Theories of social deviance and concepts about the causes of crime are some of the most important pieces of literature in today's society. Without these explanations for crime commission, there would be no way to try and prevent it. The theories of General Strain and Social Disorganization both seek to understand the reasoning behind deviance and delinquency. These concepts have certain similarities and differences in which they relate to each other. Agnew and Shaw/McKay agree on some aspects of explaining criminal deviance, but also conflict each other on other aspects criminal deviance. The best way to analyze this is to break these theories down to their core.
General Strain Theory by Agnew
Easily one of the most prevalent theories in the criminal justice and criminal sociology world, is General Strain Theory (GST). This theory, as proposed by Robert Agnew, states that specific strains or stressors can raise the probability of crime. Strains are simply things that happen or conditions in a person’s life that they don’t like, or did not wish for. Strains have a higher likelihood of turning into criminal coping when the strain is large, is viewed as unjust, and there is a reward for coping criminally. With strain, comes many negative emotions. Emotions of anger and indignation induce provocation for a way to correct the stressors. Crime is a way for the person to escape the stress, and/or seek vengeance on the cause of the strain.
Obviously, most people don’t handle strains by breaking the law. If someone is stressed about money, it is normal for them to obtain another job, or sell some of their belongings. But GST explains the things that raise the likelihood for one to cope in a criminal manner. Some of these factors would be incorrect social skills, inappropriate problem solving, little familial support, low self control, etc. In addition to these, one of the largest factors to be discussed is the criminal’s social norm which was established through their exposure and surroundings. Throughout Agnew’s theory he points out that mostly everyone desires to achieve a certain position of status, respect, and autonomy, when one is unable to attain a desired position, crime may take place (Thaxton & Agnew, 2017).
There are 4 “categories of strain” as described by Agnew. These categories are a lack of correspondence between expectations and achievements, failure to achieve highly-regarded goals, removal of positive stimuli, and introduction of negative stimuli. Agnew also introduced 3 different coping mechanisms: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive. Cognitive coping would be when someone seeks to minimize their negative emotions. Behavioral coping is when someone tries to permanently settle the cause of their unwanted or angry feelings. And cognitive coping is an emotional way for someone to deal with their negative emotions in a way that will decrease negative emotions (Pontell & Rosoff, 2011).
Social Disorganization Theory by Shaw and McKay
Shaw and McKay were two sociologists who worked with the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute for Social Research during the 1920’s. These scholars came up with the “Social Disorganization Theory”. In short, this theory focuses on traditional institutions absence of control over its people, and the decrease of influence of widely-known social rules. This theory states that delinquency does not originate at the individual level, but that it is the typical response to abnormal societal circumstances. So essentially somewhere in the process, there is a shortage in the ability to operate communally, resulting in people exercising their unregulated freedom as a way to address their unhappiness and their wants/needs. This is commonly done through delinquent behavior and law breaking (Wong, 2).
Throughout their research, Shaw and McKay were influenced by Burgess’ “Concentric Zone Model”. This model consists of five concentric zones resembling an area from the innermost city all the way out to the extreme suburbs. The innermost circle is considered the “central business district” (CBD) which consists of mainly businesses and offices. Directly outside of the CBD is the “transition zone” which generally is made up of abandoned buildings and factories. The third ring from the middle is the “working class zone” which is said to contain mainly single family workers. The next zone is the “residential zone”, consisting of family homes. And the final outermost part, farthest away from the CBD, is the “consumer zone” or the suburbs.
Shaw and McKay referred strongly to this model as a way to define the distribution of juvenile delinquency and its spreading. They believed that a largely socially disorganized area was in the transition zone, where immigrants had a tendency of residing in due to their socio-economic status. The transition zone was considered to be an undesirable area that most people left when they had the means to do so, so there was never much effort put into the social organization in those areas (Pontell & Rosoff, 2011). The general institutions of social regulation like schools and churches not being organized and not being able to regulate actions of their adolescents, negatively impacts the youth’s behaviors. This pattern goes on through decades, and eventually crime is taught and handed down. Shaw and McKay used the analogy of these neighborhoods creating “fertile soil” for growing crime in adolescents (Review of the Roots, 1).
