Strain theories of criminal behavior focus on the ultimate goal of financial success, and the role that strains and stressors may play in generating criminal behavior while in pursuit of that goal. Early European strain theorists such as Guerry and Quetelet noticed higher crime rates in wealthier areas with more opportunity for a high-value theft, as well as in areas with greater economic inequality between the rich and the poor. Quetelet theorized that the young, poor, undereducated and underemployed members of society would be more susceptible to criminal behavior due to their inability to achieve legitimate financial success. Emile Durkheim also pointed to the social ostracization that comes from the inability to fulfill societal demands as a strain that leads to criminal behavior. These early theorists noticed similar patterns as more recent strain theorists, namely that economic inequality and focus on financial status are underlying factors in criminality.
Robert Merton’s ideas of anomie and strain took the form of two separate theories – a cultural standpoint explaining the high rate of crime in American society as a whole, and a structural view accounting for the pervasive amount of crime in lower-class America. In Merton’s viewpoint, America’s extreme focus on the goal of financial success, combined with less concern with utilizing legitimate means to achieve that goal, creates an anomic society with higher levels of criminal behavior. Messner and Rosenfeld built upon Merton’s theory, positing that our society’s focus on the American Dream, coupled with an unbalanced institutional structure in which the economy dominates, explains our high rates of crime.