Strain Theory and Cheating

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Social structure theories are a variety of posited explanations about criminal behavior as it relates to an individual’s status in society or the smaller social groups within. In particular, strain theory is a trait theory in which an investigative approach is focused on the reasoning that is utilized in solving problems that stem from undesirable societal conditions. If individuals foster a desire for changes in their position in their social group or their society at large, it is possible that this desire becomes overwhelmingly frustrating, so it manifests into criminal behavior. When confronted with the obstacle of a certain social goal and the lack of means to achieve it, certain individuals respond in an array of ways that range from conforming with certain standards to rebelling against given societal rules (Siegel 2010). Given the emphasis placed on economic and social success, coupled with the inherent relationship that these successes share with the socially accepted importance of good grades, plagiarism, and other student misconduct could certainly be rationalized under the lens of strain theory.

The accomplishments of students, by and large, are measured directly by the grade they receive. Specifically, students often place too much credence into the grades themselves. In spite of what they learned or struggled with, some students do not consider knowledge a reward. Instead, they view the knowledge as irrelevant because, ultimately, it is the letter grade that determines their intellectual value. With the weight of future success hinging on the letter grade alone and not an individual’s actual work as a whole, cheating almost seems like a natural response. Thus, it adds to the strain and the stressfulness that eventually leads to criminal behavior (Mutchnick 2010) because the general strain theory incorporates the sources of strain that intermingle with an individual’s emotional state that results in criminal behavior or, in this case, academically dishonest behavior. 

If students place the high significance of letter grades as the harbinger of future success, their understanding propagates and almost encourages cheating. While it does not speak to an individual’s preparedness and reasoning for academic dishonesty, Robert K. Merton’s strain theory ultimately claims that there is a conflict of interest between the individual’s goals and his or her means with which he or she can achieve them (Mutchnick 2010).  For example, if students have a less than satisfactory education in high school, but they have been accepted to an institution of higher learning, they are ill-equipped to handle the demands of a university setting. Despite their best efforts, they still struggle with certain coursework even after seeking the help of their instructor or perhaps even a tutor. However, they are consumed with the importance of the grade because they have determined it reflects their overall performance of the class, so, in turn, their frustration may result in the decision to cheat so that they might produce a better grade on an important assignment. 

In sum, when a social goal is academic or economic success, the pressure can be a major component in an individual’s choice to cheat. The decision to cheat, or commit another form of academic dishonesty, is the adaptability of strain theory in action. As an undeniably socially deviant act, this is the method that the individual has created in order to improve their social standing. Some students make the choice to ignore the established social norm in order to alleviate the frustrations with social stagnation or fear of future obstacles, so they are able to rise to a respectable status in society. Nevertheless, like our judicial system punishes criminal acts, the school administration may eventually find out and suspend or expel the student, and he or she will ultimately lose his or her academic reputation. For the most part, while students’ negative actions during school do not predict they will engage in future criminal behavior, their desire for social status, or the American dream, may negatively affect their perceptions of the world.  


Mutchnick, R. (2010). Criminology interactive.  Boston: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Siegel, L.J. (2010). Criminology: The core (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.