General Strain Theory: “Strain, Boredom, and Self Control: Extending General Strain Theory to Texting While Driving” by Agnew
This article analyzes the factors of strain in relation to the desire and boredom to text while driving. Slepicka begins by pointing out that 1.6 million car crashes happen per year in the U.S as a result of distracted driving. Some of the theories he relates back to the cause of that stark number, are Social Learning Theory, Self Control Theory, and GST. Self Control Theory states that participation in responding to texts while driving represents low levels of self control. Additionally, that people can have an automatic response to respond quickly when they feel the trigger of their phone vibrating or dinging.
Strain theory says that pressure can be put on people to attain society's accepted standards, and that people can be led deviant if they cannot achieve this. This ties into texting while driving as the second part of the central aspect of GST focuses on strain as a result of an individual who is being blocked from attaining goals they may believe are meaningful. This second central aspect emphasizes a negative affective state that allows a person to think something needs to be done to change the incorrect perception. When someone believes they need to answer a text while driving, they will engage in criminality to change the “wrong perception” of it.
While GST generally identifies anger as the negative affective state, this article proposes that boredom could also be one. Boredom was defined as a negative psychological experience, and a undesirable feeling of wanting to do something that satisfies you, but being unable to do so. Additionally, GST proposes three major types of strain: failure to attain highly valued objectives, removal of positively valued stimuli, and presence of negative stimuli (Agnew, 1992). Engaging in messaging while driving relates into the removing of a positively valued stimuli, which is taking away something that someone values greatly (Slepicka, 2018).
The procedure in this study was conducted with secondary data analysis of the Survey on Mobility and Mobile Communication. This survey analyzed 925 participants from two different occupations and ages. The independent variables of the study were: The of removal of positively valued stimuli, strain/frustration, negative affective state, and self control. To analyze the removal of stimuli, it was measured by asking questions such as whether receiving or sending a text made the person feel good, if the participant perceived themselves as a texter, and whether the person would feel a loss if they had to stop texting. To evaluate strain/frustration, the participants answered questions including if they felt they had a strong need to belong, if it bothered them when they were not invited to friends events, and if they felt upset when they were not accepted. In analyzing the third independent variable of negative affective state, the survey asked if they engaged in texting when bored. And finally to evaluate self-control, the participants were asked about their perception of their ability to resist temptation, to focus on work even when given other opportunities, and their ability to think through bad decisions. The main dependent variable was obviously texting while driving and this part of the survey questioned the participant on whether they sent/read texts while driving, and if they did so when at a red light.
The results of the study concluded that strain was most commonly associated with an increase in texting while driving, followed by younger age, and lower self control scores. They also concluded higher scores on the boredom scale were commonly associated with increases in the texting while driving scale (Slepicka, 2018). Essentially, GST may relate to texting while driving if the driver believes their action is important, and they have the mindset to do so. This article supports the General Strain Theory pretty well, it recognizes the concepts credibility and different points. The only real difference I see between the theory and this, is that the article alters Agnew’s idea of negative states by adding on the state of boredom.
“General Strain Theory and Delinquency, Focusing on the Influences of Key Strain Characteristics on Delinquency”
This study samples South Korean middle and high-school students to test if there was a positive relationship between strain and delinquency. The study analyzed five key types of strain as stated by Agnew. These are emotional and physical punishment, bullying, financial strain, family conflict, and criminal victimization. They also added in two more types of strain of their own to accommodate the grueling difficulty of Korean schooling, these are examination related strain and emotional/physical punishment by teachers. The authors state that there is an extreme Korean emphasis on academic success, as well as an allowance for teachers to punish students physically. Because of this, it is extremely common for students to have high levels of testing stress and poor relationships with their instructors. A prior study on Korean schooling indicated that children in Korea were more likely to participate in delinquency if they were punished physically and emotionally by teachers (Moon et al., p. 589).
