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What is the Strain Theory?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
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Strain theory is a sociological theory that tries to explain why people may be drawn to delinquency or crime. According to the theory, some crime may be linked to the presence of anger and frustration that is created by societal or personal strain. When a person cannot legitimately achieve the accepted goals of a society, he or she may turn to illicit means to create success.

Three of the fundamental goals that contribute to strain-related crime are the pursuit of wealth, achievement of status and respect, and the need for autonomy. Societal myths help contribute to these strain-inducing issues, such as the maxim that hard work always results in financial security. If a society is in the grip of a financial crash or severe inflation crisis, even the hardest workers may lose their jobs or not be able to make ends meet. The failure to legitimately achieve a livable income, which is considered a fundamental goal in many regions, may lead to feelings of anger, bitterness, and frustration. If a person under such strain does not have means of relief or coping, he or she may turn to crime to achieve goals or obtain revenge.

The pursuit of status and respect are considered a primary reason why men turn to crime, according to strain theory. Traditional masculine hierarchy relies on the perception of a man as strong, heterosexual, and dominant. Some studies on strain theory suggest that men may attempt to gain status and respect through criminal actions, such as bullying, theft, or gang related activity. Again, the presence of resources for other means of success seem to play a large part in whether anger and frustration over social status turns into delinquency; people in lower economic brackets and those with already-delinquent friends or family may be more likely to turn societal strain into criminal activity.

Most humans aim for autonomy: the ability to self-govern. The inability to control individual destiny is often suggested as a factor in adolescent crime; kids that have no control over their lives or time may be more likely to feel victimized and become angry or rebellious as a result. Acts against authority, such as skipping curfew, refusing to do homework, or even engaging in sexual activity, may be attributed to the desire for autonomy that comes naturally with impending adulthood.

In strain theory, one of the major determining factors in whether strain will lead to crime is how a person manages his or her anger. People driven to crime due to strain are believed to be more likely to blame problems on an external source and feel cheated out of entitlements. A perpetual notion that the world is unfair can quickly become justification for unfair or illegal actions. Additionally, the availability of alternatives to crime, such as education or gainful employment, seems to be very important to defeating strain-related delinquency; the strain theory is often used as a basis for creating crime-prevention programs in economically distressed or high crime areas.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for MyLawQuestions. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By Markerrag — On Feb 19, 2014

The strain theory is quite useful until it is used as a way to justify or excuse criminal behavior. Sadly, too many studies of criminal behavior generate sympathy in the people doing the studies and wacky recommendations for legal reform can result.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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