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Relative deprivation

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Relative deprivation is the experience of being deprived of something to which one thinks he is entitled to [Walker & Smith 2001]. It is a term used in social sciences to describe feelings or measures of economic, political, or social deprivation that are relative rather than absolute.[Bayertz 1999]

It has important consequences for both behavior and attitudes, including feelings of stress, political attitudes, and participation in collective action. It is relevant to researchers and students in social psychology, sociology, economics, politics, and other social sciences, especially those interested in intergroup relations, prejudice, social identity, group processes, social comparison, social justice, and social movements.[Walker & Smith 2001]. Its origins are from the biological concept of relative fitness, where an organism that successfully outproduces its competitors leaves more copies in the gene pool.


Relative deprivation refers to the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to those of other similarly situated and find out that they have less than their peers. It is a condition that is measured by comparing one group’s situation to the situations of those who are more advantaged. [Bayertz 1999] Relative deprivation may also be temporal; that is, a group that experience economic growth or an expansion of rights, followed by stagnation or recession of those processes may experience 'relative deprivation.' Such phenomena is also known as unfulfilled rising expectations.[Kendall 2005]

Social scientists, particularly political scientists and sociologists, have cited 'relative deprivation' (especially temporal relative deprivation) as a potential cause of social movements and deviance, leading in extreme situations to political violence such as rioting, terrorism and civil wars or social deviance such as crime [Merton, 1938; Gurr, 1970]. According to this theory, social movements arise when people feel deprived of what they perceive as their 'fair share' [Rose, 1982] and similarly, individuals engage in deviant behaviors when their institutional means do not match cultural goals [Merton, 1938].

In one of the first formal definitions of the relative deprivation, Walter Runciman noted that there are four preconditions of relative deprivation [Runciman 1966] (of object X by person A):

  • A does not have X
  • A knows of other persons that have X
  • A wants to have X
  • A believes obtaining X is realistic

Runciman distinguishes between egoistic relative deprivation (caused by unfavorable social position when compared to other, better off members of a specific group A is the member of) and fraternalistic relative deprivation (caused by unfavorable comparison to other, better off groups). Egoistic relative deprivation can be seen in the example of a worker who believes he should have been promoted faster and may lead to that person taking actions designed to improve his position within the group; those actions are however unlikely to affect many people. Fraternalistic can be seen in the example of racial discrimination, and are much more likely to result in the creation and growth of large social movement, like the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Another example of fraternalistic relative deprivation is the envy teenagers feel towards the wealthy characters who are portrayed in movies and on television as being "middle class" or "normal" despite wearing expensive clothes, driving expensive cars, and living in mansions.

American sociologist Robert K. Merton was among the first (if not the first) to use the concept of relative deprivation in order to understand social deviance, using French sociologist Emile Durkheim's concept of anomie as a starting point.

Some sociologists, for instance Karl Polanyi, have argued that relative differences in economic wealth are more important than absolute levels, or that relative deprivation is more significant in determining human quality of life than absolute deprivation [Griffin, 1988]. This debate has important consequences for social policy, particularly on whether poverty can be eliminated simply by raising total wealth or whether egalitarian measures are also needed.

Feelings of deprivation come from a comparison to perceived social norms that may change over time and place, not to absolute standards. This differentiates relative deprivation from objective deprivation (also known as absolute deprivation) - a condition that applies to all people with fewest opportunities (the lowest incomes, the least education, the lowest social status, etc.). Therefore while the absolute deprivation in the world may decrease over time, relative deprivation is unlikely to change as long as some humans are better off then others.

A specific form of relative deprivation is relative poverty. A measure of relative poverty defines poverty as being below some relative poverty line. An example is when poverty is defined as households who earn less than 25% of the median income is a measure of relative poverty. Notice that if everyone's real income in an economy increases, but the income distribution stays the same, the number of people living in relative poverty will also stay the same. Relative poverty is contrasted to the measure of absolute poverty - one that quantifies the number of people below a poverty line, and is independent of time and place.

Consider the following examples: in 1905 an individual in the United States unable to afford a car would probably not feel or be viewed as deprived since cars were a luxury. In 2005, when cars are common, an individual unable to afford a car is likely to be seen as deprived or poor. In an example from the political realm, the lack of basic political rights may be more of an affront to someone in a world where such rights are widespread than to someone in a world where such rights are unheard of.

Political scientists and economists note that relative deprivation is a form of inequality which distorts all policies, since participants need the means to engage in the discourse.

Critique of this theory has pointed out that this theory fails to explain why some people who feel discontent fail to take action and join social movements.[Kendall, 2006]


Consider also this quote from Karl Marx: "A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain, or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighboring palace rises in equal of even in greater measure, the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls."[1]

See also


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