Relative Deprivation Theory (RDT)

Relative Deprivation Theory - toolshero

This article explains Relative Deprivation Theory in a practical way. After reading, you will understand the basics of this powerful sociological theory.

What is Relative Deprivation Theory (RDT)?

Relative Deprivation Theory is a theory that explains the subjective dissatisfaction caused by one person’s relative position to the situation or position of another. For many people, relative deprivation means the lack of resources or time to support certain lifestyles, activities, and amenities that an individual or group has become accustomed to.

The pressure of the society to which people belong encourages them to participate. When this is not possible, a person begins to constantly compare his or her own position with the situation or position of another.

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From above definition of relative deprivation, two similar terms follow: poverty and social exclusion. The term is used in social sciences to express feelings or forms of economic, social or political deprivation. Relative deprivation strongly influences both behavior and attitudes. This also includes experienced levels of stress and political views. The phenomenon of relative deprivation is also associated with the biological concept of relative fitness, where an organism successfully defeats its natural competitors, therefore producing more offspring.

Relative deprivation is often cited as the reason for the emergence of social movements, which in extreme cases lead to politics, such as terrorism, riots, civil wars and other instances of social deviation. The opposite of relative deprivation is relative satisfaction.

Why is deprivation relative?

The feelings of dissatisfaction that people get when comparing their position to another are relative because they arise from a comparison with norms that are not absolute and usually differ in time and place. This fact distinguishes relative deprivation from absolute deprivation, also known as absolute poverty.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that objective deprivation will change over time worldwide, while relative deprivation will not. As long as there is social inequality, some people are better off than others.

An example to illustrate this: at the beginning of the last century, cars were a luxury item. Most people did not live in luxury, so few felt disadvantaged when they could not afford a car. Today, owning a cell phone is very common and many people feel they deserve to own one. Still, not everyone has the means to buy a smartphone.

Conditions for relative deprivation

In Garry Runciman’s Relative Deprivation Theory, four conditions are set for relative deprivation. The conditions are about object X in relation to Person A.

  1. Person A does not have X
  2. Person A knows other people who have X
  3. Person A would like to own X
  4. Person A believes it is realistic to own X

Social movements as a result of relative deprivation

Two sociologists are associated with the emergence of the Relative Deprivation Theory.

Relative deprivation according to Garry Runciman

The first is Garry Runciman, born in 1934. He distinguished between fraternal and selfish deprivation. An example of fraternal deprivation is a large social movement, such as the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, as a result of racial discrimination.

Another example of fraternal deprivation is the envy that middle class people feel when they see people on television portrayed as middle class driving expensive cars and wearing exclusive watches. Fraternal deprivation is also linked to voting behavior. This mainly concerns voting behavior for extreme right-wing political movements.

The second form of relative deprivation is selfish deprivation. According to Gary Runciman, this is primarily caused by the unfavorable social position of one individual compared to that of another. An example of selfish relative deprivation is an employee who feels he should have gotten that promotion earlier. Relative deprivation can then cause this employee to take action to improve his own position in relation to his colleagues. However, many of these actions hardly ever contribute to the position of the employee.

Relative deprivation according to Ted Gurr

The second person to be one of the first to research relative deprivation is Ted Gurr. Ted Robert Gurr believed that if an obstacle is created to the way people achieve their demands and goals, they will be subject to relative deprivation. The natural response to this is to damage the source of the barrier.

Ted Gurr explains the link between relative deprivation and political violence in his book ‘Why Men Rebel’. The book discusses why people commit political violence and how regimes respond to violence. Although the book was written long before this time, it has a lot to do with what is happening in the 21st century.

In the book Gurr examines whether the primary source of the human capacity for violence is the frustration-aggression mechanism, as the frustration-aggression theory states. According to Gurr, frustration does not always lead to violence, but if someone or a group is exposed to frustration for a long time, it often leads to anger and ultimately violence.

Criticism of the Relative Deprivation Theory

Critics of the Relative Deprivation Theory indicate that the theory does not explain why some people, who do not have the rights or resources, do not participate in social movements to attain those rights or resources. For example, not all African Americans participated in the Civil Rights Movement. However, proponents of the Relative Deprivation Theory argue that these people simply want to avoid the conflicts and difficulties that could arise if they decided to join the movement.

