Social Change, Life Strain, and Delinquency among Chinese Urban Adolescents

By Bao, Wan-Ning; Haas, Ain | Sociological Focus, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Change, Life Strain, and Delinquency among Chinese Urban Adolescents


Bao, Wan-Ning, Haas, Ain, Sociological Focus


Using Agnew's general strain theory (1992, 2006) as a theoretical framework, this study examines how China's ongoing social transformation has affected its youth, particularly in urban areas, and how general strain theory can be fruitfully applied to account for the country's rising rate of juvenile delinquency. In particular, we analyze how the sources of strain, at both societal and individual levels, have led to a higher level of interpersonal strain, heightened negative emotions, and limited legitimate coping resources among Chinese urban adolescents, which, in turn, increase the likelihood of a delinquent response.

Experts in various fields have long viewed adolescence as a period of "storm and stress" and problematic behaviors (Dreyfus 1976; Hall 1916; Irwin 1987; Powers, Hauser, and Kiner 1989). In any society, this ctucial stage of learning new social roles and preparing for adulthood brings unfamiliar situations, labile emotions, and other challenges for youths. The stress associated with these experiences is less acute in stable societies, with strong family solidarity, ideological congtuence between generations, and structured opportunities to try out adult roles and adjust gradually to an adult lifestyle. In a tapidly changing society, however, the clash between traditional and modern values, social isolation, and the unpredictability of the future are all major sources of stress for adolescents (Dasen 2000; Savells and Metzger 1977). A widening "generation gap" within the family, intensification of competition at school, and emergence of youth subcultures also contribute to a high level of stress and problematic behavior among adolescents. In this paper, we examine how Chinas recent social transformation has affected its youths, particularly in urban areas, and suggest how Agnew's general strain theory (1992, 2006) can be applied to account for the country's rising rate of juvenile delinquency.

China is now going through a period of great social change. After a major surge in modernization in the early 1980s, its people have experienced dramatic political, economic, and cultural transformations. The strain accompanying the rapid social development has been most keenly felt by Chinese youth, especially adolescents in urban areas. It is in the cities where the changes have been the most profound and the fastest - in terms of questioning of traditional values and norms, growing inequality, spreading of official corruption, and rising crime rates (Cao 2007; Deng and Cordilia 1999).

The changes that produce strain for youths can be either at the societal level or at the level of the individual's life circumstances. Although the contributions of these types of change to strain are relatively independent of each other, a societal-level change can be translated into direct influence on adolescents' lives (Gibbons 2000). Some scholars argue that change itself is not necessarily a source of stress, but the rate and kind of change are crucial (Lauer and Lauer 1976; Toffler 1971). Specifically, changes that are fast and are perceived as undesirable and out of control impose more adverse impact on adolescents (Lauer 1 974). According to Agnew (1992, 2006), negative emotions arise when one is impeded in the pursuit of positively valued goals, encounters negative stimuli, or faces the removal of positively valued stimuli. We analyze how these sources of strain apply to contemporary Chinese urban youths, as a result of living in a society undergoing rapid shifts, particularly in the economic sector, and experiencing dramatic changes in their own immediate social settings, particularly in the family and at school.

In China, as elsewhere in East Asia, juvenile delinquency has generally been less a problem than in Western Europe or North America, where most of the research on the subject has been done. Even after immigrating to a new country like the United States, Japanese and Chinese youth tended to retain their lower delinquency rates 40 years ago (Chambliss and Nagasawa 1969; Toby 1967). …

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