Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Looking out My Back Door: The Neighborhood Context and Perceptions of Relative Deprivation

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Looking out My Back Door: The Neighborhood Context and Perceptions of Relative Deprivation

Article excerpt

Students of political violence have often suggested that socioeconomic conditions play a significant role in explaining the individual-level predisposition toward violence. Relative deprivation theories propose that a persons socioeconomic situation is related to political violence, but only if the individual's situation is seen relative to other individuals and groups in society Unfortunately, most tests of this premise have been inconclusive. To a large extent, the problem centers on the lack of appropriate data; relative deprivation theories posit a relationship between the individual and the context, requiring that we merge individual-level and collectivelevel data. This study examines individuals' socioeconomic positions within the context of their neighborhoods. Two contextual effects are identified. First, consistent with theories of relative deprivation, support for violence is partly determined by the relationship between individual-level and neighborhood-level economic conditions. For instance, poor persons who reside in relatively well-off neighborhoods are highly supportive of violence. Second, the level of socioeconomic heterogeneity within a neighborhood moderates a person's perceptions of deprivation, and consequently this person's support for political violence. These findings suggest that perceptions of deprivation originate through a complex process centering on socioeconomic information from individuals' social contexts.

Relative deprivation is widely recognized as meaning that discontent toward the structure of a society is not related solely to a person's objective socioecoNOTE: An earlier version of this paper was awarded first prize in the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) 1995 Student Paper Competition, and was presented at the 1995 AAPOR meeting, Fort Lauderdale. I wish to thank Jeff Mondak for his insightful comments, assistance, and patience as I worked on earlier drafts of this paper. I also wish to thank Walter Stone and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, and Annabelle Conroy and Mitch Seligson for making available data from the 1991 Honduras survey nomic condition, but also to this person's standing in comparison with others.1 Despite powerful intuitive appeal, tests of relative deprivation have produced a mixed empirical record. I believe that much of the ambiguity suggested by research on relative deprivation stems not from a flaw in the theory, but from a failure to operationalize correctly the theory's central concept. When an appropriate specification is introduced-one that represents relative deprivation as a contextual effect-results provide strong support for the theory.

An excellent exposition of relative deprivation is found in classical sociology. Tocqueville's work on the French Revolution (1856) suggests that perceptions of inequalities in societies undergoing social mobilization may fuel the people's mood, and ultimately lead to political violence. Socioeconomic inequalities become unbearable once the people realize that they can escape from them. Likewise, in Suicide, Durkheim (1897) observes that individual satisfaction is relative to the need expectations instilled by the collectivity, and that satisfaction is not derived from the individual's objective supply of goods. More recently, Stouffer and colleagues (1949) and Merton and Rossi (1968) established the analytical bases for empirical research regarding the phenomenon of relative deprivation. This foundation provided theoretical focus for influential studies of collective political violence (e.g., Davies 1962; Feierabend, Feierabend, and Nesvold 1969; Gurr 1968, 1970), rioting in American cities (e.g., Downes 1968; Ford and Moore 1970; Geschwender 1964; Grindstaff 1968; Leiske 1978; McPhail 1971; Miller, Bolce, and Halligan 1977; Schulman 1968; Sears and McConahay 1970, 1973; Spilerman 1970, 1971), and aggressive behavior in the United States and cross-national contexts (e. …

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