The riots of summer 2011 – Campaign event

October 31, 2011

Trevor Phillips

We report from the Campaign’s event on the riots of 2011:

The riots of August 2011 took the nation by surprise. Much was said at the time by journalists, politicians and pundits who tried to explain why the riots happened. This event brought together leading experts from a wide spectrum of social science disciplines to offer their perspectives on the riots and offer possible ways forward.

The day focused on three themes:

What caused the riots? What is the state of Britain today?
Is Britain “broken”?
Were the rioters “just criminals”?

Session 1: The state of Britain today

The public discussion in the aftermath of the riots focussed mainly on criminal behaviour – on the lootings, violence and other criminal activity. The first session chair Professor Dame Janet Finch AcSS (left), Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, opened by stressing the need to explore the events of August 2011 in more depth and place the riots in the context of the development of British society since 1945.

Professor Ben Bowling AcSS, a criminologist at King’s College, London, began by asking the question: ‘How did we come to this?’ Using the analogy of the blind man and the elephant, he showed how people all have different explanations for the riots, depending on their own point of view. These perspectives include economic inequality, social and cultural breakdown, moral collapse and the failure of the criminal justice system – all offered as possible causal factors. Bowling stressed that the issues are complex with no easy answers. “It is important to hold on to what we don’t know”, he said. He noted that the research on the effects of community policing such as ‘stop and search’ were robust demonstrating clearly that, whilst police contact with young people tends to irritate, young people nevertheless desire some form of policing as protection from risk. He saw that the criminalising of young people through the justice system was part of the problem.

The riots of the early 1980s, he observed, were more clearly targeted against the police, with stop and search as one of the triggers and the widespread rejection of the legitimacy of the police as a major issue. Similarly, the August 2011 riots began with violence and looting and were triggered by police action, occurred in areas of economic deprivation and involved mostly young men. But there are also differences. These riots involved social media to some extent, the riots occurred in unexpected areas like Sloane Square and Croydon, there was more looting and this involved more women than before. “We need more evidence,” said Bowling. “We must avoid premature conclusions and hypotheses and avoid the temptation for quick solutions and the rush to make a final judgement.”

Professor Emeritus Richard Wilkinson,a social epidemiologist at the University of Nottingham, took a broad perspective, based on extensive international research studies into the relationship between inequality, relative poverty, deprivation and social dysfunction. Is Britain broken? He asked, or is it a society near breaking point? Compared to other similarly developed countries the UK has a high prison population, high teenager birth rates and high cases of mental illness, coupled with low levels of trust and low levels of child wellbeing. “Health and social problems were worse in more unequal countries,” he said. “The critical factor is relative income within a country.” Scandinavia topped the comparison graphs for equality and overall societal wellbeing, with the USA, Singapore, Portugal and the UK frequently faring less favourably with lower social mobility rates. Child wellbeing is better in more equal societies and social capital is higher where incomes are more equal.

People in unequal societies have less trust, higher rates of imprisonment and higher homicide rates – noticeable in different states within the USA and Canadian provinces. A major problem is that social dysfunction and a tendency to violence tend to be passed down within families with evidence that epigenetic factors are involved through the effect of parenting on the highly sensitive early years of a child’s life: parenting transmits adversity or socialisation. Single parenting and the incidence of broken families did not show a significant correlation with child wellbeing: what matters is how valued or otherwise people feel and income inequality is the tool for this. It was noticeable that the looters in the recent riots targeted ‘status goods.’

As a former BBC journalist who covered the riots of the 1980s, Professor Jon Silverman,now Professor of Media and Criminal Justice at the University of Bedfordshire, said that he would have had no problem then in being able to provide instant opinions and analyses then. Now, as an academic, he is aware of the need to “hold on to what we don’t know and avoid early explanations”.

His presentation focused on the role of the police and the failure of police intelligence to spot the danger signs before the riots erupted. “There has been a breakdown of legitimacy”, he said, with the Met (in London) becoming increasingly politicised and a rapid staff turnover at Commissioner level. The media attacks in the mid-2000s had undermined its ability to get a grip on trends in London. Owing to its failure to implement neighbourhood policing adequately it lacked useful community intelligence. It had been unable to integrate its information on media networks into its planning and this is an area that it needs to focus on more closely enabling it to distinguish between rumour and real information. Twitter is a key source of open access information which needs to be grasped. It has also He also said that a better use of new technology, particularly social media, could have made the police much more effective in anticipating the riots and then dealing with them. Nevertheless, he noted that mobile phones were little used in the UK to hold the police to account and wondered if the media talked up the role of new media because it formed such a large part of their own work practices.

