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Journal of Criminal Justice 39 (2011) 12

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Journal of Criminal Justice


How general is general strain theory?

For several years, the Journal of Criminal Justice has been an ment and labor market problems, victimization, perceived gender
important publishing outlet for scholarship on Robert Agnew's general discrimination, perceived racial discrimination, physical abuse, sexual
strain theory. Due to the popularity and inuence of general strain abuse, sibling abuse, peer abuse, shame, and poor physical health.
theory, Agnew is among the most highly cited scholars in criminology Moreover, studies have utilized real, vicarious, and anticipated strains
and criminal justice journals (Cohn & Farrington, 2008), and general in addition to objective and subjective ones. Also impressive is the
strain theory is among the most popular content areas of research support for general strain theory given the diversity of data sources
currently submitted to JCJ. The current editorial explicates recent that have been used. These data are derived from samples of juvenile
general strain theory research appearing in the journal, and offers brief delinquents, criminal offenders, university students, police ofcers,
suggestions for future investigators to broaden the applicability of adult employees, males, females, whites, African Americans, Hispan-
general strain theory to areas that are heretofore understudied. ics, homeless street youth, convicted white collar criminals, high
To date, general strain theory has proven especially useful in four school students, drug addicts, gang youth, middle school student, and
substantive areas of scholarship. The rst area of research centers on the at the macro level, neighborhoods. Investigators have also examined
relationship between experiencing strain and involvement in various general strain theory using large-scale data from the Welfare,
forms of deviant, delinquent, or criminal behavior. For this, there is Children, and Families (WCF) Project (Schroeder et al., 2011), the
copious evidence that strain is importantly related to crime (Baron, National Youth Survey (NYS) (Ganem & Agnew, 2007; Ostrowsky &
2006, 2009; Baron & Hartnagel, 2002; Capowich, Mazerolle, & Piquero, Messner, 2005), the National Survey of Children (NSC) (Hay & Evans,
2001; Eitle, 2002, 2010; Eitle, Gunkel, & Van Gundy, 2004; Froggio & 2006; Hollist et al., 2009), the National Longitudinal Study of Ado-
Agnew, 2007; Ganem & Agnew, 2007; Hay & Evans, 2006; Hollist, lescent Health (Add Health) (Johnson & Morris, 2008; Kort-Butler,
Hughes, & Schaible, 2009; Ibabe & Jaureguizar, 2010; Jennings, Piquero, 2010; Stogner & Gibson, 2010, the Collaborative Perinatal Project and
Gover, & Prez, 2009; Johnson & Morris, 2008; Langton & Piquero, 2007; Pathways to Adulthood project (Slocum, 2010), and even samples
Manasse & Ganem, 2009; Mazerolle, Burton, Cullen, Evans, & Payne, from Italy (Froggio & Agnew, 2007).
2000; Moon, Hays, & Blurton, 2009; Ostrowsky & Messner, 2005; General strain theory enjoys ample empirical support, but exciting
Rebellon, Piquero, Piquero, & Tibbetts, 2010; Schroeder, Hill, Haynes, & research questions remain largely unexplored and therefore unan-
Bradley, 2011; Slocum, 2010; Stogner & Gibson, 2010; Swatt, Gibson, & swered. The cardinal feature of a criminological theory is the association
Piquero, 2007) and analogous forms of behavior. of its constructs with antisocial behavior, and again, here general strain
The second area of research centers on the linkages between theory is on solid empirical footing. But linkages between general strain
experiencing strain and experiencing other medical and mental and more severe forms of behavior are largely unknown. This is
health problems primarily relating to the expression and manifesta- unfortunate because severe forms of criminal behavior disproportion-
tion of negative emotionality, such as anger, anxiety, and depression ately relate to public opinion about crime, disproportionately amplify
(Eitle, 2010; Hinduja, 2007; Hollist et al., 2009; Jennings et al., 2009; public fear of crime, and disproportionately attract the attention of the
Langton & Piquero, 2007; Mazerolle et al., 2000; Ostrowsky & criminal justice system. Recent studies of homicide (Adinkrah, 2008;
Messner, 2005; Schroeder et al., 2011; Slocum, 2010). These negative Barker & Human, 2009; Cunningham, Sorensen, Vigen, & Woods, 2010),
emotional states serve to mediate and at times moderate the effects of sexual assault (Rennison, 2010), and suicide (Dye, 2010; Lord & Sloop,
strain on antisocial conduct. The third area of research examines the 2010) demonstrate the importance of immediately proximal emotional
associations between experiencing strain and violent ideation and/or states of the offender and situational factors that contribute to the
violent offending (Baron, 2009; Hinduja, 2007; Hollist et al., 2009; violent event. In this way, general strain theory could provide a natural
Jennings et al., 2009; Mazerolle et al., 2000; Mazerolle & Piquero, conceptual framework to extreme forms of criminal behavior, ones that
1998; Ostrowsky & Messner, 2005; Stogner & Gibson, 2010; Warner & are sometimes criticized for lacking theoretical rigor. Moreover, general
Fowler, 2003). And the fourth area of research focuses on the trans- strain theory might provide insight toward understanding the precip-
ference between being a victim of crime and being a perpetrator of itant or triggering events that give rise to paroxysmal violence, such as
crime (Baron, 2009; Hay & Evans, 2006; Hollist et al., 2009; Kort-Butler, sexually-based offenses (see, Harris, Smallbone, Dennison, & Knight,
2010; Manasse & Ganem, 2009). In this regard, general strain theory has 2009; Leclerc, Wortley, & Smallbone, 2010).
served as a theoretical guide to understanding the empirical overlap With an occasional exception (e.g., Swatt et al., 2007), criminol-
between victimization and offending. ogists have been slow to apply general strain theory to the criminal
The various strains used to operationalize variables from general justice system itself despite the various stressors associated with
strain theory are many, and include stressful life events, family-based working in the eld, specically law enforcement (Gerber et al., 2010;
problems, anxiety, depression, anger, economic hardship, unemploy- Morash et al., 2008; Shane, 2010) and corrections (Dial, Downey, &

