Criminal Justice


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Criminal Justice

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Question One

The theoretical position offered in the evolution of strain is that the general strain theory is anchored on the socio-psychological level of analysis. Specifically, this evolution process is explained in terms of the relationship between criminal behavior and social structure. The general strain theory explains crime and criminal behavior by first and foremost assuming that negative relationships among individuals lead to stress or strain in people’s lives. Negative relationships occur whenever one person treats another in a way that he would not want to be treated.


In Mertonian strain theory, focus is primarily on all relationships that hinder the realization of positively valued goals by the individual (Barlow & Kauzlarich, 2010). In contrast general strain theory extends this argument to incorporate two more factors. The first one is a situation where the positively valued stimuli that is possessed by the individual is removed or threatened by other individuals. The second one is a situation where the individual is threatened (or presented) with negatively-valued stimuli.

When positively valued goals are not achieved, the resulting impression is that individuals have somehow not met their intended goals or have been treated unfairly in a relationship. A good example is when a person fails to meet his expectation of gaining financial strength after working hard. When the things that an individual positively values are removed or threatened with removal, strain occurs. Moreover, when a child loses his parents, the resulting stress or strain can lead him into involvement in crime.

In an example demonstrating the effect of the projection of negative outcomes by other people, one may observe that strain can befall a child who has been neglected, abused, and criminally victimized, and this may profoundly contribute to the child’s engagement in criminal activities. There are other situations where different dimensions of strain can occur, for example, when an intelligent child is insulted by his teachers, thereby triggering interruptions in his aspirations of achieving academic success. In other words, deviant behavior may be triggered by negative experiences that threaten one’s positively valued stimuli, are undeserved, or violate certain rules of distributive justice such as equity.

The socio-psychological level of analysis is especially exemplified by the general strain theory’s position that most people are likely to experience strain at a certain point during their lives (Barlow & Kauzlarich, 2010). At the point, the theory must explain who exerts a greater likelihood of committing crime due to strain. According to this theory, those who are unable to cope well with stressful situations are the ones who ae more likely to engage in crime.  This theoretical position brings into focus the socio-psychological aspects by introducing the notions of personality, coping ability, social learning, bonding variables, and temperament. The social aspect of this argument is particularly important because it puts into perspective the extent to which a conceptual overlap exists between general strain theory and social disorganization theory.

Another way in which the theoretical position has been explained in terms of social-psychological variables is through differences in the tendency to commit violent offenses by gender. For example, it is argued that males who lose a parent or encounter negative relationships with adults may be more likely to develop criminal behavior than their female counterparts. This argument is partially supported by the notion that men often manifest strain externally while women tend to be better at managing these emotions internally.

The concept of strain has evolved even further through the introduction of opportunity as a variable. In this version of the theory, differences in criminality are considered a reflection of differences in access to opportunities. Thus, opportunity variables are useful because they help sociologists to explain why certain forms of deviance occur more often than others. A plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that opportunity structures vary within society, such that individuals are confronted with both legitimate and illegitimate opportunities to behave in a certain way with a view to meet various needs such as social status, prestige, and financial stability.

This type of theorizing can be applied to numerous situations that exemplify how the general strain theory conceptualizes and explains crime and criminal behavior. For example, it can be used to explain why crime rates tend to be high in neighborhoods inhabited by people of socio-economic status.There is often a significant variation in opportunity structure for many children from poor families compared to their counterparts in richer families. Most children from very poor families experience tremendous stress due to problems such as domestic violence, death of a breadwinner, lack of educational opportunities, as well as the agony of being looked down upon in society due to their low socio-economic status. The resulting opportunity structure in society in most cases predisposes them to criminal behavior. This is unlike the case for most rich children, who get a lot of exposure to legitimate opportunities such as access to the best educational opportunities. Consequently, children of rich parents are less likely to engage in crime to satisfy needs compared to the children of poor parents. At both family and social levels, poor children grow up getting used to the perception (or reality) that their chances of gaining access to legitimate opportunities are very slim, thereby leading them to focus primarily on illegitimate opportunities such as crime.

