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Strain, Social Control, and Developmental Theories


Contemporary theoretical approaches have developed at the beginning of the twenty-first century. However, they are all based on older theories, like anomie and social control theories. Present theoretical models pay particular attention to early life factors that shape people’s future deviant behavior. This paper dwells on specific characteristics of strain, social control and developmental theories. It also investigates their social implications and relation to criminal behavior.

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Strain Theory

Strain theory states that there are specific stressors or strains that provoke criminal behavior. One of the core contributors to the modern strain theory is Robert Agnew (Williams & McShane, 2017). He argues that an individual is prone to a deviant action when there is an inability to avoid undesirable situations or reach goals. Those strains that are commonly disliked by people are called objective, whereas personally despised ones are subjective strains. Both types of stressors are linked to the loss of motivation and positive incentives, including financial stability or personal relationships. Besides, regular occurring strains are more likely to increase the probability of criminal behavior.

As a result, people experience negative emotions such as anger, frustration and irritation. If these unfavorable emotions accumulate, individuals turn to criminal activities and delinquency. However, people can develop coping mechanisms to confront negative situations and ensure self-control. Coping mechanisms consist of interpersonal skills, alternative behavior patterns and intelligence (Williams & McShane, 2017). Therefore, society must help individuals develop coping mechanisms to grapple with deviation.

Social Control Theory

Travis Hirsch and Michael Gottfredson developed modern social control theory. They believe that people are inherently selfish and commit crimes because it involves risk and little planning. Instead of considering concepts of class and race, they focus on common characteristics of crime. These characteristics are immediate gratification, few or meager long-term benefits as well as victim’s discomfort (Williams & McShane, 2017). The leading canon of the theory highlights that specific traits like impulsivity or self-centeredness lead to low self-control. Self-control implies that an individual has inhibitions supported by the elements of the bond.

Therefore, low self-control is the trigger for delinquency as specific desires do not drive criminals. According to Hirsch and Gottfredson, specific traits associated with low self-control derive from childhood. Child upbringing practices play the leading role in the formation of propensities which may provoke criminal behavior. These traits are usually developed in social settings and can also be found in noncriminal activities. The theory underlines that low self-control does not necessarily lead to a crime but results in various patterns of behavior.

Developmental Theories

Developmental theories study how individuals change over the course of life. One of the most prominent developmental theories is the life-course theory based on social control and ecology aspects. Proponents of this approach suppose that criminal experience is a dynamic category sensitive to changes. Life-course theorists assume that one’s life can change due to trajectories or transitions. Trajectories are social roles obtained throughout life, for example, from being a son to becoming a father. Transitions are influential events, such as college graduation, marriage or the loss of loved ones (Williams & McShane, 2017). Various trajectories and transitions can prompts individuals to deviant actions at any stage of their lives.

Interactional theory articulated by Terence Thornberry builds upon the concept of attachment to parents. He believes that childhood is an essential part of child-rearing when social control elements are instilled into an individual. Commitment, involvement and belief allow children to avoid deviance in future. On the opposite, an insecure environment let children learn values and behaviors associated with criminal activities. Interaction between social control elements and learning environment define the likelihood of delinquency.

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To conclude, self-control theory relies on static conduct patterns, whereas developmental theories assert the behavioral dynamism. Despite these differences, both of them underline that criminal propensity is determined at an early age. Robert Agnew’s theory stands out because of the more structural approach to factors causing deviations. Overall, all the discussed theories connect to core elements of social control and anomie theories.


Williams, F. & McShane, M. (2017). Criminological theory (7th ed.). Pearson.

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