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The current research paper provides a general description of classical and genera strain theories. According to these theories, the major roots of crime lay in the personal desire to obtain monetary success, a discrepancy between abilities and wants. This gap causes several types of strain: anticipated or actual failure to reach positively valued goals; anticipated or actual removal of stimuli that is valued; anticipated or actual presentation of negative stimuli. They can be addressed by innovation (or crime commitment), retreatism, rebellion, ritualism, and rejection of the desire for monetary success. The additional attention is made on the opportunities to commit cries and interactions with individuals who already committed crimes or have appropriate knowledge and skills for this enactment. The strain theory of crime is applied to the consideration of establishment and flourishing of deviant behavior in the film Catch me if you can (2002). The major hero Frank Abagnale Jr. make false credit cheque and presented himself as the pilot, doctor, and lawyer with the aim to obtain financial benefit and respect for others. This behavior was caused by a dramatic worsening of the economic condition of his family, the divorce of relatives, and misunderstanding in school. These factors gave rise to aggression and frustration which stimulated the commitment of frauds. This film serves as a clear example of the application of strain theory for understanding monetary crimes.

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Strain Theory


Nowadays much attention is paid to the definition and analysis of various crime theories. The current work will focus on the strain theory of crime and its major characteristics. We will introduce and assessed the viewpoints of various researchers. Both classical and general approaches will be analyzed. The significant emphasis will be made on the factors, which cause deviant behavior. The major part of the paper will discuss how film Catch me if you can (2002) reflects this theory. This film depicts the story of a young criminal who performed fraud by falsifying a bank cheque and impersonation as the airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer. The scenes from the film will be introduced to show the logical flow of the formation of criminal intents and actions and their mastering in course of time. The precise analysis of the strain theory and relating its major concepts to the chosen film provides a better understanding of the theory.

Outline of the Criminology Theory

Classical Strain Theory

The first major strain theory in criminology was developed by Robert K. Merton in 1938 (Jang, 2015). The researcher introduced the idea that all citizens of the USA strive for monetary success. If expectations exceed one’s achievements, it may give rise to deviant behavior (Andrews & Bonta, 2015). The scientist made the emphasis that legitimate achievement of this goal is less common for the representatives of the lower class. These people have more complicated living conditions reflected in the lack of money for proper education and health care. Consequently, they experience strain rather frequently and “this strain being a function of the disjunction between their goals and the legitimate means for achieving them” (Jang, 2015, p. 495). As per Merton’s theory, the commitment of crime “reflects too much attachment to the goals and too little attention to the means” (Indermaur, 1995, p. 192).

Merton noted that the ways (or modes) to cope with strain are innovation, retreatism, rebellion, ritualism, and rejection of the desire for monetary success. Innovation can be attributed to those criminals “who accept traditional definitions of success but finding themselves strained by the inability to achieve success legitimately, turn instead to illegitimate means (Rafter & Brown, 2011, p. 89). Innovation reflects the cultural modes of adaptation (Rafter & Brown, 2011). Innovation can be seen in various movies, like Traffic and Catch me if you can (Rafter & Brown, 2011). Retreatism is a “mental disorder and substance abuse” (Andrews & Bonta, 2015, p. 115). Rebellion is represented by the desire to create a new social order (Andrews & Bonta, 2015). Ritualism is “the mindless grinding away of the working poor who have transferred the dream of their children making it” (Andrews & Bonta, 2015).

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Albert Cohen (1995) explained the criminalization of low-class individuals by their desire to obtain higher status in the society that is associated with monetary success and respect (Jang, 2015). Due to the inability to embody their desires in a legitimate way, low-class individuals commit crimes. The hostility of these individuals attributes to the difference in values: while the middle class respects the right to private property, the lower class values theft (Jang, 2015).

Crows and Ohlin (1960) in their version of strain theory made an additional emphasis on personal illegitimate opportunities to commit a crime (Jang, 2015). They are represented by the ability to take part in crime with other criminals or by people who have the ability to perform a crime.