Question Two

The social process of crime implies that all people do not exhibit the same behavioral tendencies even after exposure to the same social environment (Barlow & Kauzlarich, 2010). Conversely, one should not expect people to behave differently simply because they come from dissimilar social structures. In social process theories, a lot of emphasis is on micro-sociological aspects of human behavior. In other words, focus is on how human interactions shape the social attributes that are acquired by individuals. The element of “process” manifests itself because the meaning of social attributes depends on context. For example, the way an individual perceives the social behavior of another individual is greatly influenced by how other individuals operating in a similar situation perceive the social behavior in question.


The social process is also explained through the notion that people learn criminal behavior by interacting with others. This is because humans are essentially social humans who make friends with whom they share time and ideas in an attempt to help each other navigate life. Everyone needs friends who encourage them in their day-to-day activities, and this includes criminals. By extension, one may argue that a person who has for a long time resisted the temptation to engage in criminal activities may join the world of crime due to influence and support from friends, parents, guardians, bosses, and workmates. Against this backdrop, criminologists who are interested in social process theories often seek to examine the kinds of friendship circles that criminals maintain, the kinds of teachings that have been inculcated in them regarding the need to obey or disobey rules, and parental practices. Other issues being researched using this approach include school experiences, peer influences, and the social environment in which individuals who engage in crime were brought up.

            The notion of Differential Association is related to the creation of criminal behavior in the sense that it explains how patterns of criminal behavior are acquired in just the same way as non-criminal behavior patterns. According to this theory, individuals embrace criminality simply because the situations to which they are exposed during their lives facilitate the learning of crime that outweighs the learning of non-criminal behaviors. In essence, Differential Association posits that criminal behavior should not be attributed to deviation from psychological or biological norms but rather as a mere outcome of normal processes of communication and interaction.

            An important point that should be noted as far as the explanation of the creation of criminal behavior using Differential Association is that individuals engage in criminal activities in order to express needs and values just in the same way that non-criminal behavior is also used as a way of expressing the same values and needs. This essentially means that it is wrong to explain criminal behavior by those needs and values. The element of Differential Association is useful in criminology because it explains the creation of both criminal and non-criminal behavior (Barlow & Kauzlarich, 2010). The difference between the two is simply a matter of differential association, thus: criminal behavior emerges when there is an excess of definitions that favor law violation while non-criminal behavior emerges when there is an excess of definitions that do not favor law violation.  For example, a person who spends most of his time interacting with friends who emphasize the need to conform to the law is likely to become a law-abiding citizen. Conversely, a person who interacts with criminals who encourage him to break the law all the time is likely to end up becoming a criminal.

            The notion of self-concept is also related to the creation of criminal behavior because it explains an individual’s sense of self, which is one of the primary forces that control human behavior. When people are subjected to the same environmental factors as poverty and internal pressures such as aggressiveness, they do not respond in the same way. For example, not all aggressive people who face poverty end up engaging in criminal activities in order to lift themselves from the poverty trap. This is largely because of differences in self-concept. Self-concept acts as a strong defense against involvement in delinquency even in the face of adverse living conditions and strong desire for a better life. People with a good self-concept can mobilize such a strong defense, thereby enabling them to overcome the temptation to engage in criminal behavior. To acquire a good self-concept, an individual should be favorably socialized as well as stay away from friends with a poor self-concept as well as those who like engaging in crime.

Interest in the role of self-concept remains strong despite criticism regarding its application in certain situations (Barlow & Kauzlarich, 2010). For example, a commonly held view is that although self-concept plays a critical role in the creation of criminal behavior in general, it provides a more satisfactory explanation in juvenile crime than in adult crime. It is widely assumed that in adult crime, role expectations serve as a stronger control mechanism than self-concept. Nevertheless, self-concept makes a crucial theoretical contribution to the creation of criminal behavior particularly considering that people are rarely compelled to engage in crime, but rather they simply choose when to get into it and when to get out of it.


Barlow, H. & Kauzlarich, D. (2010). Explaining crime: A primer in criminological theory. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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