The sample for this study consisted of Korean students attending schools located in three different cities, a school from a 90-school list was randomly chosen and asked to participate in the questionnaire. Overall, there were 900 participants, which the researchers narrowed down to 777 valid cases to include. The students were allotted one full hour to finish the questionnaires.
The independent variables in this study were used to measure strain and emotions of the participants. The students were questioned on how often they experienced each of the seven types of strain throughout the prior 6 months, they provided their feedback through a likert scale of each type. The next independent variable was negative emotions, or anger. The researchers measured this by using an 3 part anger scale on if the participants felt bursts anger they couldn’t control, if they wanted to harm anyone, or break things over the prior 6 months.
The first control variable tested five conditioning factors relating to the student. First was, parental supervision which measured whether the respondent was well supervised and if their parents knew their whereabouts most times. Second, measured their scale for attachment to school which questioned if the student saw school as satisfying, boring, or frustrating. The next tested the students problem solving ability index, and it questioned if they had the ability to effectively solve life problems. The fourth part of the control variable regarded if the respondent believed violence is justifiable to get respect, or avoid appearing weak. And the final part of this index looks at association with delinquent peers, and measured whether or not the student was often around others who were breaking the law via drinking, smoking, stealing, destroying, etc. The second control variable included participation in delinquent behaviors. The participants were questioned on if in the last 6 months they had taken part in any or all of the 14 listed delinquent behaviors. A few of these behaviors were peer abuse, property damage, theft, and drugs.
The results of the study indicated multiple positive significant relationships between forms of strain and delinquent behavior. Higher parental and teacher punishment, financial strain, and bullying were all related to higher delinquent behaviors. Additionally, all of the 7 original strains were causes for higher delinquency. And finally, anger was positively related to delinquent actions. From the results of this study, we can infer that GST is an accurate predictor for juvenile delinquency in Korean youth (Moon et al., 595). This article absolutely supports Agnew’s theory, and the results of the study were able to legitimize General Strain factors and forms of strain in conjunction with adolescent delinquency.
Social Disorganization: “Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social-Disorganization Theory”
This is an article which analyzes Social Disorganization Theory to test its validity in real communities. The authors believed that the theory itself was valuable and accurate, but that much of the prior research testing did not accurately test it. They stated two reasons that the theory had not been tested accurately or directly. The first was that prior data relied on the result of macro-level research data that did not account for all of the variables. The second reason they gave was that there was an over-reliance on published crime rates, which to them were not always reliable as they do not account for un-caught crimes. With these questions, the researchers began to wonder what the results would be if the theory was tested properly, including all variables.
One of biggest aspects the article focuses on from Social Disorganization, is the importance of formal and informal social networks within a community, the authors believed that collective supervision would combat many local issues. Intervening Dimensions of Social Disorganization is the next group of constructs Sampson and Grove took an interest in. The first intervening construct from Social Disorganization was the ability of a community to look after and deal with teenager peer groups, due to the fact that delinquency is often a group issue. Shaw and McKay stated that residents of close-knit communities were far better able to monitor and regulate adolescent behaviors that indicated delinquency. The next dimension of community social disorganization brought up is local friendship networks, which is essentially the ability for the community to create residential social networks. Krohn stated that when network density is raised, the ability to control delinquency raises as well. This is essentially the concept that power comes with numbers. The final component they include is the rate of local participation in community organizations. They include this while stating that if the links between community members and institutions are weak, the ability of the community to control and defend its interests is weakened (Sampson & Groves, 1989).