General Strain Theory

Robert Agnew introduced the general strain theory (GST) on the background of strain theory (Andrews & Bonta, 2015). Like previous researches, he emphasized that individuals commit crimes because of negative emotions towards others generated on the background of strains (Jang, 2015). The strain is represented by interpersonal relationships, conditions, events that are objectively or subjectively considered to be negative. It can be divided into the following types: anticipated or actual failure to reach positively valued goals; anticipated or actual removal of stimuli that is valued; anticipated or actual presentation of negative stimuli (Jang, 2015). The first type of strain can be represented by a personal inability to reach monetary success. According to this type of strain, the representatives of the lower class are blocked from the achievement of monetary success by existing social institutions (Yilmaz & Koca, 2015). The researchers emphasized that this success can have long-term and immediate character. Failure to achieve expectations may cause such negative emotions as “anger, resentment, disappointment, and unhappiness” (Yilmaz & Koca, 2015, p. 172). Desires to reduce the extent of these emotions and the gap between expectations and abilities cause the formation of deviant behavior. Strain associated with the removal of positive stimuli or presentation of negative stimuli may include such factors as loss of the nearest person, movement from the bellowed location, and suspicion from the school (Yilmaz & Koca, 2015). Personal desire to prevent the removal of positive stimuli causes crime commitment. Strain at the presentation of negative experiences, like bad relationships with peers and the outer environment can give rise to the following behaviors: escaping from negative stimuli, removal of the source of negative stimuli, and seek for revenge (Yilmaz & Koca, 2015). The examples of this type of strain are child abuse and negligence.

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Strain gives rise to deviant behavior by generating negative states, like frustration and anger (Jang, 2015). Anger and related negative emotions are strong sources of energy for negative actions, reduction of concern over the damaging consequences of crime, and cause a desire for revenge (Jang, 2015). There are two kinds of anger: state and trait (Jang, 2015). The first one represents the transitional emotional state of an individual caused by frustration and tamper. The second kind represents a personal attitude, self-positioning, and response to situations that are perceived as frustrating and tampering (Jang, 2015). People with a high level of state anger are less likely to feel elevation of anger unlike those who have a high level of strain anger. In addition to anger, other negative emotions can facilitate crime commitment. According to Agnew’s theory, inner-directional emotions can cause internalized crimes (for example, use of drugs because of depression), while outer-directed emotions give rise to externalized crimes (for example, anger can cause aggression) (Jang, 2015).

The stability of crime commitment, the extent of negative reaction, and criminal coping are associated with personal traits of negative emotionality. For instance, individuals characterized by high negative emotionality are more likely to express the unfavorable emotions, which cause the sharpening of their negative state by increasing the extent of subjective strain and anger (Jang, 2015). For example, anger can appear by blaming others for misfortune.

Among the major sources of frustration, Robert Agnew (1985) also noted blocking pain-avoidance behavior. This behavior is reflected in situations when individuals live and work in painful or adverse environments and cannot avoid them. This can cause frustration, “illegal escape attempts or anger-based delinquency” (Agnew, 1985, p. 151). Consequently, the commitment of crime is formed by the combination of unfavorable environments, which an individual cannot avoid and blockage of pain-avoidance functions.

Further studies of more severe forms of as-sociality enable us to determine other factors that facilitate crime committing. These factors are insufficient self-control and self-esteem, social bonding, use of drugs and alcohol (Agnew & Delisi, 2012). Researchers also paid attention to intelligence and criminals’ state of mind, Low general intelligence is widely recognized as a robust correlate of crime (Oleson, 2016, p. 229). Thus, more genius offenders obtain less attention. At the same time, researchers recognize the existence of criminals who have a high IQ. Other factors include the speed of the decision-making process, internal control, and memory.

Reflection of the Chosen Theory in the Film

The current section represents the description and analysis of the major hero of the film Catch me if you can (2002) from the standpoint of strain theory of criminology. It will be introduced in a logical manner, i.e. in the sequence of events in the film. This will assure coherent transition and enable tracking sharpening of the behavior of the main hero who committed fraud. The reason why Frank Abagnale Jr. chose particular positions in the society will be disclosed further during the analysis of the pre-story and factors that caused his deviant behavior.

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Path to Criminal Behavior and its Examination

The very beginning of the film provides the introduction of the major crimes of Frank Abagnale Jr. They comprise “impersonation an airline pilot for Pan Am Airways and flew over two million miles for free…the Chief Resident Pediatrician and a Georgia hospital, and an Assistant of Attorney General for the State of Louisiana” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). From the very beginning, the viewers recognize that the young criminal took the middle and upper-class positions in society. Frank Abagnale Jr. provides his own reasoning why he did not choose a legitimate profession and committed crimes by saying “when I was young, I need the money and I thought this list of careers was the easiest way to get it” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). This reasoning fully aligns with the explanation of deviant behavior of strain theory: the desire for monetary success.

