In the economic inequality, democracy, and political participation literature, scholars claim to test grievance or relative deprivation theory. When they do, they cite Ted Robert Gurr, whether it is his 1968 article in the American Political Science Review, or the 1970 book, Why Men Rebel.
Yet, modern scholars who apply it to political participation, like attending a demonstration or signing a petition, or even voting, have misused Gurr’s theory.
- What Gurr’s Study Was Really About
- Gurr: Relative deprivation explains civil strife
- The relationship between civil strife and relative deprivation
- How can we measure relative deprivation?
What Gurr’s Study Was Really About
Gurr’s famous “relative deprivation theory” was about political violence, or what he called “civil strife,” and not mundane political participation like signing a petition. The theory included political and social deprivation, but modern studies that cite Gurr generally consider only economic deprivation (or, what Gurr called, “economic discrimination”).
Finally, Gurr (1968) was clear that that deprivation has three dimensions, and all of them are important
Pervasiveness: proportion of society impacted by the deprivation.
Intensity: How strong the deprivation is.
Duration: Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data. I’m not even sure it should be tested on NEP, because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory has a lot of problems, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars.
In this post, I focus on Gurr’s original argument that he published in 1968, “A Causal Model of Civil Strife: A Comparative Analysis Using New Indices.”
Gurr: Relative deprivation explains civil strife
Gurr focuses on civil strife, not all mundane forms of nonelectoral participation.
He defines civil strife as “all collective, nongovernmental attacks on persons or property” within a defined territory (1107). It is a mix of violent and non-violent “symbolic demonstrative attacks on political persons or policies, e.g., political demonstrations” (1107), and legal and illegal.
Civil strife has levels. At the lowest level of civil strife are strikes, riots, and local rebellions. The next level are conspiracies that turned into assassinations, coups, and small-scale wars. At the highest level is internal war, and that also includes terrorism and revolts.
Civil strife is not political participation as it appears in cross-national surveys. Clearly, “signing a petition” or “contacting a public official” or “boycotting a product” is not a part of Gurr’s 1968 study. In short, Gurr’s theory is about political violence in particular. The theory does not state that the causes of political violence are also the causes of mundane political participation.
Gurr’s relative deprivation
Gurr’s main argument is a psychosocial explanation for why there is civil strife that he called “relative deprivation” (Gurr 1968: 1104).
Relative deprivation is:
“actors’ perceptions of discrepancy between their value expectations (the goods and conditions of the life to which they believe they are justifiably entitled) and their value capabilities (the amounts of those goods and conditions that they think they are able to get and keep).”
Relative deprivation is an explicitly psychological concept that says that when people perceive a large enough gap between what they expect and what they think they can get, they respond with anger. Their anger turns into aggression. “Relative,” here, connotes perception.
The relationship between civil strife and relative deprivation
Gurr discusses four factors that influence the relationship between deprivation and civil strife.
Coercion as a force to stop strife amplifies the deprivation and therefore strengthens the relationship between deprivation and civil strife. He notes that if the coercive forces are strongly loyal to the regime, then they can reduce the efficacy of the deprived and thereby reduce civil strife.
This is “the extent to which societal structures beyond the primary level are broad in scope, command substantial resources and/ or personnel, and are stable and persisting” (1105). I have no idea what a primary level societal structure is, and such a thing is not defined by Gurr (1968). I googled it and it wasn’t defined anywhere. These non-primary structures expand the range of ways that people can “attain value satisfaction.” Of these structures are unions, parties, and other associations that provide routinized ways for people to express their discontent.
Social and environmental conditions
These factors include a prior history of civil strife. It also includes facilitation, which refers to the physical infrastructure (“terrain and transportation network”), and social characteristics defined as the extent to which the discontented can and do collectively organize. This being 1968, Gurr included strength of the Communist Party in this part of the index. A third facilitation is “external support” of the “initiators” that others provide such as training, refuge, advice, and so on.
Legitimacy of the regime
Gurr also argues that legitimacy of the regime influences this relationship. Legitimacy is “popular support for the regime” (1106). More support, less strife. When people feel that their frustration is justified, they will be less aggressive, and thus less likely to engage in civil strife.
How can we measure relative deprivation?
Gurr argues that deprivation must be pervasive — a proportion of the population affected — and intense.
The duration matters, too. In long-term deprivation people can adjust their expectations. But in short-term deprivation, people may resort to strife.
“Any sharp increase in peoples’ expectations that is unaccompanied by the perception of an increase in value capabilities, or any abrupt limitation on what they have or can hope to obtain, constitute relative deprivation. We inferred that short-term, relative declines in system economic and political performance were likely to be perceived as increased deprivation for substantial numbers of people.” (1110)
Short term deprivation measures include inflation, changes in trade value or GDP, and a bad economic situation, such as crop failures, unemployment, and other economic crises. It also includes new restrictions on political voice, such as participation and representation. These include “harassment and banning of parties of various sizes, banning of political activity, and improper dismissal of elected assemblies and executives” (1111).
Lastly, it includes the catch-all, “New value-depriving policies of government,” which he
“defined as any new programs or actions that appeared to take away some significant proportion of attained values from a numerically or socially significant group, for example land reform, tax increases, restrictions on trade, limitations of civil liberties, restrictive actions against ethnic, religious, or economic groups, and so forth. Two aspects of such policies were taken into account in scaling for intensity: the degree of deprivation imposed, and their equality of application” (1112).
In sum, for short-term deprivation, there has to be something new, unpleasant, and intense. It can be economic, social, or political.
Gurr proposed several types of deprivation. Two of them are Economic and Political. Economic deprivation stems from economic discrimination, defined as “systematic exclusion of social groups from higher economic value positions on ascriptive bases.” Political discrimination is “similarly defined in terms of systematic limitation in form, norm, or practice of social groups’ opportunities to participate in political activities or to attain elite positions on the basis of ascribed characteristics” (1109). The general idea is that economic or political opportunities are closed for some social groups.
Additional measures of deprivation are “Dependence on private foreign capital,” “Religious cleavages,” and “Lack of educational opportunity.”
The rest of the article goes into details of the measures and the correlations between them.
Gurr thought that short-term deprivation is what leads to political violence. In sum, there has never been a full test of Gurr’s Relative Deprivation theory on non-electoral participation using modern cross-national data because Gurr was studying riots and rebellions, of which “attending a demonstration” was at the lowest level. Gurr’s theory can be criticized, but it doesn’t deserve the shallow treatment it has gotten from modern scholars of political participation.
Copyright Joshua Dubrow Politicalinequality.org 2022