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Gurr: Why men rebel

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Gurr. 1970. Why men rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Political violence varies according to magnitude and form. Magnitude includes scope (how many participate), intensity (destructiveness), and duration. Form includes three categories (page 11), turmoil, conspiracy, and internal war. But from the way he describes these, they are simply types along two dimensions: level of organization, and level of participation. Given that participation is already part of scope, only organization remains (at least, that's what he should have said).


Main point: "Men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations" (58). [This does not conflict with cognitive dissonance, which Gurr reviews in this chapter--b/c if what I think I can achieve and what I receive differ, I need to justify that, and justificiation doesn't require changing my expectations--it can mean placing blame on somebody else. Thus: frustration --> aggression.]

RD = relative deprivation (page 25). This is the tension between your actual state, and what you feel you should be able to achieve; as Gurr says it, "perceived discrepancy between value expectations and value capabilities" (37). The intensity and scope of RD strongly determine the potential for collective violence. Gurr gives a long review of psychological research on aggression, and concludes that frustration-aggression is the "primary source of the human capacity for violence" (pg 36), although aggression is neither necessary nor sufficient [indeed, he concedes that sometimes greed drives violence, but that frustration is a much stronger motivating force]. The more intense and prolonged a feeling of frustration, the greater the probability of aggression. Gurr also considers three competing explanations and finds them either irrelevant or not in conflict with RD (page 41): cognitive dissonance, anomie (normlessness), and conflict (essentially, RD caused by competition with another group).

Deprivation occurs when your value expectations exceed your value capabilities. Values include welfare, security, self-actualization, and so forth.

RD can happen in three ways: (1) "Decremental deprivation"--value expections remain constant while capabilities fall (pg 47--e.g. perhaps immigrants are taking over unskilled jobs, lowering conditions for unskilled labor); (2) "Aspirational Deprivation"--value expectations rise while capabilities remain the same (pg 51--e.g. exposure to a better way of life could raise what you expect for yourself, even though you can't get it now); (3) "Progressive deprivation" [the J-curve]--expectations grow [we expect continued growth] and capabilities do to, but capabilities either don't keep up or start to fall (pg 53)--modernization, depression in a growing country, or other change could cause this. [What he wrote in 1970 about this describes nicely what happened with the fall of the USSR.]


After writing a whole book about emotive, psychologial, non-rational causes of violence, Gurr tacks on this passage about the rational utilities of violence (with a footnote that Mancur Olson finally prevailed on him to do so). I don't see how the rest of his theory necessarily conflicts with rational choice, however. Yes, frustration-aggression is an emotive (thus non-rational) theory, but how is it irrational to strike out at what I perceive to be the source of my frustration? Would I not receive some benefit from removing the frustration? I suppose the non-rational part comes into play in this example: I get frustrated at my computer and want to hit it, but doing so would only make my problems worse.

Gurr says that he is adding this section as a partial qualifier: people act out their frustrations if "they believe that they stand a chance of relieving some of their discontent through violence" (210). He qualifies this, however, by pointing out that angry/frustrated people are likely to be more receptive to arguments that violence would help--thus emotion throws off the calculation, making action less than purely rational.

Previous success of collective violence helps determine perceived utility of violence (218-221). E.g.: lots of coups in Latin America, b/c people knew they had worked in the past. (This recalls Przeworski et al, "What Makes Democracies Endure," where they argue that previous experience with democracy should hurt future attempts [despite the conventional wisdom] because it equal previous experience with overthrowing democracy.) To a more limited extent, the people will also consider the utility of violence used by similar collectivities elsewhere (pg 223).

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Gurr, Ted Robert (author)Comparative PoliticsRebellionCivil WarFrustration-AggressionParticipation

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