First coined by Sam Stouffer and his associates in their wartime study The American Soldier (1949), relative deprivation was rigorously formulated by W G Runciman in 1966. Its use in criminology was not until the 1980s by theorists such as S Stack, John Braithwaite and particularly the left realists (see entry) for whom it is a key concept. Its attraction as an explanatory variable in the post-war period is because of the rise of crime in the majority of industrial societies despite the increase in living standards. That is, where material deprivation in an absolute sense declined and the old equation of the more poverty the more crime was clearly falsified.
Relative Deprivation occurs where individuals or groups subjectively perceive themselves as unfairly disadvantaged over others perceived as having similar attributes and deserving similar rewards (their reference groups). It is in contrast with absolute deprivation, where biological health is impaired or where relative levels of wealth are compared based on objective differences - although it is often confused with the latter. Subjective experiences of deprivation are essential and, indeed, relative deprivation is more likely when the differences between two groups narrows so that comparisons can be easily made than where there are caste-like differences. The discontent arising from relative deprivation has been used to explain radical politics (whether of the left or the right), messianic religions, the rise of social movements, industrial disputes and the whole plethora of crime and deviance.
The usual distinction made is that religious fervour or demand for political change are a collective response to relative deprivation whereas crime is an individualistic response. But this is certainly not true of many crimes - for example, smuggling, poaching or terrorism - which have a collective nature and a communal base and does not even allow for gang delinquency which is clearly a collective response. The connection is, therefore, largely under-theorised - a reflection of the separate development of the concept within the seemingly discrete disciplines of sociology of religion, political sociology and criminology.
The use of relative deprivation in criminology is often conflated with Merton's anomie theory of crime and deviance and its development by Cloward and Ohlin, and there are discernible, although largely unexplored, parallels. Anomie theory involves a disparity between culturally induced aspirations (eg success in terms of the American Dream) and the opportunities to realise them. The parallel is clear: this is a subjective process wherein discontent is transmuted into crime. Furthermore, Merton in his classic 1938 article, 'Social Structure and Anomie', clearly understands the relative nature of discontent explicitly criticising theories which link absolute deprivation to crime by pointing to poor countries with low crime rates in contrast to the wealthy United States with a comparatively high rate. But there are clear differences, in particular Mertonian anomie involves an inability to realise culturally induced notions of success. It does not involve comparisons between groups but individuals measuring themselves against a general goal. The fact that Merton, the major theorist of reference groups, did not fuse this with his theory of anomie is, as Runciman notes, very strange but probably reflects the particular American concern with 'winners' and 'losers' and the individualism of that culture. The empirical implications of this difference in emphasis are, however, significant: anomie theory would naturally predict the vast majority of crime to occur at the bottom of society amongst the 'losers' but relative deprivation theory does not necessarily have this overwhelming class focus. For discontent can be felt anywhere in the class structure where people perceive their rewards as unfair compared to those with similar attributes. Thus crime would be more widespread although it would be conceded that discontent would be greatest amongst the socially excluded.
The future integration of anomie and relative deprivation theory offers great promise in that relative deprivation offers a much more widespread notion of discontent and its emphasis on subjectivity insures against the tendency within anomie theory of merely measuring objective differences in equality (so called 'strain' theory) whereas anomie theory, on its part, offers a wider structural perspective in terms of the crucial role of differential opportunity structures and firmly locates the dynamic of deprivation within capitalist society as a whole.
W G Runciman's Relative Deprivation and Social Justice (Routledge, 1966) is the best exposition of the concept and his in-depth exploration of its dimensions could form a rich source for future criminological theory. What is to be Done About Law and Order? By John Lea and Jock Young (London: Pluto, 1993) has an extensive discussion of relative deprivation as a cause of crime. For a thorough examination of the literature on relative deprivation interpreted in a more objectivist way (ie by measuring income disparities and assuming there is subjective discontent) see S Box Recession, Crime and Punishment (Macmillan, 1987). Jock Young's The Exclusive Society (Sage, 1999) traces the transformation of relative deprivation in late modernity and the likely impact of this on the quality and nature of crime.