U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Strained Lives and Crime: Examining Intra-Individual Variation in Strain and Offending in a Sample of Incarcerated Women

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 43 Issue: 4 Dated: November 2005 Pages: 1067-1110
Date Published
November 2005
44 pages

This study examined the relationship between intra-individual changes in strain and changes in offending and drug use among incarcerated women and how different dimensions of strain contributed to the explanation of offending.


Most research on general strain theory (GST) has focused on differences in strain and offending between individuals, asking whether those who experience higher levels of strain engage in more deviant behavior. However, GST also makes a prediction about within-individual variation in strain and offending; individuals would be more likely to offend during periods of high strain. In an attempt to expand on past research using quantitative and qualitative data collected with the assistance of a life-events calendar, this study examined how fluctuations in an individual’s level of strain were associated with changes in offending over time using an understudied population of incarcerated women. The study also considered that offending and drug use might not be two unrelated outcomes of strain and that drug use itself is a source of strain or mediates the relationship between strain and crime. Data for the study were collected during an ongoing multisite study of incarcerated women. The study sample consisted of 271 incarcerated women with an overwhelming majority of the women being African-American. Results indicated that the women had very different lives than those typically lived by school youth, by experiencing not only high levels of strain, but types of strain that were hypothesized to be highly criminogenic, such as victimization. Results show that GST can account for changes in a person’s offending, even among a group of individuals who are generally high in strain. Indications were also found that GST could withstand a more rigorous test of causality. The results also show that duration and clustering of strain are central components in measuring strain. Overall, the results support the core assertions of GST, that increases in strain are associated with an increased probability of engaging in violent and nonviolent offending and drug use. Tables, references and appendix

Date Published: November 1, 2005