The underlying theory behind the concept of relative deprivation (RD) concerns the specific location and conditions of the people in question. In their introduction to the essay collection Relative Deprivation: Specification, Development, and Integration, Iain Walker and Heather J. Smith use examples to underscore the key role that context plays. One example involves Black soldiers in the United States during World War II. Walker and Smith cite research that shows that Black soldiers in the South were “more satisfied” than Black soldiers in the North during this period.
The satisfaction disparity has to do with the RD’s contention that “people’s reactions to objective circumstances depend on their subjective comparisons.” Thus, Black soldiers in the South deemed their situation more satisfactory because they were comparing their conditions with those of other Black people in the South, which were, in general, much worse than for Black people up North. In other words, the key theory behind relative deprivation is that deprivation is relative.
Sticking with racism, theories like racial resentment, fraternal deprivation, and collective threat are central to RD. For instance, when Black people are perceived as unfairly benefiting from welfare or affirmative action, white people might feel as if Black people are receiving preferential treatment. They’ll resent Black people and view them as a threat, since they’re supposedly depriving them of something that they’re entitled to.
Finally, the theory of “vicarious experience” could be important, due to how it relates to current cultural-political trends. Within RD, “vicarious experience” seeks to explain why people who aren’t deprived choose to act on behalf of people who are deprived. This theory seems to link to the present stress on forming alliances and speaking out for others even if one doesn’t personally endure their hardship and injustice.