This desire has its roots in the young years of Frank Abagnale Jr., his family traditions, story and position, and behavior of his father that served as an example for Frank. The next scene of the film depicts the position of Frank’s family in the society to which he got accustomed from his youth. His father was the honorary member of the New Rochelle Rotary Club that has a long-lasting history (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). This person was highly respected by the members who were “a handful of deserving gentlemen” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). Frank’s family was sitting in the front raw. This scene depicts the fact that these people were highly respected. They were an integral part of the limited group and took one of the leading positions in this group. Additional attention should be paid to the fact that the New Rochelle Rotary Club represents businessmen and professionals (Rotary Club of New Rochelle, 2013). Thus, the belonging of Frank’s family to this group and other benefits shown in the film (like a good house for a living) create an understanding that these people represent the middle class. This characteristic of the further criminal can be seen as uncommon to classical strain theory, as the researchers made an emphasis on the fact that observed criminals belong to the lower class. However, the further course of events explains the existing discrepancy.

Frank’s father played an enormous role in the life, viewpoints, and behavior of the young criminal. During the speech at the New Rochelle Rotary Club, this person introduced the idea that he will never give up telling the story of two frogs, one of which died and the other survived because it fought against the external circumstances. Frank was highly influenced by this idea. Later in the film on his 16th birthday, Frank obtained father’s instructions “to the moon” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). Frank’s father also repeated the phrase: “where you’re going tonight” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). They served as the strong stimuli for actions and constant movement and change of roles, both legal and illegal.

The following scenes show how Frank’s father gave his son the example of successful deceit. They went to the store where they intended to lease a costume for Frank. The salesgirl did not want to open the store for half an hour and give the suit for lease. However, Frank’s father lied about the death of Frank’s grandfather and the extreme necessity to obtain the suit as soon as possible. The additional attention should be paid to the fact that the liar was rather precise in detail. He noted the age of unreal corpse, his heroism, time of funeral and 21-gun salute. Moreover, Frank’s father bribed the seller by proposing her jewelry.

Then Frank’s father provided an example of how to create an impression of a rich person. Frank was dressed in the suit of a driver and was asked to behave like his father’s driver. The other example of a lie was introduced in the bank, where Frank’s father asked for a loan. He lied, prevaricated, and appealed to his status of the honorary member of the New Rochelle Rotary Club, and even asked for help. All these actions were directed at not only forcing the bank representative to give a loan but also at pressuring this person to break the law, because financial institutions did not give money for people “who have unresolved business with the IRS” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). This cheating served as the example of deviant behavior and the ability to obtain (or strive to obtain) the desired in an illegal way.

Frank’s father’s efforts were unsuccessful and caused enormous financial and psychological pressure on Frank’s family. They lost the house and money for living. Frank’s mother was obliged to search for work. She also cuckolds with the President of the New Rochelle Rotary Club in exchange for his efforts (including illegal). All these awful events were closely associated with the loss of social status and money. They created enormous pressure on Frank and gave rise to his anger. This anger even became sharper and was supplemented by the frustration when his parents filed for divorce and Frank was obliged to choose with whom he wanted to live. Frank ran away from his home and started his path as a criminal. In the context of the current work, additional attention should be paid to the fact that in strain theory of crime anger and frustration are considered the major causes of deviant behavior. Moreover, outer-directed emotions, like the ones experienced by Frank, cause external crimes, such as aggression and fraud. Thus, factors that lead to further offense align with the discussed theory.

Extra attention should be paid to the scene where Frank’s father presented his son a checkbook. This book served the symbol that Frank belonged to the group of people who had money: “they have all the money…from this day on, you’re in their little club” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). In such a manner, people who had money could visit the club with limited attendance and take a higher position in society. At the same time, Frank could not actually be a member of this society as he had only 25 dollars which his father gifted him on his 16th birthday (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). This creates the discrepancy between the current position of Frank in the society (i.e. the representative of the lower class) and desires to wealth incepted by his father whom he respected very much.

