Relative deprivation: a key theory for health inequality research?

Frank Popham

The Black report and relative deprivation

The Black report is the famous 1980 UK report on health inequalities. Its favoured theory for why health inequalities persisted and widened post WWII was structural theory (aka materialist). In some ways this is just Peter Townsend's relative deprivation theory applied to health inequalities.  Townsend was one of the report's authors and a leading thinker on why deprivation and poverty persisted in rich countries.  You can read his classic 1979  book "Poverty in the UK" for free.  While the empirical work is dated, the theoretical is still of contemporary importance. I would recommend chapters 27, 1 and 2 for understanding relative deprivation theory. Of course Townsend wrote lots more and this collection is well worth a read. Townsend's theory has been particularly influential in measuring poverty and measuring area deprivation. Yet it also covers the whole social gradient, individual and household deprivation.

Defining relative deprivation

Townsend defined relative deprivation as "… the absence or inadequacy of those diets, amenities, standards, services and activities which are common or customary in society. People are deprived of the conditions of life which ordinarily define membership of society. If they lack or are denied resources to obtain access to these conditions of life and so fulfil membership of society, they are in poverty."

In the figure and text below I attempt to represent the theory. I am no theorist so I apologise for any mistakes. My aim in blogging this is to try to widen interest in the theory. I believe that it has contemporary relevance to the study of health inequalities but is largely ignored.  Indeed it underpins a number of theories of health inequality, as I'll argue in a future post.


Key points about relative deprivation theory

In the figure more power is red, less is yellow. With the above caveat about my theoretical ability let's highlight a few points,

Funding and disclaimer

The MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office. The views expressed are not those of the Medical Research Council or the Scottish Government.


For attribution, please cite this work as

Popham (2017, Aug. 21). Frank Popham: Relative deprivation: a key theory for health inequality research?. Retrieved from

BibTeX citation

  author = {Popham, Frank},
  title = {Frank Popham: Relative deprivation: a key theory for health inequality research?},
  url = {},
  year = {2017}