A theory of the causes of social and political discontent.
People are roused to political action as a result not of absolute changes in their material conditions but of changes relative to the circumstances of those with whom they compare themselves.
W G Runciman, Relative Deprivation and Social Justice (London, 1966)
In one of the first formal definitions of the relative deprivation, Walter Runciman noted that there are four preconditions of relative deprivation (of object X by person A):
- Person A does not have X
- Person A knows of other persons that have X
- Person A wants to have X
- Person A believes obtaining X is realistic
Runciman distinguished between egoistic and fraternalistic relative deprivation. The former is caused by unfavorable social position when compared to other, better off members of a specific group (of which A is the member) and the latter, 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 that person to take actions intended 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 that 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. Fraternalistic group deprivation has also been linked to voting behaviours, particularly in the case of voting for the far-right.
Deprivation Theory is that people who are deprived of things deemed valuable in society, money, justice, status or privilege, join social movements with the hope of redressing their grievances. That is a beginning point for looking at why people join social movements; however, it is even more important to look at relative deprivation theory, a belief that people join social movement based on their evaluations of what they think they should have, compared with what others have. On the contrary, absolute deprivation is people’s actual negative condition; relative deprivation is what people think they should have relative to what others have, or even compared with their own past or perceived future. Improved conditions fuel human desires for even better conditions and so can spark revolutions.
Feelings of deprivation are relative, as they come from a comparison to social norms that are not absolute and usually differ from time and place. This differentiates relative deprivation from objective deprivation (also known as absolute deprivation or absolute poverty) – a condition that applies to all underprivileged people. This leads to an important conclusion: while the objective deprivation (poverty) in the world may change over time, relative deprivation will not, as long as social inequality persists and some humans are better off than others.
Consider the following examples: in 1905 cars were a luxury, hence an individual unable to afford one would not feel or be viewed as deprived. In 2010, when cars are common in most societies, an individual unable to afford one is much more likely to feel deprived. In another example, mobile phones are common today, and many people may feel that they deserve to have one. Fifty years ago, when there were no mobile phones, such a sentiment would obviously not exist.
Relative deprivation may be temporal; that is, it can be experienced by people that experience expansion of rights or wealth, followed by stagnation or reversal of those gains. Such phenomena are also known as unfulfilled rising expectations.
In an example from the political realm, the lack of the right to vote is more likely to be felt as a deprivation by people who had it once than by the people who never had the opportunity to vote.
Relative and absolute deprivation
Some sociologists, for instance Karl Polanyi, have argued that relative differences in economic wealth are more important than absolute deprivation, and that it is more significant in determining human quality of life. 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.
A specific form of relative deprivation is relative poverty. A measure of relative poverty defines poverty as being below some relative poverty line, such as households who earn less than 20% of the median income.
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. Counter-arguments include that some people are prone to conflict-avoidance, are short-term-oriented, and that imminent life difficulties may arise since there is no guarantee that life-improvement will result from social action