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In the context of the current work, the emphasis should be also made on the first experience of cheating. After the financial status of the family downgraded, Frank was sent to the school for the lower class. He did not want to remove his uniform that was associated with education in the school for the higher class. In the new educational institution, peers pressed Frank for his uncommon look: “You selling encyclopedias? He looks like a substitute teacher” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). So, Frank decided to connect this perception with his position in this small group of learners and introduced himself as the teacher of French. This lie provided him power among other children and their respect. At the same time, these actions created inconveniences for the real teacher. This situation can be explained by strain theory. A criminal who desires to reach his personal goals does not pay much attention to consequences that may harm other members of society.

The further crimes shown in the film were sharper. Frank’s decision to become the pilot was formed on the observation of how society treats the representatives of this profession. Pilots were rich, respected and surrounded by beautiful women. Catch me if you can (2002) pilots served as role models of people who have monetary success desired by Frank. This desire also aligns with the strain theory of crime which states that the strive for monetary success and associated benefits are the major roots of crime. In several scenes, Frank proposed financial support to his father and made efforts to regain the family. One of the purposes of crime commitment was obtaining enough money for holding his family. It can be explained by the strain theory as the desire to prevent the removal of positive stimuli. However, the majority of Frank’s crimes were associated with such type of stimuli as failure to achieve positively valued goals, i.e. to obtain monetary success and respect within a short period because of his family’s financial problems. The third type of strain associated with the presence of negative stimuli (poor relationships with peers in a new school) give rise to the desire to revenge against them that was reflected by presenting himself as a French teacher. In such a manner, the discussed film introduced all types of strain that cause deviant behavior.

Distinct Characteristics of Frank as a person and as a Criminal

In addition to the general introduction of crimes, the film provides a general understanding of how the criminal justice system considered Frank’s actions: “I was considered the youngest and the most daring con in U.S. history” (Spielberg & Parkes, 2002). This supports the idea that Frank has high self-esteem that is considered to be one of the facilitators of deviant behavior in the strain theory of crime. Frank became very successful in his crimes at a rather young age (before his 19th birthday) because of such characteristics as high IQ (as he passed tests for becoming a lawyer after two-week preparations), constant mastering of his skills and knowledge in fraudulent alteration (for example, purchasing MICR encoder for encoding false bank cheque and make them more alike to real cheque), and preciseness to details of crime. Notably, he recognizes not only his own faults but the failures of other people to lie and cheat. One more distinct characteristic is that Frank could keep his similitude for a long period of time and act as the situation dictated. This was reflected in playing the teacher’s role during a week, staying in the image of the pilot for years, and changing imaged professions.

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To summarize, the current work provides a description and analysis of the strain theory of crime by discussing its classical and general approaches. In classical strain theory, the desire of monetary success represents the major root of crime. The deviant behavior is caused by the personal expectations exceeding over personal desires. This causes strain that can be coped with the following means: innovation (or crime commitment), retreatism, rebellion, ritualism, and rejection of the desire of monetary success The criminals pay excessive attention to their monetary goals and insufficient attention to consequences of crime. Thus, they can easily harm other members of society. The situation becomes more fragile due to the existing discrepancy between the values of the middle and upper class and the values of criminals who intend to obtain monetary success. The latter have low respect for property rights. Consequently, they can easily commit crimes. Additional emphasis should be made on the opportunities to commit crimes (facilities, knowledge, abilities) and communication with people who also have these opportunities, abilities and appropriate experience. Robert Agner in his general strain theory emphasized the fact that crimes are committed because of emotions that objectively or subjectively are considered as negative. These emotions cause strain that is associated with interaction with others and poor living conditions. In turn, strain generates aggression and frustration that lead to crimes. Among other facilitators of deviant behavior are blockage of pain-avoided functions, insufficient self-esteem and self-control, social bonding, and using drugs and alcohol. The major part of the current work is devoted to the discussion of the interconnection between strain theory of crime and plot of the film Catch Me If You Can (2002). This film depicts the life story of a young criminal named Frank Abagnale Jr. He came from the family which represented the upper middle class and who was highly respected in society. However, due to financial issues, the family lost its status. This caused a worsening of the living conditions and interrelationships between Frank’s parents, misunderstandings with peers, and lack of money. All these factors gave rise to frustration and anger, which are considered string facilitators of deviant behavior. In addition, Frank’s father gave his son rather good lessons of lying and creating fake images that were applied in Frank’s further criminal activities. Moreover, this young man was rather smart, precise and logical. Thus, his striving for monetary success, which represents the major causation of crime in strain theory, was rather successful for a long period of time.

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