According to Durkheim, “crime was normal in mechanical societies because punishing criminals leads to more social solidarity” (Durkheim, 1997). Durkheim placed strain into two distinct categories; personal experiences and social processes (Durkheim, 1997). The two categories of strain created either an individual strain or a structural strain.
An individual strain is a strain that is personally created. This is the type of strain that an individual experience while hunting for economic success (Durkheim, 1997). When an individual fails to “meet their needs based on the ideals of society”, this is called structural strain (Agnew et al., 1992, p. 476). Merton, on the other hand, believed that crime was a product of our social structure. He believed that crime was needed to “maintain stability when dealing with high levels of inequality present in our society” (Broidy, 2001). Merton strain theory implied that strain is created if an individual has a goal set for themselves but do not possess the means to achieve that goal.
Because of this, anomie or normlessness happens (Merton, 1938). According to Merton, individuals respond to anomie in five ways; conformity, ritualism, innovation, retreatism, and rebellion. Merton’s theory was groundbreaking but overall was a micro-level theory that didn’t account for the masses in society. He assumed that everyone shared the same values and goals of economic success, which isn’t true (Agnew, 1992). His theory focused on economic success to heavily and didn’t include other goals.
In Merton’s Strain Theory, “the lower classes were more susceptible to strain (Wareham, 2005).” Robert Agnew acknowledged that Merton strain theory was limited in terms of reviewing all the possible sources of strain. Before Robert Agnew’s advancements of the criminological theory, strain theory mainly focused on the “blockage of positively valued goals” (Agnew, 1992, p. 48).
It predicted that a person who has higher goals and lower expectations would have a higher change of delinquency. The theory also predicted that delinquency would be very common in lower class areas but research shows that delinquency is very common in middle and upper classes as well (Agnew, 1992). So, to revitalize Merton’s strain theory, Agnew introduced a different way to of viewing strain.
He called his revised version of Merton’s work, the General Strain Theory. Agnew felted that the strain theory emphasis should be on the “immediate goals of the adolescent” (Agnew, 1992, p. 51). In this theory, Agnew accounted for an individual’s goals other money, association with other criminals, expectation for their future and their social class standing (Agnew, 2001). This revised strain theory expanded the scope of strain theory, making it more theoretical with new variables so it could be tested empirically (Agnew, 2001).