0047-2352/$ see front matter 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Author's personal copy

2 Editorial

Goodlin, 2010; Lambert et al., 2010; Lambert & Paoline, 2010). Hollist, D. R., Hughes, L. A., & Schaible, L. M. (2009). Adolescent maltreatment, negative
emotion, and delinquency: An assessment of general strain theory and family-
General strain theory provides a theoretical guide to understand the based strain. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37, 379387.
implications and negative consequences of ofcer stress/strain, and Ibabe, I., & Jaureguizar, J. (2010). Child-to-parent violence: Prole of abusive adolescents
perhaps more importantly to criminologists, how that strain inu- and their families. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 616624.
Jennings, W. G., Piquero, N. L., Gover, A. R., & Prez, D. M. (2009). Gender and general
ences practitioner discretion and decision-making. And there are strain theory: A replication and exploration of Broidy and Agnew's gender/strain
other examples. Research on resource limitations and budget cuts to hypothesis among a sample of southwestern Mexican American adolescents.
municipalities and counties and their effects on law enforcement Journal of Criminal Justice, 37, 404417.
Johnson, M. C., & Morris, R. G. (2008). The moderating effects of religiosity on the
practices, research on the effects of increased caseload sizes for relationship between stressful life events and delinquent behavior. Journal of
probation and parole ofcers, research on volume of cases and Criminal Justice, 36, 486493.
adjudication outcomes, research on jail crowding and its effects on Kort-Butler, L. A. (2010). Experienced and vicarious victimization: Do social support
and self-esteem prevent delinquent responses? Journal of Criminal Justice, 38,
inmate suicide, inmate misconduct, and jail management, and
research on conditions of prison connement on ofcers, staff, and Lambert, E. G., & Paoline, III., E. A. (2010). Take this job and shove it: An exploratory
inmates could all be meaningfully informed by general strain theory. study of turnover intent among jail staff. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 139148.
Ideally, theory is relevant to both criminology and criminal justice. Lambert, E. G., Hogan, N. L., Jiang, S., Elechi, O. O., Benjamin, B., Morris, A., Laux, J. M., &
Dupuy, P. (2010). The relationship between distributive and procedural justice and
In short order, general strain theory cleared the criminological hurdle correctional life satisfaction, burnout, and turnover intent: An exploratory study.
although its application to violence and pathological offenders is less Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 716.
clear. Perhaps the next generation of general strain theory research Langton, L., & Piquero, N. L. (2007). Can general strain theory explain white collar
crime? A preliminary investigation of the relationship between strain and select
should apply its precepts to the workings of the criminal justice white-collar offenses. Journal of Criminal Justice, 35, 115.
system and the moment-to-moment decisions of criminal justice Leclerc, B., Wortley, R., & Smallbone, S. (2010). Investigating mobility patterns for
practitioners. Then, the generality of general strain theory will be repetitive sexual contact in adult child sex offending. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38,
more condently understood. Lord, V. B., & Sloop, M. W. (2010). Suicide by cop: Police shooting as a method of self-
harming. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 889895.
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Matt DeLisi
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