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Relative deprivation is formally defined as an actual or perceived lack of resources required to maintain the quality of life—diet, activities, and 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 (money, rights, or 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 coworker, while getting the same salary as you, drives a fancy luxury sedan, you may feel relatively deprived.

Relative Deprivation Theory: Definition, Examples, and History

As defined by social theorists and political scientists, Relative Deprivation Theory suggests that people who feel they are being deprived of almost anything considered essential in their society—whether money, rights, political voice or 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, the struggle of Blacks to gain social and legal equality with whites. Similarly, many gay people join 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.

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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 the relative deprivation, British statesman and sociologist Walter Runciman listed the effect’s 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 he or she has 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 the group. For example, an employee who feels he or she should have gotten a promotion that went to another employee may feel relatively deprived. Fraternalistic relative deprivation is more often associated with massive group social movements like the Civil Rights Movement.

Relative vs. Absolute Deprivation

Relative and absolute deprivation are measures of poverty in a given country. Absolute deprivation describes a condition at which household income falls below a level needed to maintain the basic necessities of life like food and shelter. 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. While absolute poverty can threaten one’s very survival, relative poverty is more likely to limit one’s ability to participate fully in their society.

In 2015, the World Bank GroupTrainingspak com Kids Team Professionele Jersey Alibaba Voetbalkleren 2017 Jeugd Groep 2018 Aliexpress Voetbalshirts Op Kind Custom Kit set the worldwide absolute poverty level at $1.90 a day per person based on purchasing power parities (PPP) rates.


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 Blacks in reference to the excessively obedient slave 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. 

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Relative deprivation theory does not account for people who take part in movements that do not seem to materially benefit them, such as the animal rights movement. In many of these cases, for example, straight people who march alongside lesbian and gay rights activists, or wealthy people who demonstrate against policies that perpetuate poverty or income inequality, are believed to do so more out of a sense of empathy or sympathy than feelings of relative deprivation.


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2017 De Enfant 1 Gardien Maillot Munich Bayern Neuer
2017 De Enfant 1 Gardien Maillot Munich Bayern Neuer