The idea that unfulfilled, rising expectations create unstable political situations has a long tradition in political and social analysis. As far back as the early nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that it explained why the strongholds of the French Revolution were in regions where standards of living had been improving. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century the concept was associated with explanations of revolutions, insurgencies, and civil unrest throughout the world and the urban riots of the 1960s in the United States.


The term revolution of rising expectations was popularized during the 1950s in discussions of the foreign and developmental aid policies of the United States. It was used to describe the hope of the poorest counties for a better future in the wake of postwar decolonialization. It was said that rising expectations embodied the twentieth century’s "real" revolution insofar as it represented for the vast majority of the world’s population a break from centuries of stagnation, fatalism, and exploitation. During the immediate postwar years, regions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East successfully mobilized national liberation movements against British, French, and Dutch rule to create newly independent countries. Nationalist leaders had fueled their followers’ aspirations during struggles for independence and subsequently used promises of industrial development, improved education, and health care to sustain their legitimacy. In India, Indonesia, Malaya, Burma, Laos, the partitioned Vietnam, and several Middle Eastern countries industrial development based on a Soviet-style planned economy held great attraction, especially in light of the Chinese revolution—a non-Western, nonwhite, and proximate model. In the cold war context the key question was whether a developmental model based on communism or one based on capitalism best satisfied the rising expectations in those countries.

In the 1960s researchers in sociology and political science applied the concept of the revolution of rising expectations to explain not only the attractiveness of communism in many third world countries but also revolutions in general, for example, the French, American, Russian, and Mexican revolutions. In 1969 James C. Davies used those cases to illustrate his J-curve hypothesis, a formal model of the relationships among rising expectations, their level of satisfaction, and revolutionary upheavals. He proposed that revolution is likely when, after a long period of rising expectations accompanied by a parallel increase in their satisfaction, a downturn occurs. When perceptions of need satisfaction decrease but expectations continue to rise, a widening gap is created between expectations and reality. That gap eventually becomes intolerable and sets the stage for rebellion against a social system that fails to fulfill its promises.

The Cuban revolution, the communist insurgency in the Dominican Republic, and several leftist movements in Latin America were attributed to unfulfilled expectations, as was the electoral success of leftist parties such as the election of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala (1950) and Salvador Allende in Chile (1970). At the heart of this reasoning was the assumption that the frustration of unfulfilled expectations leads to aggressive behavior, which can be manifested in political rebellion or electoral change.


The idea that unfulfilled expectations create unstable social and political situations is closely related to the variable of relative deprivation as an explanation of civil unrest. Relative deprivation is the perceived discrepancy in what people think they should achieve and what they do achieve. It was the animating concept for a large body of research (Gurr 1970) that attempted to explain both domestic and international civil unrest. The early successes of the civil rights movement in the 1950s had been characterized as a revolution in rising expectations among American blacks, and their perceptions of the slow pace of change during the 1960s were seen as a cause of urban riots in the United States (Geschwender 1964; Runciman 1966). Several studies showed that the most intense rioting occurred in cities where improvement of conditions for blacks had been the greatest.

Most research along these lines on both urban riots and comparative revolution or insurgencies used objective macroeconomic measures to infer deprivation, for example, rising gross national product and regional occupational patterns. However, because relative deprivation is an individual judgment, conclusive proof of its determining role requires survey or interview data to gauge respondents’ perceptions directly. Studies that did collect survey data often found that the relationship was weaker than expected (Abeles 1976; McPhail 1971) or that people were much more pragmatic about future expectations than aggregate economic data might indicate (Obershall 1968), suggesting that other variables may cause civil unrest. Also, because perceptions of relative deprivation are individual phenomena, research studies often failed to explain how individual states were translated into collective action, a key process that often was left implicit or assumed.


Because of inconclusive empirical proof, methodological constraints, and conceptual criticisms of this body of research, more recent social science models of civil unrest and revolutionary violence have deemphasized the idea of rising expectations, their frustration by state policies, and feelings of relative deprivation. Since the 1990s the focus has been on the structure and strength of state institutions, the mobilization capacity of aggrieved populations, and the cultural processes that channel perceptions of deprivation or injustice into collective action.

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