This article focuses on relative deprivation theory. It provides an analysis of the history, applications, and strengths and weaknesses of the theory. An overview of the origins and main contributors to relative deprivation theory is included, and the application of relative deprivation theory to social movement formation is discussed. The main criticisms of relative deprivation theory are also explored.
Keywords Brown v. Board of Education; Civil Rights Movement; Collective Identity; Egoistic Deprivation; Fraternal Deprivation; Relative Deprivation Theory; Self-Referenced Relative Deprivation; Social Movement Theory; Society; Sociology
Social Movement Theory: Relative Deprivation Theory
Understanding the history, applications, and strengths and weaknesses of relative deprivation theory is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of social movements. This article explains relative deprivation theory in three parts:
• An overview of the origins and main contributors to relative deprivation theory.
• A description of how relative deprivation theory is applied to analyze and understand why social movements form.
• A discussion of the main criticisms of relative deprivation theory.
The Basics of Relative Deprivation Theory
Relative deprivation theory refers to the idea that feelings of deprivation and discontent are related to a desired point of reference (i.e., reference groups). Feelings of relative deprivation arise when desires become legitimate expectations and those desires are blocked by society. Social satisfaction is the opposite of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is generally considered to be the central variable in the explanation of social movements and is used to explain the quest for social change that inspires social movements; social movements emerge from collective feelings of relative deprivation (Morrison, 1971).
Relative deprivation theory is applied to sociopolitical, economic, and organizational problems. For example, relative deprivation theory is used to analyze the organizational issues of pay satisfaction and sex-based pay inequities. Relative deprivation theory focuses on feelings and actions. For example, the theory encourages the exploration of an individual's feelings of deprivation that may result from comparing his or her situation with that of a referent person or group as well as the behavioral effects of deprivation feelings. Relative deprivation theory distinguishes between egoistic deprivation and fraternal deprivation.
• Egoistic deprivation refers to a single individual's feeling of comparative deprivation.
• Fraternal deprivation, also called group deprivation, refers to the discontent arising from the status of the entire group as compared to a referent group. Fraternal deprivation may strengthen a group's collective identity (Singer 1992).
Relative deprivation theory has influenced the development of numerous fields in the social sciences including psychology, economics, and sociology. For example, the theory of relative deprivation has influenced psychological theory. In particular, relative deprivation theory is the foundation of multiple theories of social psychology including frustration-aggression theory, equity theory, social comparison theory, and reference group theory. The concept of relative deprivation and its measurement is used in the field of economics (Bossert & D'Ambrosio, 2007). Economics focuses on the measurement and quantification of relative deprivation using multiple summary indices of deprivation including the Gini coefficient, the maximum index, and the coefficient of variation (Chakravarty & Mukherjee, 1999). In the field of sociology, relative deprivation theory is used to explain the root causes of social movements and revolutions (Krahn & Harrison, 1992).
Social Movement Theory
Relative deprivation theory belongs to the larger body of interdisciplinary work called social movement theory. Social movement theory, which began in the late nineteenth century, refers to the study of social mobilization including its social, cultural, and political manifestations and consequences. Social movement scholarship is often motivated by a desire for social change and may integrate scholarship and activism. The interdisciplinary history of social movement theory includes six main areas of study:
• Relative deprivation theory;
• Mass society theory;
• Resource mobilization theory;
• Structural-strain theory;
• Value-added theory;
• New social movement theory.
Social movement theory proposes that social movements are, in many instances, created through the use and manipulation of frames of reference. Social movements influence and control their members through tactics such as mobilizing fear, engaging in frame appropriation, social constructionism, and counterframing (Benford & Snow, 2000).
Social movements born of feelings of relative deprivation are referred to as relative deprivation social movements. Examples include the labor movement and civil rights movement. Ultimately, sociology uses relative deprivation theory to explain how feelings of deprivation over power, money, or status may lead individuals and groups to create social movements and seek social change.
The History of Relative Deprivation Theory
Samuel A. Stouffer
Sociologist Samuel A. Stouffer (1900–1960) is credited with developing relative deprivation theory after World War II. Stouffer first wrote of relative deprivation theory in his study entitled The American Soldier (1949) which is part of a four-volume series entitled Studies in Social Psychology in World War II. The series and its component study was a compilation of the data collected during a five-year wartime project that was funded by Carnegie Corporation and the Social Science Research Council (Heck & Wech, 2003).
Stouffer developed the relative deprivation theory while conducting research for the US Army during World War II. Stouffer is remembered as a pioneer in the effort to combine theory and empirical research. Stouffer reported that World War II soldiers measured their personal success by standards based on experience in the military units in which they serve as opposed to the standards in the armed forces in general. Stouffer's relative deprivation theory, developed to understand the psychology of soldiers, grew to be an established theory of social science scholarship; as such, he is remembered as a pioneer in the effort to combine theory and empirical research (Adams, 1970).
Stouffer conducted the research upon which the relative deprivation theory is based while serving as the director of the US military's Research Branch. The Research Branch, which was officially established in 1941, was a part of the Morale Division, Special Services Division, and Information and Education Division. The Research Branch was created to provide facts about the attitudes of soldiers to the Army command for use in training and policy matters. Specifically, the Research Branch was created to provide a scientific foundation and rationale for policy making, inducting, training, directing, managing, and demobilizing the armed forces. The staff of the Research Branch was comprised of civilian academic advisors, Samuel Stouffer of the University of Chicago, Rensis Likert of the Department of Agriculture, Quinn McNemar of Stanford, and numerous social scientists at the beginning of their careers. The Branch, led by Stouffer, operated on the notion that applied social science research could contribute in significant ways to pure social science theory and scholarship. Stouffer believed that social science research should have practical applications in industry. As evidenced by his own work with the relative deprivation theory, Stouffer advocated the development of social science theory that was grounded in empirical research (Heck & Wech, 2003).
Stouffer's relative deprivation theory, developed immediately following World War II, was part of the large change in the field of sociology. The US government and Western European corporations adopted sociological tools, theories, and research methods. The main topics of sociological inquiry during this time included the following:
• Sociological study of social movements;
• Marriage and family;
• Social stratification and political sociology;
• Work and organizations;...
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