Relative Deprivation and Social Movements: A Critical Look at Twenty Years of Theory and Research*


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    The authors thank the following persons for their critical comments on several earlier versions of this paper: E. L. Quarantelli, Bill Roy, and Patrick J. Gurney. We also express appreciation to the anonymous reviewers whose comments were helpful in refining several sections of the paper. Joan Neff Gurney's address is Department of Sociology, University of Richmond, Virginia 23173.


The relative deprivation perspective was widely employed in the social movement literature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In spite of the growing popularity of some newer approaches which criticize the relative deprivation perspective (resource mobilization or resource management perspectives), there have been no attempts to analyze and evaluate the relative deprivation perspective in any systematic fashion.

The purpose of this paper is to review some of the “classic” relative deprivation literature in order to critically assess the perspective on the basis of its theoretical coherence and clarity and its empirical validity. The general conclusion reached is that while the relative deprivation perspective was an advance over earlier approaches which viewed social movements as resulting from the expression of irrational impulses, the relative deprivation perspective is itself affected by too many serious conceptual, theoretical, and empirical weaknesses to be useful in accounting for the emergence and development of social movements.