Short Note on Relative Deprivation and Deprivation Theory

The concept of relative deprivation was first given by Samuel Stouffer, in his study of the military officials in World War 2. Various scholars like Robert Merton and Walter Runciman have further extended it.

Relative deprivation is seen often as the theory of social movements, it is the perceived lack of resources of the essential elements to be able to survive in the society; such as money, rights, food, political voice or status. This is that feeling that we are generally ‘worse-off’ than others around us and arises from the comparison we make of ourselves with others, e.g. when we see that in the work environment, one of our colleagues who may be working less may have a higher salary, this may frustrate us and thus is a state of relative deprivation.

Samuel Stouffer gave this concept in his study of World War 2 and cited the results of his study in The American Soldier, he carried of scientific research, using questionnaires and interviews and other such methods to find that the army units, in which the rate of promotion was the highest were actually the ones where there were maximum number of people present who were dissatisfied with the promotions, often due to the reason that they themselves did not get promoted. Based on this and work of Merton, Runciman has given four pre-conditions for the relative deprivation;

First, the person does not have anything.

Second, the person knows that others (who he compares himself with) have that thing.

Third, the person wants that thing.

And lastly, the person believes he has a chance of obtaining that thing.

Runciman has also further made a distinction between egoistic deprivation and fraternalism deprivation. The former is the one that arises from one’s feelings of deprivation or unfair treatment, this is more individual and perceived. Fraternalistic, on the other hand, is more to do with a mass movement, when a group of people may feel deprived of something, e.g. the civil rights movements of the United States in the 1960s, which took place as a result of the racial segregation, it was carried out to fight for the equal rights of the blacks under the United States law. It was because of the fact that while the Civil War had abolished the institution of slavery, it, however, was unable to do away with the discrimination that took place against the black population, they started a social movement which has as it’s source this feeling of deprivation.

While we see that this feeling of relative deprivation may lead to social movements, we may also witness cases where it leads to disorder and chaos e.g. the agitation in Haryana where the Jats, who are already a politically influential groups wanted quota reservations under the other backward classes category, this was due to the fact that they felt that the government had not lived up to its promise of increasing the quota for the economically backward classes, they created chaos across the state to the extent of threatening people’s lives. The reason was that such reservation ensured their seats in the educational institutions and government jobs giving them better life opportunities than the ones they might already have, thus though they were politically influential they felt that those who have seats reserved for them were at a greater advantage than their own group.

We can see while the feeling of relative deprivation may lead to social movements empowering people, they may at the same time lead to the creation of social disorder.


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