# 21.3E: Relative Deprivation Approach

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Social scientists have cited ‘relative deprivation’ as a potential cause of social movements and deviance.

Learning Objectives

• Discuss the concepts of relative and absolute deprivation as they relate to social movements

## Key Points

• Relative deprivation is the experience of being deprived of something to which one believes to be entitled. It refers to the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to others and realize that they have less of what they believe themselves to be entitled than those around them.
• Some scholars of social movements explain their rise by citing grievances of people who feel deprived of what they perceive as values to which they are entitled. Similarly, individuals engage in deviant behaviors when their means do not match their goals.
• 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.
• Critics of this theory have pointed out that this theory fails to explain why some people who feel discontent fail to take action and join social movements.

## Key Terms

• deprivation: The act of depriving, dispossessing, or bereaving; the act of deposing or divesting of some dignity.
• relative: Connected to or depending on something else; not absolute; comparative.

Relative deprivation is the experience of being deprived of something to which one feels to be entitled. It refers to the discontent that people feel when they compare their positions to those around them and realize that they have less of that which they believe themselves to be entitled. Social scientists, particularly political scientists and sociologists, have cited ‘relative deprivation’ (especially temporal relative deprivation) as a potential cause of social movements and deviance. In extreme situations, it can lead to political violence such as rioting, terrorism, civil wars and other instances of social deviance such as crime.

Some scholars explain the rise of social movements by citing the grievances of people who feel that they have been deprived of values to which they are entitled. Similarly, individuals engage in deviant behaviors when their means do not match their goals.

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. 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.

Some sociologists—for instance, Karl Polanyi—have argued that relative differences in economic wealth are more important than absolute deprivation, and that this is a more significant determinate of 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. 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 not change.

Critics of this theory have 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, or that imminent life difficulties may arise since there is no guarantee that life-improvement will result from social action.

21.3E: Relative Deprivation Approach is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.