All About Relative Deprivation and Deprivation Theory

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Relative deprivation is formally defined as an actual or perceived lack of resources required to maintain the quality of life (e.g. diet, activities, material possessions) to which various socioeconomic groups or individuals within those groups have grown accustomed, or are considered to be the accepted norm within the group.

Key Takeaways

  • Relative deprivation is the lack of resources (e.g. money, rights, social equality) necessary to maintain the quality of life considered typical within a given socioeconomic group.
  • Relative deprivation often contributes to the rise of social change movements, such as the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
  • Absolute deprivation or absolute poverty is a potentially life-threatening situation that occurs when income falls below a level adequate to maintain food and shelter.

In simpler terms, relative deprivation is a feeling that you are generally “worse off” than the people you associate with and compare yourself to. For example, when you can only afford a compact economy car but your co-worker, while getting the same salary as you, drives a fancy luxury sedan, you may feel relatively deprived.

Relative Deprivation Theory Definition

As defined by social theorists and political scientists, relative deprivation theory suggests that people who feel they are being deprived of something considered essential in their society (e.g. money, rights, political voice, status) will organize or join social movements dedicated to obtaining the things of which they feel deprived. For example, relative deprivation has been cited as one of the causes of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which was rooted in Black Americans' struggle to gain social and legal equality with white Americans. Similarly, many gay people joined the same-sex marriage movement in order to acquire the same legal recognition of their marriages enjoyed by straight people.

In some cases, relative deprivation has been cited as a factor driving incidents of social disorder like rioting, looting, terrorism, and civil wars. In this nature, social movements and their associated disorderly acts can often be attributed to the grievances of people who feel they are being denied resources to which they are entitled.

Relative Deprivation Theory History

Development of the concept of relative deprivation is often attributed to American sociologist Robert K. Merton, whose study of American soldiers during World War II revealed that soldiers in the Military Police were far less satisfied with their opportunities for promotion than regular GIs.

In proposing one the first formal definitions of relative deprivation, British statesman and sociologist Walter Runciman listed four required conditions:

  • A person does not have something.
  • That person knows other people who have the thing.
  • That person wants to have the thing.
  • That person believes they have a reasonable chance of getting the thing. 

Runciman also drew a distinction between “egoistic” and “fraternalistic” relative deprivation. According to Runciman, egoistic relative deprivation is driven by an individual’s feelings of being treated unfairly compared to others in their group. For example, an employee who feels they should have gotten a promotion that went to another employee may feel egoistically relatively deprived. Fraternalistic relative deprivation is more often associated with massive group social movements like the Civil Rights Movement.

Another more common example of fraternal deprivation is the feeling of envy felt by middle-class individuals when they see people on television portrayed as being middle-class driving luxury cars and wearing designed clothes. According to Runciman, fraternal deprivation also affects voting behavior, especially when appealing to extreme right-wing political candidates or movements.

Another viewpoint on relative deprivation was developed by American author and professor of political science Ted Robert Gurr. In his 1970 book Why Men Rebel, Gurr explains the link between relative deprivation and political violence. Gurr examines the probability that the frustration-aggression mechanism, triggered by feelings of relative deprivation, is the primary source of the human capacity for violence. While such frustration does not always result in violence, Gurr contends that the longer individuals or groups are subjected to relative deprivation the more likely it is that their frustration will lead to anger and ultimately violence.

Relative Versus Absolute Deprivation

Relative deprivation has a counterpart: absolute deprivation. Both of these are measures of poverty in a given country.

Absolute deprivation describes a condition in which household income falls below a level needed to maintain the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter.

Meanwhile, relative deprivation describes a level of poverty at which household income drops to a certain percentage below the country’s median income. For example, a country’s level of relative poverty could be set at 50 percent of its median income.

Absolute poverty can threaten one’s very survival, while relative poverty may not but is likely to limit one’s ability to participate fully in their society. In 2015, the World Bank Group set the worldwide absolute poverty level at $1.90 per day per person based on purchasing power parities (PPP) rates.

Critiques of Relative Deprivation Theory

Critics of relative deprivation theory have argued that it fails to explain why some people who, though deprived of rights or resources, fail to take part in social movements meant to attain those things. During the Civil Rights Movement, for example, Black people who refused to participate in the movement were derisively referred to as “Uncle Toms” by other Black people in reference to the excessively obedient enslaved person depicted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

However, proponents of relative deprivation theory argue that many of these people simply want to avoid the conflicts and life difficulties they might encounter by joining the movement with no guarantee of a better life as a result. 

Additionally, relative deprivation theory does not account for people who take part in movements that do not benefit them directly. Some examples include the animal rights movement, straight and cis-gendered people who march alongside LGBTQ+ activists, and wealthy people who demonstrate against policies that perpetuate poverty or income inequality. In these cases, participants are believed to act more out of a sense of empathy or sympathy than feelings of relative deprivation.


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Longley, Robert. "All About Relative Deprivation and Deprivation Theory." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, September 8). All About Relative Deprivation and Deprivation Theory. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "All About Relative Deprivation and Deprivation Theory." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).