Robert Agnew, Criminology


"Describe an event in the last few weeks that angered you. Now explain how you dealt with that anger." This is how Robert Agnew, Professor and Chair of Sociology, introduces his students to his general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Understanding why some people turn to crime in response to particular pressures and negative emotions, while others do not, is one of the central themes of his intellectual work.

General strain theory seeks first to identify the stresses or 'strains' most likely to cause delinquency. The inability to achieve selected goals is one strain, with such goals including autonomy, masculine status, and money. Other strains include parental rejection, harsh discipline, peer abuse, work in the secondary labor market, and discrimination based on ascribed characteristics such as race and sex. General strain theorists also seek to explain why these strains increase the likelihood of crime. Agnew has found that they do so, in part, because strains foster negative emotions - anger, frustration, and depression. Negative emotions, in turn, create pressure for corrective action. "You feel bad, and you want to do something about it," says Agnew. "Crime is one way some people respond."

But why some and not others? General strain theorists identify additional factors that increase the likelihood of a criminal response when strains are present. As Agnew's research has shown, these factors include poor coping skills and inadequate resources; personality traits such as negative emotionality; association with criminal peers; insufficient social support; and weak social control - how much (or how little) a person feels he or she has to lose by engaging in criminal behavior. If you feel disengaged from or alienated by your communities and social groups, you are more likely to view crime as an option.

Over the last fifteen years, general strain theory has become one of the leading explanations for crime, and Agnew has continued to break ground with new research. His latest theoretical project is an integrated theory of crime, what Agnew calls the "ultimate goal" for any crime theorist. In 2006 he published Why Do Criminals Offend? A General Theory of Crime and Delinquency (Oxford University Press). Already, he's begun strengthening and clarifying this theory for future projects. His latest empirical study, undertaken with graduate students, examines the relation between social class and crime, a major topic in criminology. Many people assume the existence of a strong correlation between the two areas, but Agnew's team has found that social class remains less important than economic problems: unpaid bills, cancelled health insurance, and a range of financial crises. While social class plays a role in such problems, it is not the only variable. "Some lower-class individuals do not experience economic problems, and some middle-class people do," Agnew says. A person is more likely to commit a crime if he or she is in economic crisis, not if he or she is poor.

Agnew, who has been on the faculty at Emory since 1980 and wrote what has become a major textbook on delinquency, Juvenile Delinquency: Causes and Control (soon to be reissued in a 3rd edition), also seeks to apply his research to programs aimed at controlling and preventing crime among youth. He is a member of the Girls Study Group, a project sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The group's charge is threefold: to identify the particular causes of girls' delinquency, to assess the effectiveness of existing programs that seek to address girls' delinquency, and to select (or develop) three or four model programs for implementation and evaluation. Agnew is enthusiastic about the project. I'll always examine the causes of crime and delinquency," he says. "But I'm also interested in developing effective programs to reduce delinquency." It's a worthwhile - and monumental - effort.

Being at Emory has helped him approach such challenges more creatively. For a number of years, he was the only criminologist on the Emory faculty. Says Agnew: "I think my work has been deeper and more creative because I've been surrounded by people in other areas." Much of his work, in particular, draws on the research and insights from other fields to more fully understand crime. Criminology and creativity may strike some people as unlikely bedfellows, but in Agnew's case, they are more aptly called partners in crime.