In addition, the Relative Deprivation Theory does not describe situations with people participating in movements that do not directly benefit them. Examples include animal rights activists and straight people marching alongside LGBTQ + activists during campaigns or wealthy people demonstrating against policies that promote poverty. In these circumstances, it is believed that participants act more out of feelings of sympathy than out of feelings of relative deprivation.

Relative deprivation and criminology

The use of relative deprivation by theorists such as John Braithwaite in criminology began in the late 1980s. In the post-war period, crime increased in most industrial societies, despite the rise in living standards. Absolute deprivation thus declined during this period, but the comparison of the more poverty, the more crime, was clearly not true.

Relative deprivation mainly occurs when groups or individuals subjectively perceive themselves as unfairly disadvantaged in relation to other people. It is different from absolute deprivation, where wealth levels are compared based on objective differences. The discontent that arises from relative deprivation is used to explain radical politics, as well as the emergence of messianic religions, the rise of social movements and an abundance of crimes.

It is generally believed that religious actions or the growing demand for political change stems from relative deprivation, and that crime is an individual response. But this does not apply to crimes of a collective nature, such as smuggling, poaching and terrorism.

The link between deprivation and suicide statistics

An in-depth study in Scotland of young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods shows that absolute deprivation makes young people much more likely to commit suicide than young people in more affluent regions. The study also found that the gap between poor and wealthy areas has grown significantly in the country since the 1980s. For example, the suicide rate among young women in the most deprived areas of Scotland is six times higher than the most affluent areas. The number of young men who committed suicide also increased strongly during this period.

It concluded that there is a growing social polarization of suicide in disadvantaged areas. Part of absolute deprivation is the absence of good quality and accessible education. Researchers concluded that better performance on the intelligence test was associated with a reduced risk of committing suicide.

Summary of Relative Deprivation Theory

Relative Deprivation Theory stems from sociology and was developed in the 1930s. Both Garry Runciman and Ted Gurr are credited with developing the theory.

Relative deprivation is a subjective dissatisfaction that troubles many people. This dissatisfaction is caused by the comparison between one person’s situation and another’s situation. People exposed to relative social deprivation feel that they deserve to have or receive the same as others. Because of the pressure imposed by society, they don’t feel equal when they miss things. These comparisons are relative because they are compared to standards that are not absolute. An example to illustrate this is the emergence of passenger cars for consumers. In the beginning, the car was a luxury item reserved for only the richest. Most of the people could not afford this, so not many people felt disadvantaged. Today, everyone is expected to have a smartphone, while not everyone can afford it. This is when relative deprivation occurs.

There are two important terms associated with the phenomenon of relative deprivation. These are poverty and social exclusion. The concept is also linked to relative fitness. This is a concept from biology and concerns the fact that successful organisms that beat their competitors are more likely to have a larger offspring. Relative deprivation is often referred to as the emergence of social movements, sometimes even leading to political violence, terrorism, various social deviations and even civil wars.

Critics of the social deprivation theory argue that the theory does not address why some people participate in social movements while they do not feel disadvantaged themselves. However, it is believed that this group of participants does this out of sympathy.

Sociology and criminology were linked by, among others, John Braithwaite in the eighties of the last century. In the period after the war, crime increased in most societies, while most sociologists then still assumed that crime would decrease if prosperity increased.

Now it is your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation of the Relative Deprivation Theory? Do you recognize one or more moments in your life when you felt dissatisfied by the situation you were in at that moment in relation to others? Do you think that more or less people today than before are dealing with feelings of subjective dissatisfaction? Do you think relative deprivation threatens the emergence of extreme-oriented political movements? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Walker, I., & Pettigrew, T. F. (1984). Relative deprivation theory: An overview and conceptual critique. British Journal of Social Psychology, 23(4), 301-310.
  2. Bernstein, M., & Crosby, F. (1980). An empirical examination of relative deprivation theory. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(5), 442-456.
  3. Guimond, S., & Dubé-Simard, L. (1983). Relative deprivation theory and the Quebec nationalist movement: The cognition–emotion distinction and the personal–group deprivation issue. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(3), 526.
  4. Crosby, F. (1976). A model of egoistical relative deprivation. Psychological review, 83(2), 85.
  5. Sweeney, P. D., McFarlin, D. B., & Inderrieden, E. J. (1990). Using relative deprivation theory to explain satisfaction with income and pay level: A multistudy examination. Academy of Management Journal, 33(2), 423-436.

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