Nearly all theorists of social movements identify relative deprivation, rather than absolute deprivation, as the leading cause of revolution and rebellion. This accounts for the counterintuitive but persistent finding that typically such revolts are launched by groups that enjoy rising, not falling, socioeconomic conditions. However, two underlying questions remain the subject of academic inquiry. First is the specific definition of relative deprivation—namely, deprivation of what and relative to whom or what? The second is which factors mediate the connection between deprivation and rebellion—that is, when will relative deprivation actually lead to rebellion?
Aristotle wrote that people will rebel “if they think that they have too little although they are the equals of those who have more” (Davies 1971, p. 86). Marx typically focused narrowly on the relative material inequality between classes, predicting that workers would rebel even in the face of improving living standards if they perceived capitalist living standards to be rising even faster. Alexis de Tocqueville crucially observed that relative deprivation alone was insufficient; also necessary was an expectation that rebellion would improve the situation: “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested” (Davies 1971, p. 135). This, he said, explained his empirical observation that revolution tended to occur when states were relaxing, not heightening, oppression.
In the early 1960s James C. Davies posited that the decisive relative deprivation was not between groups but rather between the expected satisfaction and actual satisfaction of one group. Rebellion was caused by “an intolerable gap between what people want and what they get,” so that it was “most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal” (Davies 1971, pp. 135-136). Like Tocqueville, he identified the key mediating factor between deprivation and rebellion as the expectation of success. “It is when the chains have been loosened somewhat, so that they can be cast off without a high probability of losing life, that people are put in a condition of rebelliousness” (Davies 1971, pp. 135-136).
Subsequently theorists such as Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow have emphasized the mediating role of “political opportunity structures” in determining when relative deprivation and mobilization actually will lead to actions such as rebellions (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001). This work clearly echoes Tocqueville.
For more than three decades Ted Robert Gurr integrated these and other emergent findings of the literature into his repeatedly revised and expanded general theory of ethnocultural rebellion and political action. His primary causal variable continues to be relative deprivation, although he defines it broadly like Davies as the difference between perceived entitlement and actual welfare, so that even relatively privileged groups may be motivated to rebel by perceived disadvantage. Gurr (2000) says three mediating variables determine whether deprivation actually will lead a group to take action—salience of ethnocultural identity, group capacity for mobilization (based partly on geography), and political opportunities for success. A domestic political variable—whether state institutions and resources favor repression or accommodation of group demands—determines whether ethnopolitical action will take the form of peaceful protest or violent rebellion. Prominent economists and political scientists, including Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, David Laitin, and Jim Fearon, have disputed the primary role of relative deprivation in motivating rebellion, which they say is driven less by grievance than by greed.
SEE ALSO Aristotle; Coup d’Etat; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnocentrism; Marx, Karl; Poverty; Resistance; Revolution; Social Movements; Tocqueville, Alexis de; Wages
Davies, James C., ed. 1971. When Men Revolt and Why: A Reader in Political Violence and Revolution. New York: Free Press.
Gurr, Ted Robert. 2000. Peoples versus States. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace.
Hoeffler, Anke, and Paul Collier. 2004. Greed and Grievance in Civil War. Oxford Economic Papers 56 (4): 563-595.
Alan J. Kuperman