Social Comparison, Social Justice, and Relative Deprivation: The Links
Psychological questions related to the distribution of goods in society have long been of interest to social psychologists as well as to other social scientists. The broad social significance of this topic is apparent in its implications for feelings of grievance and gratification at the individual level, and for conflict versus stability and productivity at the social level. Early research was concerned with how people could respond to obvious inequality with equanimity (especially if they were disadvantaged in that inequality). The search for answers concentrated on the particular groups with whom an individual compared his or her share in the distribution; obviously, unrecognized inequalities could not stir dissatisfaction and resentment (e.g., Hyman, 1942; Stouffer, Suchman, DeVinney, Star, & Williams, 1949; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959). Hence, issues related to social comparison -- how people choose others for comparison, and how they make use of that information -- had obvious importance for distributional questions from the beginning.
In subsequent work, conducted under the explicit rubric of distributive justice, any distribution of goods, equal or unequal, may be viewed with favor by observers if it can be justified with appropriate judgments of deservingness. To the extent that the distribution of goods is congruent with the distribution of deservingness, the judgment is that justice has been achieved (cf. Adams, 1965; Homans, 1961; Walster, Berscheid, & Walster, 1973). However, this development simply underscores the importance of social comparison processes in the determination of responses to distributive issues. In short, people are assumed to compare not only their reward-cost outcomes, but also characteristics related to deservingness.
Despite the obvious relationships between social comparison processes and issues of distributive justice, investigators in these two areas have pursued their interests independently of each other. Research and