The theory of relative deprivation has been widely used as the mechanism for explaining the involvement of people in social phenomena such as urban riots. Relative deprivation happens when need achievement falls short of a reasonable standard (Deutsch et al, 2006:850). In other words, through depriving people of their rights a buildup of frustration and tension occurs which entices the onset of aggressive behavior (Walker and Smith, 2002:1). The theory is therefore useful in determining why people riot as a result of social deprivation.
The whole concept of Relative deprivation (RD) was originally envisaged to explain a whole series of relationships between various individuals’ feelings of satisfaction and their corresponding positions within the armed forces (Walker and Smith, 2002:2). However, in recent times the theory has developed and advanced in such a way that it is now applicable to a wide variation of scenarios. According to Diana Kendall, people who are satisfied with their present conditions are less likely to seek social change (Kendall, 2008:555).
Social change generally arises as a response to the perception that people are being denied what they deserve (Kendall, 2008:555). There are many different sources of relative deprivation however; there is not much known regarding the relationship between the different sources of relative deprivation and its impact on behavior. Political scientists have labelled relative deprivation as an instigator for social unrest and escalating criminal activities, in extreme cases the theory has also been used to explain the onset of politically related violence including riots, revolutions and even civil wars and terrorism.
The theory emphasizes the concept that social movements happen when people feel deprived of what they see as their right or obligation, it has also been used extensively to explain the occurrence of paradoxes (Walker and Smith, 2002:1). The theory helps us answer questions such as during the Second World War why were Southern based African American troops more satisfied and content with life in comparison to their Northern American counterparts? And why did the urban riots of the 1960’s occur during that specific time period?
The answers to these questions and others lie in the belief that ‘people’s reactions to objective circumstances depend on their subjective comparisons’ (Walker and Smith, 2002:1). For example, African American soldiers stationed in the South during the Second World War would have been much more satisfied with life as they would have compared their current situation with the situations of the local African Americans, which was far worse in the South than in the North.
Similarly, the urban riots of the 1960s in the US followed on from a period of minority influenced political and economic escalation which created a discrepancy between expectations and reality which consequently resulted in large-scale urban rioting (Walker and Smith, 2002:1). Therefore people who suffer relative deprivation are more likely to want to instigate change and join a social movement in order to bring about the required change. Relative deprivation can be divided into three distinctive patterns: decrimental deprivation, aspirational deprivation and progressive deprivation.
All three are similar in terms of the fact that they all illustrate a discrepancy between value expectations and value capabilities. According to Gurr and Robert, decrimental deprivation occurs when value expectations remain constant whilst the institutional capacity to meet the values declines (Gurr and Robert, 1971:47). On the other hand, aspirational deprivation is the opposite movement and involves an increase in value expectations at the expense of institutional capabilities, which remain constant (Gurr and Robert 1971:51).