relative deprivation theory

What Is Relative Deprivation?

According to relative deprivation theory, people who are satisfied with their present condition are less likely to seek social change. Social movements arise as a response to people’s perception that they have been deprived of their “fair share” (Rose, 1982). As such, people who suffer relative deprivation are more likely to feel that change is necessary and to join a social movement in order to bring about that change.

By definition, relative deprivation is the psychological state that occurs when individuals feel that their personal attainments (egoistic deprivation) or their group’s attainments (fraternalistic deprivation) are below their expectations.

Relative deprivation is also defined as the discontent that people may feel when they compare their achievements with those of similarly situated persons and find that they have less than they think they deserve (Orum & Orum, 1968).

Collectives Opens in new window are often composed of those who are impoverished, persecuted, or endangered, but it is more the perceived unfairness of the deprivation that determines involvement in a collective rather than the deprivation itself. Relative deprivation is therefore more motivating than actual deprivation: those who join social movements tend to be people who have higher expectations but who have not succeeded in realizing these expectations.

Karl Marx captured the idea of relative deprivation in this description: “A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But let a palace arise beside the little house, and it shrinks from a little house to a hut” (qtd. in Ladd, 1966: 24).

Movements based on relative deprivation are most likely to occur when an upswing in the standard of living is followed by a period of decline, such that people have unfulfilled rising expectations—newly raised hopes of a better lifestyle that are not fulfilled as rapidly as the people expected or are not realized at all.

Although most of us can relate to relative deprivation theory, it does not fully account for why people experience social discontent but fail to join a social movement. Even though discontent and feelings of deprivation may be necessary to produce certain types of social movements, they are not sufficient to bring movements into existence. In fact, the social scientist Anthony Orum (1974) found the best predictor of participation in a social movement to be prior organizational membership and involvement in other political activities.