Relative Deprivation and Why Men Rebel

whymenrebelindexI loved the book Why Men Rebel by Ted Robert Gurr. I read it over forty years ago.  It gave me what seemed like a truth that I had not thought about before.  That truth was: “Don’t expect anyone to be happy based on some threshold level of consumption and attainment of goals.”  Our expectations are created by looking around and seeing what everyone else has and with media and communications, we all know what everyone else has.

This is the concept of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is defined as our perception of discrepancy between our value expectations and our value capabilities. Value expectations are the goods and conditions of life to which people believe they are rightfully entitled. Value capabilities are the goods and conditions they think they are capable of getting and keeping.  This idea finally got through to me the weakness of the “rational” model–maximizing expected utility, and that there might be other concepts of rationality.  Posts like Everyone else is a Hypocrite, Feeling is for Doing, Cultural Evolution, and Human Kinds Perception emphasize this.  Gurr was interested in what spurred men to violence.  Recently, on the fortieth anniversary of the book, Gurr discussed his book.

Gurr believes that the core of the Why Men Rebel model remains valid but is incomplete.  He makes several points to substantiate this,  and they follow.

First, he continues to think that people, with all their diverse identities, desires, and beliefs, should be central to the analyses of conflict.  He says: “This means that individuals should be the prism through which to examine the effects of social structures, beliefs, and the possibilities for mobilization and political action.” Gurr seems to question “relative deprivation” as the best concept for doing so, noting that in later writings he has used the words grievances and sense of injustice to capture the essence of the state of mind that motivates people to political action.  Personally, I like relative deprivation.

His second point is that to understand grievances:

we must first examine where people stand in society and what goods and bads they experience.  We need to understand how people interpret the situations in which they find themselves. Recent protestors against the effects of globalization, for example, are mainly young people in advanced industrial societies who, objectively, benefit from globalization. Why do they protest, and not the poor of the global South? Some young men in the Islamic world are attracted to militant movements like al-Qaeda and its affiliates that justify political violence by appealing to the Islamic doctrine of jihad; alternatively, they seek opportunities in the modern world in cities, in the Gulf states, and in Europe and North America. Why do they respond in such different ways to political appeals and opportunities?

His third point is that group identity is important: What are people’s clan, ethnic, religious, and political identities? With what people do they feel kindred, what networks of social interaction and communication connect them?  Group context and identity shape people’s hopes and grievances.

His fourth point concerns group mobilization. Empirical analyses of the causes of political protest and rebellion mostly confirm the late Charles Tilly’s contention in From Mobilization to Revolution (1978) that whether and how people are organized is the immediate source of political action.

Fifth, Gurr thinks that we need to examine how the communication of ideas and personal mobility has transformed political action in the last half-century. When Why Men Rebel was written, most protest and revolutionary movements were specific to one country, or just one city or region within a country. Now the web, social networking and air travel make for much more rapid international movement of ideas and activists. Political action no longer stops at national borders.  Gurr believe that we need to understand how skillful communicators can create a sense of identity and common purpose that transcend national boundaries and then use them to mobilize people in many different places for coordinated political action.

Finally, Gurr makes some observations about the rationality of political action. Why Men Rebel was written on the psychological assumption that political violence originates as a non-rational reaction to frustration. In retrospect, he thinks it was a mistake to suggest that people who react violently to their sense of injustice are non-rational. He notes that it is true that the consequences of violent political action are more often destructive than constructive and can lead to great suffering for those who take the step to violence. He says: “I do not now think it makes sense to assume a priori that conflict behavior is either rational or irrational. Instead, one should focus on the identities, grievances, and objectives of people who initiate political action and ask, critically, whether and how their actions contribute to the attainment of their goals.”

Two of the points that he suggests  should be kept in mind when seeking to understand and respond to popular discontents, I find to be persuasive:

  •  Begin by examining the group identities and grievances of disadvantaged people, including the poor, underemployed urban youth, and members of ethnic, national, and religious minorities.
  •   Understand the sources of people’s grievances by examining their status and their treatment by governments and by other groups. Listen to what people say, not just what others say about them.