Applying Strain Theory to the Crime Epidemic in Chicago | Applied Social Psychology (ASP)

Applying Strain Theory to the Crime Epidemic in Chicago

In recent years, incidences of violent crime and homicide in Chicago, Illinois have risen exponentially.  According to the Chicago Police Department (2017), during the past 12 months 27,719 violent crimes have been reported, including 705 homicides.  During 2016, the rate of homicide rose nearly 50 percent, with 90 murders in the month of August alone (Davey, 2016).    The United States Census Bureau (n.d.) reports that the number of individuals living in poverty during 2011 through 2015 in Chicago was 22.3% and that the area is densely populated with 11,841.8 people per square mile in the city.  As of 2016, over 50% of Chicago residents are minorities (Suburban Stats, n.d.).  The significance of this information will be discussed through the lens of strain theory.

CHICAGO, IL. USA. September 2014

The premise of strain theory is that a something or someone in a person’s life is causing the strain that leads them to commit a crime in order to alleviate that strain (Agnew, 2001).  One such strain is real or perceived injustice.  Whether the unjust situation is a result of their own actions or hundreds of years of systematic oppression, a person who engages in criminal behavior may rationalize their actions by considering that they themselves have been mistreated.  Though the days of slavery are in the past and we are no longer living in the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, racial injustice continues to exist and is a source of discontent for many people in Chicago and other areas, including criminals.

Another factor is the magnitude of the strain, which refers to how impactful the crime is in comparison to the consequences of not committing that crime (Agnew, 2001).  For example, robbing an individual may seem like a low-level crime that isn’t likely to have a lasting effect on that person but, without the money that the criminal obtains from the robbery, they may lose their homes, vehicles, ability to care for their children, or something else that will have long-term consequences for them.  As mentioned earlier, 22.3% of Chicago lives in poverty (United States Census Bureau, n.d.), which means that financial strain is a major, long-lasting strain on many individuals.  The criminal may feel that financial strain can be remedied, at least in the short-term, by committing robbery or theft.

Low social control is another element of strain theory, which concerns individual circumstances that a person has little or no control over, such as lack of job opportunities and available housing (Agnew, 2001).  As previously stated, poverty levels in Chicago are high, and the city is densely populated.  One can surmise that, with many people vying over available and affordable living spaces in such a small area, there will be some who are cannot obtain a residence.  The average cost of rent per year is approximately $11,580 and home mortgages cost $22,308, while the average income is $29,486.  The discrepancy between income and cost of living, which are largely out of a person’s control, are likely to cause strain that cannot easily be alleviated through legal means.  The notion that meritocracy, defined by Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts (2012) as the notion that hard work will yield equal and fair results for all who work hard, is simply not accurate all of the time.  Therefore, this type of strain could motivate an individual to commit crimes such as robbery and theft in order to get money to pay for the cost of living when their occupations fail to provide enough financial stability.

The final strain is pressure or incentive to engage in criminal activity in order to cope.  Anderson (2009, as cited in Agnew 2001), suggests that inner-city communities may engage in criminal coping as a response to conflicts within the community and with police.  In such a situation, law enforcement may not be able to help these individuals solve this problem through legitimate channels, so they take matters into their own hands.  For them, criminal coping is the only way to deal with this problem.  The matter of disrespectful treatment harkens back to topics of injustice and high-magnitude strains, since the situation involves unjust treatment with highly impactful consequences.  Therefore, people may engage in criminal activity in order to resolve the issue of someone mistreating them by violently attacking or even killing another.

In the city of Chicago, violent crime is an extensive problem that most certainly needs to be addressed.  One obvious solution is incarceration, but it is expensive and often ineffective.  Prisons, jails, probation, and parole services cost the United States $81 billion annually (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017).  Additionally, in the United States, up to 58 percent of violent offenders are arrested for a similar crime within 5 years of being released from prison, with the highest incidence of reincarceration being African American males (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014).  Recent reports show that number is even higher in the city of Chicago, with over 87 percent of murder offenders having been arrested prior to committing homicide (Chicago Police Department, 2012).  If incarceration is not effective, what other courses of action may be taken to deter violent crime in Chicago?

