezina 1996; Brezina 2010; Hoffman and Cerbone 1999; Hoffman and Miller 1998; Hoffman and Su 1997; Mazerolle, et al. 2000; Mazerolle and Maahs 2000; Paternoster and Mazerolle 1994; Piquero and Sealock 2004), but examinations of other populations exist, including juvenile offenders (Piquero and Sealock 2000), university-aged adults (Ganem 2010; Mazerolle and Piquero 1997; Mazerolle, et al. 2000), adults (Tittle, Broidy, and Gertz 2008), African American adults (Jang and Johnson 2003; Jang 2007), and South Korean youth (Moon, Blurton, and McCluskey 2008; Moon, et al. …