Modern Tension Theory and Social Structure Inequality of Opportunity

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It was Robert Merton who first looked at modern tension theory and ambitiously notes that widespread inequalities in the USA create serious barriers to success for many lower-class individuals. This configuration of culture (the culturally prescribed goal of social wealth) and social structure (inequality of opportunity) creates tension. In short, a large part of the population internalizes the ambitions of the 'American Dream’ but lacks legal or legitimate means to achieve monetary wealth, which contributes to the blocking of objectives and frustration. As a result, they may lose faith in the value of 'hard work' or 'playing by the rules', often ending up in illegal or illegitimate means.

Cohen later puts less emphasis on monetary success and is more concerned with the search for status and respect . While Cloward and Ohlin (1960) highlighted the variety of adaptations that can be observed in neighborhoods where different divergent opportunities offer different forms of criminal 'models' in different geographical locations.

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These classic theories of tension were influential for much of the twentieth century, but criticism began to emerge in the 1970s. The first criticism was the inability or inadequacy to explain why only some people who suffer tension resort to crime; second, for not explaining the offences of the middle class, third for the neglect of objectives other than the pursuit of material success or middle class status, and fourth, the ignoring of barriers to other achievements besides social stratification.

The first involves the inability of individuals to achieve their 'goal blocking' goals. The second main type of strain involves the presentation of harmful stimuli or negative value in people who are exposed to undesirable effects or are the object of negative treatment by others, such as harassment and intimidation of colleagues, negative relationships with parents and teachers, or criminal victimization. The third type involves removal (loss) of positive or valuable stimuli from an individual. It can cover a wide range of events or undesirable experiences, such as the theft of valued property, the loss of a romantic relationship or the withdrawal of parental love.

These three types of tension cover a considerable number of possible tensions and are not of equal status: some may have a relatively strong relationship with crime, while others have a relatively weak correlation. For example, being bullied by colleagues can often have a relatively strong relationship with crime because it generates anger and a desire for revenge. While strains that involve accidents, diseases or natural causes have a weak relationship.

Agnew later identifies several factors that increase the likelihood that tension will lead to crime and delinquency. Those with high significance (severe, frequent, long-lasting or involving subjects of high importance to the individual) are unfair, associated with low social control and readily resolvable through crime. Strains of this type include parental rejection and abuse, severe or excessive parental discipline, negative experiences at school (for example, academic achievement or negative relationships with teachers), being the victim of bullying or other abuse by peers, criminal victimization, marital problems (eg verbal or physical abuse), persistent unemployment or underemployment, racial discrimination, homelessness, living in economically deprived neighbourhoods and the inability to satisfy strong desires for money, excitement and male status. Most of these strains are related to crime.

The general theory of strains recognizes that strains do not automatically lead to criminal behaviour, which may be one of the possible responses to tension. Tense individuals seek legal problem-solving strategies, such as filing a complaint, seeking a friend for emotional support, or hoping for a better future. But in some circumstances, criminal responses are more likely to occur. The general theory of tension specifies the conditions proposed to increase the likelihood of divergent adaptation and includes lack of resources to solve the problem, lack of conventional social support, few opportunities for conventional coping, existence of low social control and a strong predisposition to crime.

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