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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

When Men Revolt and Why
Edited by James Chowning Davies

(New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1997)

What makes people organise for collective action and seek to overthrow government by violent means? Including contributions from Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as well as more recent conflict theorists such as Bruce Russett, Ted Gurr and the editor James C. Davies himself, this book traces one explanation to this puzzle.

The idea, which has survived two millennia, is simple; political revolutions stem from frustrated expectations. Although it may seem common sensical and even simplistic this idea has given rise to a number of theories explaining revolutions, all linking basic human needs and collective political action and highlighting the subjective nature of people's grievances.

Originating with Aristotle the thesis that discontent is a result of a perceived gap between what people have and what they think they should have surfaced again in the 1950s and 1960s when, contrary to the expectations at the time, instability and protest followed modernisation and progress all over the world. The thesis form the essence of established concept such as relative deprivation and revolution of rising expectations. The latter summarised the argument of the editor of this anthology, James C. Davies, that revolutions follow a J curve, that is, are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of socio-economic upswing is followed by a short and sharp reversal. This sudden drop in actual need satisfaction creates an intolerable gap between what people want and what they get.

Critics of the thesis, which are not included in this volume, have highlighted the level of analysis problem contained in a theory which purports to make causal inferences about group action from what is a fundamentally psychological phenomenon of individual perceptions. Early research on the relative deprivation thesis also suffered from measurement problems in that researchers tended to rely on objective measures, usually income, for what is a subjective psychological orientation.

This anthology was first published in 1971 and although the theory of relative deprivation is no longer considered the primary cause of collective violence the idea has survived in modified forms. For example, one of its early proponents, Ted Gurr, includes relative deprivation in a recent model of ethnopolitical violence which also integrates elements of the major challenger to the relative deprivation thesis, namely resource mobilisation theory. The latter, developed by among others Charles Tilly, focuses on the capacity of groups to mobilise for collective action. In his recent research Gurr also uses measures of relative deprivation which more accurately reflects the multidimensional nature of grievances.

With its 357 double column pages the sheer volume of this anthology is somewhat intimidating. The reader is however greatly helped by the editor's succinct summaries which precedes each part of the book and which in themselves provide an excellent guided tour through the dynamics of the development of a theory. Including excerpts from classic texts as well as full articles the value of this anthology lies primarily as a reference book for any student of conflict theory.

Ann-Sofi Jakobsson,
Uppsala University

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