The exogenous community characteristics evaluated were socioeconomic status, residential stability, and ethnic heterogeneity. As stated earlier in the paper, these are all very large interests in the study of Social Disorganization. The methods of collecting data in this study were through the first British Crime Survey which was administered to England and Wales citizens in 1982. The researchers broke down all of the 238 ecological areas, and sent the survey to 60 addresses in each. They believe this gave them a huge upper hand as opposed to prior research being mainly based on localities, and on a much smaller scale. As for the components of the questionnaire, to analyze organizational participation the respondents were asked about activities in their free time for each night of the week. To evaluate social control and supervision of youth groups, they asked respondents how likely it was for groups of teenagers to hangout and act as nuisances in public. Finally, to measure the exogenous characteristics of socioeconomic status, residential stability, and ethnic heterogeneity, the researchers made a scale measuring social class, education, occupation and income.
The results of the study supported Shaw and McKay’s theory of Social Disorganization. The findings established that all of the exogenous characteristics had a great impact on local friendship networks. Essentially, higher socioeconomic status and residential stability, higher friendship network rates. They also found that higher levels of family disruption (single families) experience higher levels of disorderly peer groups. They claim this is likely due to the lack of joined forces. The findings indicated that ethnic heterogeneity had a significant positive effect on the inability for the community to control their youth. This ties into Social Disorganization Theory belief that an issue in Transition Zones, is the racial aspect (Sampson & Groves, 1989).
“Social Disorganization Theory’s Greatest Challenge: Linking Structural Characteristics to Crime in Socially Disorganized Communities”
This article shows extreme support for the theory itself, but similar to the last article, does not support the research findings within the theory. The authors state that a huge limitation of Social Disorganization research is how little attention is put into the processes that mediate the impact of community characteristics. Due to the ways of data analysis in the early 1900’s, researchers and scholars were not able to operate true analyses that would completely examine Shaw and McKay’s arguments. For example, the famous Chicago study was conducted by using spatial distribution of crime throughout, and they concluded it was consistent with Social Disorganization as the crime rates were highest in specific neighborhoods. But this article states the issue is that while the study was able to prove that racially heterogeneous and poor neighborhood had highest crime rates, they were unable to give specifics on the reasoning for the relationship, such as social ties or social control. Because of this, researchers have not been able to completely distinguish, understand, and verify these operations of social interaction that connect structural factors and neighborhoods.
Social capital is the next large concept this article focuses on. Social Capital is the capability of community members to work together and become united in order to make their home area function properly. It is obvious that Social Disorganization Theory and many other theories support the social capital concept, as it can help relate crime rates to prevalence of community organizations. Kubrin and Wo state that civic and social organizations allow and encourage sharing similar beliefs and goals, which increases the opportunity to share information, prioritize resources, and use networks for crime prevention. “Criminologists have adopted the concept of social capital, defined as ‘the investment in social relations with expected returns’” (Kubrin & Wo, 128). Prior analyses of social capital have used data such as the amount of organizations in the community, members participation, and trust levels, in order to better grasp the emotional investment by the community inhabitants. Though there are challenges, a few of them being the impact that crime has on social capital, and figuring out the social capitals spatial impacts. Nevertheless, if social capital is prevalent in a community it allows for members of the community to properly disseminate the information and enforce guardianship behavior.
In moving forward with research of social ties, Kubrin and Wo believe that it is crucial for scholars to realize that there is not equality across all social networks. They finally recognize that Social Disorganization Theory holds an imperative spot in criminology, and to continue that, the theory must be continually tested in the light of limitless empirical evidence (Kubrin & Wo, 130).
