Relative Deprivation: Worth the Revolution?

Relative deprivation, that is when inequality or class differences grow unbearable, or when people’s expectations for further progress are dashed, is arguably one of the causes that lead to revolutions. It is essential to note, relative deprivation is different than poverty. While poverty only directly negatively affects one class, Goldstone argues that relative deprivation affects all classes, causing them to unite. The extremely impoverished do not have the resources to rise against the powerful regime fasting them to their poverty-stricken lives; however, when those from the middle-class and most elite of the society become aware of the faults within the regime that leads to such extreme class differences among other issues, a revolution, Goldstone argues, will thus form.

Relative deprivation may also be defined as being deprived of something that one feels entitled to.  This is interesting in that it is different from absolute deprivation–actually having nothing.  From the readings, it seems it is not how much a certain class or individual possesses, but rather how much one possesses in comparison to other classes or individuals in a society.  Relative deprivation can be recognized in the United States through the classic idiom of “keeping up with the Joneses.”  It is not a matter of how much any individual citizen of the United States has; the measure of status is how much one has accumulated relative to one’s neighbor.

Illustration by Allan Sanders

Keep Up With the Joneses

Relative deprivation varies based on the individual, however; when enough people feel the ramifications of relative deprivation it motivates classes to join together for a greater cause.  Few elites would be willing to die to protect the rights of peasants, meaning whatever uniting cause is prevalent must be immensely important. In the Skocpol reading, it is said that a peasant class can not win a revolution on their own; the peasant class can win if they are joined with the elites of a community and their resources, however.

Class struggles are often a driving factor of any revolution, as seen through the class readings. It is the severity, length of time, and lack of significant change in the class struggle that ultimately deprives a certain class. The economic, political, social or overall freedoms a class is felt denied upon can gain momentum for a revolution. Yes, the deprivation unites the struggling class in a powerful way. The momentum towards a revolution must be combined with other forces, however. It is clear to say that relative deprivation is not the only cause of revolutions; political upheaval or religious fervor have motivated revolutions in the past and may do so again in the future.

From the readings it can be determined that revolutions have a better chance of being successful when there is cross class participation. On the surface it generally would appear as though different classes have nothing to unite over, but in practice the classes generally agree upon the fact that someone else has something they want. For the lower classes this may be better living conditions or representation by the government; for higher classes it may be a desire for more power. Either way the biggest motivating factor for the classes to unite is a desire for something more. An effective example of this can be seen in the American Revolution. While divided over loyalties to the crown, class divisions essentially disappeared as the rebels fought against Great Britain.

It is essential to recognize that extreme inequality can lead to despair among subjugated classes just as easily as it can lead to revolution. The poor are left without resources or means of creating an effective revolutionary force, severely hindering the possibility or likelihood of a revolution. Revolutions being rare, an idea supported by numerous thinkers and scholars must somehow be reconciled with the fact that for nearly all of human history there has been inequality and poverty. The mere presence of relative depravity is not enough, on its own merit, to bring forth a revolution.




  1. Hey- I think you made some strong and clarifying points about what the problem is with relative depravation but when it comes to this quote-“Relative deprivation may also be defined as being deprived of something that one feels entitled to”, I’m curious if you all consider ‘power’ or ‘political voice’ something that is inclusive to relative deprivation, specially in the instance of the French Revolution?

  2. I really like this blog post, it helped make it easier to understand what relative deprivation is and putting it on much simpler terms. But how does relative deprivation unite all classes, even the rich?

  3. I really like how you explained and went into detail about relative deprivation. I found it really interesting on how much it plays apart in revolutions. I also found it interesting that most revolutions are successful with cross class participation. But it doesn’t always lead to them and why is that?

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