The theory of Relative deprivation

All three are similar in terms of the fact that they all illustrate a discrepancy between value expectations and value capabilities. According to Gurr and Robert, decrimental deprivation occurs when value expectations remain constant whilst the institutional capacity to meet the values declines (Gurr and Robert, 1971:47). On the other hand, aspirational deprivation is the opposite movement and involves an increase in value expectations at the expense of institutional capabilities, which remain constant (Gurr and Robert 1971:51).

This sort of deprivation is generally associated with societies that are undergoing rapid social and economic alterations.

Progressive deprivation is also known as the J-curve model and is used to describe a situation in which rising expectations are matched by rising capabilities for a short period of time. However, over time a gap starts to develop between the value expectations and capabilities (Gurr and Robert, 1971:53).

Relative deprivation intensity varies depending on a variety of factors including the perceived scale of the discrepancy between expectations and capabilities and according to Michael Kimmel ‘the number of alternative outlets for aggressive behaviour besides political violence’ and even ‘the number of satisfactions that might depress the level of frustration’ (Kimmel, 1990:78).

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The greater the gap between expectations and capabilities, the more relevant the views in question, the fewer the number of non violent outlets and the longer the time scale through which the deprivation occurs the more intense the deprivation (Kimmel, 1990:78).

Therefore it is easy to see how relative deprivation theory can initiate urban riots and establish who is motivated to participate in collective protest and rebellion, more commonly than not it is the more advantaged members of disadvantaged groups who engage in collective action rather than the most disadvantaged, this is due to the idea that more advantaged people are more likely to make ‘subjective social comparisons’ with members of more advantaged groups (Gilbert, 1998:596).

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The theory was deemed as the main reason for the widespread rioting in the USA during the 1960s as after the civil rights era many people felt more dissatisfied than in previous years and felt compelled to engage in acts of collective unrest, many African Americans at the time were conducting comparisons between their own lives and the lives on their white American counterparts which resulted in feelings of inequality and injustice as their relative outcomes were not being met in comparison with white American citizens (Sarat, 2004:437).

The link between relative deprivation and political marginality is essential in understanding collective violence and riots, political marginality is highly unlikely to result in a riot unless there is an added sense of frustration relating to relative deprivation (McLaughlin et al, 2003:146). Mclaughlin et al emphasize the notion that despite the fact that marginalisation may occur in a social group frustration will not occur if said social group has no desire to ‘participate in the structure of opportunities and social rights from which it is excluded’ (McLaughlin et al, 2003:146).

Relative deprivation can be applied to understand the reasoning behind many different social movements and conflicts ranging from analysing early European communities during the industrial revolution who were prone to rioting in response to the growing threat of urban and industrial expansion whilst modern day Britain has been plagued by rising street crime and collective violence which has primarily been attributed to increasing political marginality coupled with an accentuated sense of relative deprivation which in turn has been blamed on excessive mass media portrayal of popular culture that has only succeeded in lowering morale amongst many unemployed and disadvantaged people therefore heightening their feelings of relative deprivation (McLaughlin et al, 2003:148).

The theory of relative deprivation has been used to explain many of the violent conflicts that have erupted throughout the world in recent times. According to the theory riots and conflict generally arise as a response to the perception that people are being denied what they feel they deserve. According to Diana Kendall, people who are satisfied with their present conditions are less likely to seek social change (Kendall, 2008:555), this idea emphasizes the fact that social change is rooted in the idea that people’s reactions to objective circumstances depend on their subjective comparisons (Walker and Smith, 1:2002).


  1. Deutsche,M,. Coleman, P and Marcus, E. C. (2006). The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and Practice. John Wiley and Sons, 2006.
  2. Gilbert, D.(1998). The Handbook of Social Psychology. Oxford University Press US, 1998.
  3. Gurr, J and Robert,T. (1971). Why Men Rebel. Princeton University Press. Kendall, D. (2008).
  4. Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials. Cengage Learning, 2008.
  5. Kimmel, M. (1990). Revolution, a sociological interpretation. Temple University Press, 1990.
  6. McLaughin, E. , Muncie, J. and Hughes, G,. (2003). Criminological Perspectives. SAGE Publishers, 2003.
  7. Sarat, A. (2004). The Blackwell companion to law and society. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
  8. Walker, I and Smith, H. J. (2002). Relative Deprivation – Specification, Development and Integration. Cambridge University Press. 2002.

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The theory of Relative deprivation. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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