Considering Agnew’s (2001) strain theory, there are several potential strains that are complex, and there will be no simple solutions.  Poverty, low job and housing availability, and institutionalized racial oppression are not problems that can be solved overnight, if ever at all.  The strain of pressure or incentive to engage in criminal activity, particularly the unwillingness to contact police about disputes, may be dealt with in several ways.  First, law enforcement officials may benefit from diversity training both prior to employment and periodically throughout their tenure.  They may also gain the confidence of residents by interacting with them outside of regular police calls.  Contact hypothesis (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012) suggests that prejudice can be remedied when two groups work together, as equals, to achieve a common goal.  Police and neighborhood residents could take part in fund raisers to help pay for improvements in their community that would benefit regular citizens as well as law enforcement, so they would be cooperating with one another to achieve a common goal.  Since the perception of equality is sufficient, law enforcement could dress in civilian clothing for fund raisers and act as partners rather than authority figures.  These positive interactions could help them understand one another better and foster unity between law enforcement and residents.  Additionally, if Chicago residents feel confident that law enforcement will work with them rather than having to rely on resolving conflicts on their own, this may help to alleviate some of the strain of perceived racial injustice.


The rate of violent crime in Chicago is staggering, and the loss of life is great.  Through understanding and implementing appropriate strategies, perhaps progress can be made.






Chicago Police Department CLEARMAP – Crime Summary.  Retrieved March 10, 2017, from

Davey, M. (2016, September 1). Chicago Has Its Deadliest Month in About Two Decades. New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2017, from

United States Census Bureau QuickFacts: Chicago city, Illinois. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2017, from

Agnew, R. (2001). Building on the foundation of general strain theory: Specifying the types of strain most likely to lead to crime and delinquency. Journal of research in crime and delinquency, 38(4), 319-361.

Suburban Stats: Population Demographics for Chicago, Illinois in 2016 and 2017 (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2017, from

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.

Wagner, P., & Rabuy, B. (2017, January 25). Following the Money of Mass Incarceration. Retrieved March 10, 2017, from

Bureau of Justice Statistics: 3 in 4 Former Prisoners in 30 States Arrested Within 5 Years of Release. (2014, April 22). Retrieved March 11, 2017, from

Chicago Police Department 2011 Chicago Murder Analysis. (2012). Retrieved March 10, 2017, from

Ortiz, C. J. (2014). [Untitled photo of Chicago, IL. USA]. September 2014. Retrieved from

[Untitled photo of police fundraiser]. Retrieved from





  1. I really liked reading your post! Last year or so, when there was a lot of news coverage of the often violent and destructive protests after the string of police shootings of black citizens, my mom commented on how “stupid” the people participating were. She couldn’t understand why anyone would engage in that behavior. I didn’t know about string theory then, but what I explained to her was very similar in nature. First I examined why we think people might act in that manner– well, they were angry. When I’m angry or frustrated, my first thought is that I want to get violent. Luckily, I am lucky enough to have many other healthy, legal options of releasing my anger. If I didn’t have those options, what kind of behavior would I engage in? What if I wasn’t raised in an environment where I learned that violence is wrong? Many of the people who were protesting were raised that violence solves problems, and when they are angry or sad or feeling any other type of emotion that is not positive, they allow their anger to get the best of them and behave in a way that my family can’t understand. They can’t understand because they have never been in a position where their loved ones were being killed in senseless acts of violence, whether it was by others in the neighborhood or police officers. Police officers in my neighborhood are friends. Police officers in their neighborhoods are not.

    Even things we take for granted, like calling the police if we fear we are in danger, are not realistic options to others because it may be the police they are in danger of. Or they will be called a snitch and put themselves, their families and children, in even more danger by “just calling the police.”

    We don’t expect someone raised in another country to arrive here and know how to speak English– they weren’t raised around that language so how could they know it? In the same sense, we can’t expect people raised in different cultures to tackle all obstacles the same way. Just as we can’t teach others to learn English without first being able to speak their language, we can’t help others who are not as fortunate* without attempting to understand their lives and then dealing with the problems they face in that context.

    *I’m using fortunate to mean related to poverty and socioeconomic status, not race or any other marker.

  2. Heather Nichole Rogers

    Wow! This is a well written and well thought out post. I was interested in Strain theory after reading your post and I did a little research. I found that strain theory is not just applied to the criminal justice system, it can be applied to many other aspects of our daily lives. A 2015 study of Korean adolescents found that academic stress was positively associated with internet addiction and negative emotions. They found that higher stress levels led to more intense negative emotions which correlated with higher rates of internet addiction. This follows the model of strain theory where stress causes negative emotions which causes problem behaviors. It is interesting to see that this does not just apply to deviant or criminal behavior, it can apply to something as mundane as academics and school work. This can help us understand the emotions felt by those who commit crime as a result of stress like those mentioned in your post.

    A 2017 study of Korean adolescents found that regardless of whether the strain is being measured as subjective or objective, teacher’s punishment, gender discrimination and victimization have a positive effect on delinquent behavior. Interestingly, the study found no effect of situational anger or depression on delinquency. This finding is in direct opposition to Agnew’s findings as stated in your post. Researchers noted that this potentially means that the three measured variables (teacher punishment, gender discrimination and victimization) do have their own independent effects on delinquency separate from negative emotion. The findings did however support Agnew’s finding that the number of overall risk factors do have a significant effect on delinquency. This study can also help us understand delinquent behavior in places like Chicago especially under situations of low social control.

