- Literally the taking away of something or the state of being dispossessed, the term is loosely used for the condition of not having something, whether or not it was previously possessed, with the implication that the person in question could reasonably expect to have it. Of what precisely the individual is deprived varies, but basic welfare needs for food, housing, education, and emotional care (see, for example, the concept of maternal deprivation ) receive much of the attention.Like the narrower notion of poverty , deprivation can be viewed in absolute or relative terms. Absolute deprivation refers to the loss or absence of the means to satisfy the basic needs for survival-food, clothing, and shelter. The term relative deprivation refers to deprivations experienced when individuals compare themselves with others: that is, individuals who lack something compare themselves with those who have it, and in so doing feel a sense of deprivation. Consequently, relative deprivation not only involves comparison, it is also usually defined in subjective terms. The concept is intimately linked with that of a comparative reference group -the group with whom the individual or set of individuals compare themselves-the selection of reference group being crucial to the degree of relative deprivation.The concept of relative deprivation was introduced by Samuel Stouffer and his co-workers in their classic social psychological study The American Soldier (1949); it was also used by Robert K. Merton in his standard text Social Theory and Social Structure (1949), and was widely used by sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s. Not surprisingly it was invoked in discussions of poverty and in the arguments about the need for relative definitions of poverty. It was also employed by W. G. Runciman in his important study Relative Deprivation and Social Justice(1966). This focused on institutionalized inequalities and people's awareness of them, and on the question of which inequalities ought to be perceived and resented, by standards of social justice . More recently, the link between social inequalities and the experience of relative deprivation has been put forward as the explanatory mechanism that accounts for international differences in life-expectancy , the argument being that high levels of inequality lead via relative deprivation to lowered life-expectancy.Sociological debates have tended to focus on subjectively experienced relative deprivation. In the field of social policy, however, externally assessed material and cultural deprivations have been the focus. One important issue has been the extent to which deprivation is transmitted from one generation to the next. In this context the idea of a cycle of deprivation has been employed to refer to the intergenerational transmission of deprivation, primarily through family behaviours, values, and practices. This idea suggests the importance of personal and familial pathology-as opposed to structural inequalities-in accounting for deprivation, and has led to considerable debate and criticism (see, Cycles of Disadvantage, 1976, and, Dynamics of Deprivation, 1987). The term multiple deprivation is used where deprivations extend across a wide range of social needs. For a useful review of the extensive literature see, ‘Relative Deprivation and Social Movements: A Critical Look at Twenty Years of Theory and Research’, Sociological Quarterly (1982).
Dictionary of sociology. 2013.