How The Theories Conflict/Relate
These theories relate to each other in a few ways, but also do not account for each other in other ways. GST and Social Disorganization relate to one another in the shared concept that people rebel to achieve desired goals. This is a key concept in GST, but it is also supported through Social Disorganization in the sense that majority of individuals living in the disorganized communities grow up thinking deviance is normal, so they believe it is okay to commit crime to achieve a goal. Another way these two tie in together is through the belief that delinquency results from pressure of negative states. In GST, this is a prevalent concept, and in Social Disorganization, living in such unhappy and demeaning communities can cause negative states inducing criminality. Additionally, Social Disorganization has a large focus on the low socioeconomic status of the transition zone inhabitants, this merges with GST as many individuals experience strain due to their low socioeconomic status. The final way these theories relate to each other, is in the concept that everyone experiences strain and hardship, but certain people handle it wrongly. In Social Disorganization, all of the members of those communities experience negative conditions, but people choose to handle it differently. Whether that be by getting out and doing better, or by staying there. In GST, all people experience strains and stressors, but cope with them either criminally or non-criminally.
The main way these theories conflict each other stems from the strong focus on the Social Disorganization mobility issue, and community focus. SD believes that the groups of people moving in and out of the transition zone community has a negative impact on it, and this concept does not necessarily relate to GST which is more focused on the individual. Additionally, Social Disorganization fixates on the community as a whole and how the individuals impact it, whereas Agnew believes the opposite that the community can affect the individual (Pontell & Rosoff, 2011).
Subjective Nature of Deviance
One of the most controversial questions regarding deviance, is whether it is subjective or objective. The subjective nature of deviance believes that some deviant behaviors are simply a result of the socially formed norms and common patterns of behavior seen in the community. So essentially, there is no flat-out definition or universally accepted standard of what is deviant or who is deviant. Everyone in society and across cultures has a different idea of what they believe is deviant and what they believe is not, so this concept accepts that there can never truly be a definition of it. Every different age group, political affiliation, culture, etc. has different experiences and different values regarding what they believe is socially acceptable. Agnew also states that subjective strains are more common strain to result in crime, because they can relate to actions or experiences disliked by those who went through them. As opposed to objective strains which are commonly disliked by a whole group. The objective nature of deviance claims that there are certain standards that will always define deviance (Froggio & Agnew, 2007).
Finally, it may be concluded that Agnew’s General Strain Theory, and Shaw and McKays Social Disorganization Theory have similarities and differences in their focus on deviance. General Strain focuses greatly on the individual and the impacting stressors that are likely to encourage criminality, and Social Disorganization studies the causal factors of poor community participation and networks in certain areas. They both focus on the deep-dive reason behind individual and community deviance, which is something that will be analyzed for years to come. The everlasting commonality between the two theories is that they both made major strides in the study, reasoning, and prevention of deviance as a whole. Due to the ground work these theorists made, communities are able to work to identify and combat deviance.
- Froggio, Giacinto & A. Agnew, Robert. The relationship between crime and “objective” versus “subjective” strains. Journal of Criminal Justice, 2007. 81-87.
- Kubrin, Charis E., and James C. Wo. “Social Disorganization Theory's Greatest Challenge.” The Handbook of Criminological Theory, 2015, pp. 121–136.
- Moon, Byongook, et al. “General Strain Theory and Delinquency.” Crime & Delinquency, vol. 54, no. 4, 2007, pp. 582–613.
- Pontell, Henry N., and Stephen M. Rosoff. Social Deviance: Readings in Theory and Research. McGraw-Hill, 2011.
- “Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews .” Ontario Ministry of Children, vol. 5, no. 4, May 2016, pp. 1–7.
- Sampson, Robert J., and W. Byron Groves. “Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social-Disorganization Theory.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 94, no. 4, 1989, pp. 774–802.
- Slepicka , Jessie. “Strain, Boredom, and Self-Control: Extending General Strain Theory to Texting While Driving.” Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society, vol. 19, no. 3, 2018, pp. 1–15.
- Thaxton, Sherod, and Robert Agnew. “When Criminal Coping Is Likely: An Examination of Conditioning Effects in General Strain Theory.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 34, no. 4, 2017, pp. 887–920.
- Wong, Carlin. “Shaw and McKay: The Social Disorganization Theory by Carlin Wong.” Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science .