Stephen Ginn: Whither the riots? A theory digest

Stephen GinnLast week’s riots took place across different nights in multiple cities and involved no one ethnic group.  The reasons behind them are complex and a unifying theory is likely to be evasive. 

Many of the explanations for the riots have been made to fit around already established political agendas.  The left has focused on deprivation and an excessively greedy society, while the right has blamed police numbers and a lack of discipline and boundaries.

With such widespread disturbance, it’s more than likely that any explanation will have some merit.  The explanations favoured by our political elite will have very real consequences.  

According to some on the right the riots were largely criminal acts of opportunistic looting and vandalism. This cannot be discounted, not least as there are reports of the looting being highly organised. However it does not have sufficient explanatory power to be the complete story behind the disturbances. 

The night of the riots involved widespread looting of consumer goods, with institutions of the state left largely untouched. On this basis, they could be described as “apolitical.” However simply because the riots were not purposeful does not immediately disqualify them from being political. 
Alongside their ostensibly consumerist goals, the riots challenged the police for control of the streets, flouting law and social convention. This is arguably a political act. 

Naomi Klein writes of the riots as a “nighttime robbery” following the “daylight robbery” of recent massive banking bailouts and subsequent austerity programme.  “When you rob people of what little they have, in order to protect the interests of those who have more than anyone deserves, you should expect resistance—whether organised protests or spontaneous looting.”

Driven by consumerism?
The looting during the riots was mostly of consumer goods, leading them to be described as “aspirational.”  This explanation for the riots centres on what we value in society and the ability of some people to afford this. 

In a consumerist society, like that in the UK, the idea of social identity through consumerism is promoted. Yet economic hardship has left many people unable to afford consumer goods. 

This article argues that “Far from disregarding the values of society … the young people who were involved in property theft were enacting the very values that are communicated to them every day through advertisements and public culture.”

Failure of the criminal justice system? Poor relations with police?

It was striking how many of the rioters didn’t cover their faces. Why did they think that they wouldn’t go to prison? 

There may be genuine tensions between some communities and the police, and this has been the trigger to previous serious UK rioting.  In October 2010 for instance it was reported that black people are 26 times more likely than whites to face stop and search.

A breakdown in society?
This is an argument favoured by the left. Its proponents feel that a large section our society has no stake in it and that the riots were an understandable response to the brutality of the poverty they experience. 

Put another way, society relies on collaborative behaviour.  The majority of us are pro-social, at least in part, as we are convinced that it is in our best interests. If people feel themselves to be disenfranchised, by a society that offers little educational or employment opportunities, this does not apply. In the absence of mainstream ways of gaining self worth, some look inwards and create their own self esteem through their involvement in gangs, with violent consequences. 

The Prime Minister David Cameron has also talked about societal breakdown, and blamed in part the bad example set by our elites. 

This paper links budget cuts to social unrest.

Parenting/lack of respect?

This is a related argument to that of the “broken society.”

Some of the rioters were minors, suggesting both inadequate supervision and a failure to introduce pro-social values. A judge was critical of a family who did not turn up to the court appearance of their 14 year old daughter. 

Are the riots symptomatic of breakdown elsewhere?  Some people have written that, due to the intervention of the state, parents are no longer able to adequately discipline their children. As a result children are growing up with a dangerous sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility. 
In times of economic downturn some family units can become fragmented. The father of the 14 year old mentioned above said that he was unable to attend court as he has two jobs. 

The power of the crowd?
Other explanations floated for the riots have touched on crowd psychology. This might seem to explain the relative normality of some of participants. 

One psychologist was quoted as likening the riots to those seen in jails where “there is no higher purpose, you just have a high volume of people with a history of impulsive behaviour, having a giant adventure.”

Deindividuation, where social norms are compromised when people are in groups, has also been mooted. “That violence is an epidemic is not a metaphor; it is a scientific fact,” writes Gary Sultkin who likens violence to that of disease spread. Some sociologists write here that crowds are irrational (but then offer to explain them).

Professor Stephen Reitcher, professor of social psychology and expert on crowd psychology is unimpressed

Anna Minton writes in her book Ground Control about how current trends in city planning have led to a transformation of public space. Designed with the objectives of profit and safety paramount, physical environments in the city are being created which “reflects the stark division of the city creating homogenous enclaves which undermine trust between people.” 

The gentrification of large parts of previously disadvantaged areas has led to different communities – between whom communication is almost non-existent – living in close proximity as discussed in this London Review of Books blog.

“Historically” writes architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout, “there is a correlation between large-scale urban projects and upsurges in urban violence.” But, “it is much too soon to say anything,” he says, “about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton, or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation”

A unified theory?
The number of people involved in the riots is in the thousands, in cities of several million.  As of 17 August the Met had charged 1005 people and made 1773 arrests.  Therefore we should be wary of making generalisations about communities based on a relatively small number of their members.  All of the above explanations hold some truth, and the discourse is about which we afford the greatest weight. 

At a structural level The UK’s “knowledge economy” benefits some people but excludes many others. Many people are able to accumulate the skills and qualifications necessary to thrive.  However for reasons of upbringing and opportunities, others are unable to benefit. Social mobility remains poor.

Inner cities are particularly disadvantaged. In some communities single parent families are common, and role models are lacking. Family life is difficult if family members are obliged to take multiple low paid jobs. There are few activities available for young people and unemployment is high. 

In addition, the example set by UK elites has been poor and low income groups have disproportionately suffered from austerity cuts.  The money spent on the Olympics has had little effect on surrounding areas.  Expensive consumer goods are available for sale to the affluent middle class for whom city living is now fashionable and more affordable in previously run down areas.

Did something have to give?

Stephen Ginn is the BMJ Editorial Registrar. He writes a personal blog at: Follow him on Twitter at: