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Relative Deprivation in Psychology: Theory & Definition

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  • 0:05 What is Relative Deprivation?
  • 0:48 Relative Deprivation &…
  • 2:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Deborah Teasley

Deborah has 4 years of teaching experience and a master's degree in program development & management.

Have you ever felt that you have less than what you deserve in life? In this lesson, we will explore the idea of relative deprivation and how it uses the comparison to others to explain why we sometimes feel underprivileged.

What is Relative Deprivation?

Let's say that it's Christmas and your parents just bought you a brand new iPhone. You've wanted this phone for a long time, and you were so excited to receive it as a gift. A few days after you get the phone you decide to go to your friend's house to show it off a little bit. When you get there, you find out that your friend's parents bought him a brand new car. How do you feel about your phone now? Are you still as happy as you were before?

If you feel a little jealous of your friend or are not as happy with your gift, you are experiencing relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is the belief that a person will feel deprived or entitled to something based on the comparison to someone else. In this case, the point of reference would be your friend who now possesses a new car. Since you don't have a car, this becomes a new desire and something you wish to acquire.

Relative Deprivation and Social Movement

Relative Deprivation theory is credited to sociologist Samuel Stouffer, who developed the approach while studying social psychology during World War II. Stouffer found that soldiers of that era measured their personal success not with the standards set by the military but on the experience they had within their individual units.

Take, for example, a private in the Military Police and an Air Force private. In addition to their rank, they both also have the same level of education and have been in the military for the same amount of time. Despite their likenesses, the Air Force private feels a sense of deprivation due to the nature of rapid promotions in the Air Force; he has not acquired a promotion yet and feels deprived. However, the private in the Military Police does not have this same sense of deprivation because in his unit promotions are not as prevalent.

This conclusion made a tremendous impact on the field of sociology and would later be used to explain social movements and revolutions. A social movement is a form of group action, either formal or informal, that aims to change a political or social issue. As social movement theory (or the study of social mobilization) emerged, scientists made the connection between relative deprivation and people assembling for social change.

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