    I would also like to draw a parallel between the points you made in your post and my previous blog post on Hurricane Katrina. I spoke about social mobility. In the case of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, before Katrina, there were extremely low levels of social mobility. This meant that people who were born in that neighborhood were extremely likely to live in that neighborhood once they became independent of their parents. There were very few residents who became upwardly mobile. These circumstances can increase the feeling of injustice among the community and the magnitude of the strain. As you pointed out, low social control increases motivation for deviant behavior.

    I agree that incarceration is not the solution, rehabilitation should be the goal. The high recidivism rate alone shows that incarceration does not work. Unfortunately the concept of rehabilitating criminals is so broad that it is hard to tell where to start. Should we find them jobs? Educate them? Something else? Unfortunately the rise of the prison-industrial complex and lack of funding for social programs makes any sort of change difficult of not impossible. I do like your suggestions about diversity training and building rapport with residents. Those seem like reasonable and easy to implement interventions. It seems like such a small step but every small step counts towards a bigger goal.

    Jun, S., & Choi, E. (2015). Academic stress and Internet addiction from general strain theory framework. Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 282-287. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.03.001

    Byongook, M., Morash, M., (2017). A Test of General Strain Theory in South Korea. Crime & Delinquency, doi: 10.1177/0011128716686486

  3. As a resident in downtown Chicago, I very much appreciate your post. I live on the north side of Chicago, which has lower rates of crime, particularly violent crime than in other more marginalized areas of the city, but it is still prevalent. In the last week, there has been three instances of sexual assault and robbery with a weapon within a mile radius of where I live. It is something that has made the women in my area fearful, as one of the attacks happened at 8:30 PM on a Thursday evening. Aside from the very real racial injustice, as shown by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, I have even seen peers experience racial injustice. One of my old high school classmates is a minority, but he is also an upstanding citizen and fairly successful in business. Regardless of the fact that he has nothing on his record, he has been pulled over twice in the suburbs of Chicago for seemingly ridiculous reasons. The first time, he was pulled over because the police suspected him of stealing a car. It was his own car. The second time he had picked up some money that his nephew owed him for red light camera fines that were issued to my friend’s car. The policeman originally explained that he was pulling him over for turning off his turning signal too early during a lane change, but then shifted into explaining that he witnessed him exchanging something for money. My guess is the policeman had fallen victim to confirmation bias in that he had seen some evidence of “exchanging something for money,” except for the fact that there was never an exchange. The policeman never noticed that my friend never gave anything to his nephew. That would disconfirm his hunch. The police officer then proceeded to search my friend’s car, only to turn up with nothing, and then dismiss my friend by telling him to be more careful when changing lanes because he did not give other motorists enough of an indication that he was changing lanes. I wish this was embellished, but it isn’t. My friend had the entire interaction on camera. Just from these instances, I can fully understand how the strain theory you present does a good job of explaining how people could rationalize criminal actions.

    Along with your intervention suggestions aimed at increasing the perceived equality between police and Chicago residents, I believe it would also be beneficial to incorporate intervention and prevention efforts focusing on youth who live in at-risk areas for crime in Chicago. One such intervention is BAM. BAM, or Becoming a Man, is a cognitive behavioral therapy program that has been carried out in Chicago (Heller, Shah, Guryan, Ludwig, Mullainathan, & Pollack, 2015). The intervention uses activities which focus on increasing the ability to “slow down and reflect” on “automatic thoughts” (Heller et al., 2016). The program has reduced total arrests, violent-crime related arrests, readmission rates to juvenile detention facilities, and increased graduation rates. I believe part of the reason these interventions have shown promise is by breaking down associative pathways in the brain (Schneider et al., 2012). Since injustice, low social control, and coping with criminal activity are all linked to mental strain which increases criminal activity, those factors can serve as priming agents to criminal behavioral outcomes. For example, we can say a memory of injustice is a node that is related to criminal behavior. If that node is activated beyond its threshold, which is likely to be intense in Chicago based on the frequency and prevalence of injustice, then the node will fire and increase the likelihood of criminal behavior to occur. By using cognitive behavioral therapy to consider “whether a situation could be construed differently,” the person is disrupting the associative pathways in the brain (Heller et al., 2015).


    Heller, S. B., Shah, A. K., Guryan, J., Ludwig, J., Mullainathan, S., & Pollack, H. A. (2015). Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago. The National Bureau of Economic Resources. Retrieved from

    Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Applying Social Psychology to the Media (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1412976381

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