General strain theory (GST) provides a unique explanation of crime and delinquency. In contrast to control and learning theories, GST focuses explicitly on negative treatment by others and is the only major theory of crime and delinquency to highlight the role of negative emotions in the etiology of offending. According to GST, the experience of strain or stress tends to generate negative emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, and despair. These negative emotions, in turn, are said to create pressures for corrective action, with crime or delinquency being one possible response.
GST was designed, in part, to address criticisms leveled against previous versions of strain theory. Earlier versions of strain theory have been criticized for focusing on a narrow range of possible strains, for their inability to explain why only some strained individuals resort to crime or delinquency, and for limited empirical support. GST has been partly successful in overcoming these limitations. Since its inception, the theory has received a considerable amount of attention from researchers, has enjoyed a fair amount of empirical support, and has been credited with helping to revitalize the strain theory tradition. The full potential of GST has yet to be realized, however, as the theory continues to evolve and further testing is required.
Jason Gravel and George E. Tita
Though often not mentioned by name, the importance of social networks in explaining criminal behavior, delinquency, and patterns has long been recognized in the study of crime. Theories that explain criminal behavior at the individual level being learned through the impacts of peer influences presume that the transmission of ideas and influences flow among social ties (networks) that link individuals. Cultural theories of crime work in the same way. At the community level, delinquency and criminal behavior are born among members of a community or group that adhere to a particular cultural set of norms or beliefs. The concentration of crime in particular geographic areas results when there are insufficient ties among local residents to affect informal social control in the area. Impacted neighborhoods are often described as socially isolated, lacking social ties to institutions of power that provide the investment and services needed in a healthy community. The history of the formation and activities of street gangs is a clear example of how understanding the ties among individuals, and between groups of these individuals, matter in our understanding these phenomena. Comprehending social ties among gangs and gang members and employment of social network analysis (SNA) have become mainstays of local law enforcement efforts to address the issue of gang violence.
Much of the early criminological work that implicated social networks but did not explicitly acknowledge a network by name, or did not employ SNA on formal network data, did so because collecting such data is difficult at best and sometimes impossible. Though criminology has been a “late adopter” of SNA, the field is making great strides in this area. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) research program has provided a rich set of network data to explore issues of peer influence. Researchers are using carefully collected social network data at the individual and organizational level to better understand the ability of communities to self-regulate delinquency and crime in an area. Arrest data and field identification stops are being used to generate large networks in an effort to understand how one’s position in a larger social structure might be related to an actor’s involvement in future offending or victimization.
As the field of criminology continues to adopt a network perspective in the study of crime, it is important to understand the development of social networks within the field. Critically examining the strengths and weaknesses of network data, especially in terms of the process by which data are generated, can lead to better applications of network analysis in the future.
Gottfredson and Hirschi advanced self-control theory in 1990 as part of their general theory of crime. Self-control is defined as the ability to forego acts that provide immediate or near-term pleasures, but that also have negative consequences for the actor, and as the ability to act in favor of longer-term interests. An individual’s level of self-control is influenced by family or other caregiver behavior early in life. Once established, differences in self-control affect the likelihood of delinquency in childhood and adolescence and crime in later life. Persons with relatively high levels of self-control do better in school, have stronger job prospects, establish more stable interpersonal relationships, and attain higher income and better health outcomes. Self-control theory was initially constructed to reconcile the age, generality, and stability findings of criminological research with the standard assumptions of control theory. As such, it acknowledges the general decline in crime with age, versatility in types of problem behaviors engaged in by delinquents and offenders, and the generally stable individual differences in the tendency to engage in delinquency and crime over one’s life-course. Self-control theory applies to a wide variety of illegal behaviors (most crimes) and to many noncrime problem behaviors, including school problems, accidents, and substance abuse.
A considerable amount of research has been undertaken on self-control theory and on Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime. As a result, self-control theory is likely the most heavily researched perspective in criminology during the past 30 years. Most reviews find substantial empirical support for the principal positions of the theory, including the relationship between levels of self-control and delinquency, crime, and other problem behaviors. These relationships appear to be strong throughout life, among most groups of people, types of crime, in the United States and other countries, and over time. The posited important role of the family in the genesis of self-control is consistent with substantial bodies of research, although some researchers argue in favor of important genetic components for self-control. The theory’s expectations about the age distribution of crime, versatility of offending, and stability of individual differences over long periods of time also receive substantial support. Researchers have long studied variations in age effects, particularly seeking continuously high levels of offending for the most serious offenders, but reviewers have found that the evidence for meaningful variability is not convincing.
For public policy, self-control theory argues that the most promising approach for crime reduction focuses primarily on prevention, especially in early childhood, and secondarily on situational prevention for specific types of crimes. Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that self-control theory is inconsistent with reliance on the criminal justice system to affect crime levels. On the one hand, general reviews of the empirical literature on deterrence and incapacitation support the expectations of self-control theory by finding little support for severity of sanctions, sanctions long removed from the act, and selective incapacitation for “serious offenders.” On the other hand, experimental studies from education, psychology, and criminology generally support the idea that early-childhood family and educational environments can be altered to enhance self-control and lower expected delinquency, crime, and other problem behaviors later in life.
Contemporary sociologists typically trace social disorganization models to Emile Durkheim’s classic work. There is continuity between Durkheim’s concern for organic solidarity in societies that are changing rapidly and the social disorganization approach of Shaw and McKay (1969). However, Shaw and McKay view social disorganization as a situationally rooted variable and not as an inevitable property of all urban neighborhoods. They argued that socioeconomic status (SES), racial and ethnic heterogeneity, and residential stability account for variations in social disorganization and hence informal social control, which in turn account for the distribution of community crime. Empirical testing of Shaw and McKay’s research in other cities during the mid-20th century, with few exceptions, focused on the relationship between SES and delinquency or crime as a crucial test of the theory. As a whole, that research supports social disorganization theory. A handful of studies in the 1940s through early 1960s documented a relationship between social disorganization and crime. After a period of stagnation, social disorganization increased through the 1980s and since then has accelerated rapidly. Much of that research includes direct measurement of social disorganization, informal control, and collective efficacy. Clearly, many scholars perceive that social disorganization plays a central role in the distribution of neighborhood crime.