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Stresses of Daily Life
Jack is a seemingly regular 18-year-old. When he's stressed out about life, he does one of a few things to help him relax. Sometimes he listens to music. Other times he goes for a run. Maybe he goes and chills with his friends. Can you relate to Jack and the way he reacts to stress in his life? Probably.
Other people react to the stresses and strains of their life in potentially different ways. And the ways by which they might react may surprise you. Let's learn about these alternative reactions as we go over the main concepts of general strain theory.
What Is General Strain Theory?
We'll hop on over to an alternative universe. Here we see Jack again — except Jack isn't listening to music in his room after a stressful few months. He's locked up. Why? General strain theory might provide an answer.
At its core, general strain theory (GST), as put forth by sociologist Robert Agnew, refers to the notion that some people react to the various stressors they experience in life via unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as turning to crime.
In other words, Jack might commit a crime to escape or put an end to some sort of strain or stressor, one that may quite likely create negative emotions, like anger, or even mental states, such as depression. Some stressors include being broken up, the death of a friend, or the inability to reach goals. Some people like Jack may seek revenge or try to alleviate negative emotions through illicit drug use.
Relation to Criminology
Of course, not every type of life stressor leads to crime, and not every person commits a crime because of the same stressor.
In the world of criminology, GST helps put some things into perspective by explaining which types of stresses and strains are more likely to lead to a criminal act. These strains and stressors are more likely:
- High in magnitude. In other words, the perceived magnitude of the strain is high. For instance, if Jack is robbed of a few cents, he may not respond with deviant behavior. If, however, he's robbed of his life savings of thousands of dollars, he may seek significant (and likely criminal) retribution.
- Associated with low social control. An example of this could be something like homelessness. If Jack is homeless, then he has low attachments in terms of social relationships, a low social support system, potentially little in the way of commitment to societal norms, and low social control in the sense of an authority exerting a direct influence over him. This makes it more likely that Jack would commit a crime as the cost of doing so is seen as relatively low. Think of the opposite scenario — a busy working professional with a great family — to get a clearer understanding of why. If he commits a crime, he stands to lose a great job and family, making it less likely he'd commit a crime (all else equal).
- Seen as unjust. As an example, if Jack is harassed by a bully for no apparent reason, he may assault the bully.
- Created by pressure or incentive for crime, such as via peer pressure. A good example of this would be Jack growing up in a town where others pressure him to respond to disrespectful behavior with violence. That's the pressure part of it. The incentive for violence comes from the fact that if Jack doesn't act disrespectfully, he'll get even more abuse. So there's incentive to engage in criminal behavior as well.
In essence, general strain theory (GST), as put forth by sociologist Robert Agnew, refers to the notion that some people might react to various strains in life via unhealthy criminal behavior.
The strains that might make it more likely that a person will engage in criminal behavior as a coping mechanism include that they:
- Are high in magnitude.
- Are associated with low social control.
- Are seen as unjust.
- Create pressure or incentive to commit a crime.
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