Social Movement Theory: Relative Deprivation Theory

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To what extent is the deprivation theory adequate in accounting for the emergence of feminism?

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Ultimately, social deprivation theory is probably inadequate on its own to account for the emergence of feminism. First, it is important to understand that relative deprivation theory seeks to explain the emergence of large social movements (as well as some violent movements) based on the feelings of deprivation among a group. Importantly, this deprivation is relative to what individuals believe are necessary to maintain a certain quality of life. Under relative deprivation, the individuals have the necessary resources to maintain life, but lack resources that would enhance the quality of that life. An important aspect of relative deprivation theory is that the deprived individuals believe that, through some action, there is a reasonable chance of succeeding in obtaining the desired resources.

Secondly, it is important to clarify the term "feminism". Generally, discussions of feminism focus on the second wave of feminism, which began in the 1960s. Relative deprivation theory may be adequate to discuss the emergence of second-wave feminism, as by this time, women had political, legal, and (because of the labor market changes during World War II) basic economic rights. In this environment, women had the necessary resources in general to maintain life, though they lacked resources which were necessary to bring the quality of life up to the level of men in the same or similar situational context.

However, as evidenced by its descriptor, second-wave feminism does not describe the emergence of feminism. First-wave feminism began in the mid to late 1800s and sought to obtain political and legal rights for women. At this time, most women did not have the right to vote and could not own much in the way of property. They also could not generally inherit wealth or enter into contracts on their own. This situation seems closer to absolute deprivation because, without an attachment to a male family member, most women did not have sufficient resources for the maintenance of life. It could be argued that the life-maintaining resources provided by male family members was sufficient to create a situation where relative deprivation would take the main focus, but this raises another concern with regard to the adequacy of relative deprivation theory.

Women have been deprived of political, legal, and economic interests through the vast majority of human history. In ancient cultures, husbands retained the authority to murder disobedient wives without consequence, and in some societies, crimes committed against a woman were redressable to the closest male relative rather than the woman. In these situations, women were able to rely on the resources which flowed through male relatives to maintain life, but no mass movement to improve women's rights emerged.

In order to maintain that relative deprivation theory is adequate to explain the emergence of feminism, this issue of timing must be addressed. It is possible that industrial revolution, which loosened some of the economic restrictions on women, provided more room for women to focus on their relative deprivations, planting the seed for a movement. This would coincide with the timing of the first-wave feminist movement. Additionally, one could point to other incremental changes that had improved the place of women in society and argue that this was the first cultural context where women had a reasonable belief that political and legal rights could be obtained. Some developments in the variety of state laws in the US would likely support this contention.

Regardless, the need for these additional positions to explain the timing of the emergence of feminism demonstrate that relative deprivation theory on its own is inadequate to account for this emergence. Relative deprivation theory could be considered adequate to the emergence of feminism when paired with additional explanations.

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