Silverman suggested that the Met has become too large, taking on national roles (e.g. diplomatic and royal protection, anti-terrorism) for which it is not equipped and that it should proactively seek to divest itself of these distractions leaving itself better able to cope with the inevitable next round of riots. There will be more riots, but they will be different.

The discussion focused on the need for better intelligence gathering, the importance of focusing away from policing failure to a need for smarter policing, the link between high unemployment and the recent unrest, the loss of trust in society and, the risk that tougher sentencing will simply entrench the situation. Richard Wilkinson saw a current “law and order arms race”, with increasing sums being spent on policing rather than the root causes of discontent. One delegate thought the question was really why there were not more and bigger riots, given the circumstances of high youth unemployment. Ben Bowling pointed to the prevalence of ‘slow rioting’ on Friday and Saturday nights in Britain’s town and city centres, featuring regular confrontations between young people and police and bouncers. Finally there was a strong sense that the culture of the ‘instant opinion’ was adding to the problems and that social scientists should engage with this.

The central theme was the importance of good, scientific analysis and Jon Silverman sent out a powerful plea to academics to take all opportunities to go on air with the message that ‘it is too early to say’ and to provide all the caveats – such an approach lends credibility.

Session 2: Broken Britain?

Introducing this session, chair Trevor Phillips (Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), warned against planting a pre-existing narrative on the events of the summer. There is a need to listen to the people on the ground who have access to viewpoints unavailable to most of us, he said, in order to find the right questions to enable us to get near the truth. “We need to rely more on science and less on guesswork if we are to stop it happening again.” He agreed these were not race riots and pleaded that people should not let the fear of the facts being misused by racists stand in the way of improving our understanding of events.

Professor Tracy Shildrick, a sociologist and director of the youth research unit at TeessideUniversity, began with words that had been used in the media and elsewhere to describe the rioters as “alienated and disaffected”, “a feral underclass cut off from the mainstream”, “reckless”, “selfish” or simply “just criminals”. Her 12 years of research into the life histories of 400 young people in the North East have provided an insight into the mindset of people who are poor and unemployed. “I was shocked by the level of poverty,” she said. Her work shows that what most want is to work (and not in just in any job), be part of a family, have a home and live in safety. But the labour market in Teesside is “unforgiving”. There was low pay and little job security for those in work and many were cycling in and out of work and benefits on a very regular basis. Many had experienced hardship such as bereavement at a young age. Whilst the risk factors were shared by most, she noted that only a minority were involved in crime. “There is a need to understand youth transitions holistically,” she said. Like others, she was surprised that there were not more riots.

Dr Paul Bagguley, reader in Sociology at the University of Leeds, looked at what happened during the riots. He focused on the diversity of motivations and actions within crowds. Dispelling the notion that violent crowds are homogenous, he pointed out the diversity among the recent rioters, a variety of actions (looting, violence, etc) and the differing motivations. The only common factors were that most were young men under 30, on foot in urban areas, unemployed and with no family commitments – also a characteristic of riots based on US evidence during the 1960s. “Hence, the search for the typical or average rioter may obscure as much as it reveals about the causes of disorder,” he said.

Two things characterised the August riots and those in 2001 – one was the diversity of offences and the other was variability of actions. In the Bradford riots of 2001, for instance, one rioter served tea and biscuits to the police, but was later spotted throwing stones at the police and looting. Talking to rioters reveals the variety and cycling of emotions through fear and anger to excitement, which can lead to changes of behaviour. The increase in looting was a particular factor in the recent riots, but this may be simply because so many more valuable goods (such as flat screen TVs) are easily portable. To sum up, Bagguley said: “Urban disorders cannot be explained in a simple causal manner” and “it is important to see disorder as a complex emergent process”.

Professor John Solomos AcSS, a sociologist from CityUniversity, began by referring to a conference, chaired by Lord Scarman in 1986, about the riots of the early1980s. At that time collective action, racial inequality and the relationship between the rioters and the police were the overriding issues. “Today, the focus is less on collective action and more about individuals,” he said. Now the issues are talked about in terms of moral collapse, ‘Broken Britain’, the so-called feral underclass and the impact of the spending cuts. Many of the tensions which led to the 1990’s riots remain, but they are experienced differently. A frequent feature of riots is rumour about what is happening: particular discussions fit in with the context, and rumours developed in 2011 about policing, stop and search policies. He also noted that “riots develop their own logic and rationality,” so that looting can be perceived as a way of achieving cohesiveness within the crowd.

The discussion focused initially on trying to explain why only a minority of people who share certain characteristics (such as living in poor neighbourhoods with no job) get involved in criminal activities, why a substantial number of the rioters had no previous convictions and why the riots happened in some areas and not others. Trying to find a reason for the rioting is difficult as many rioters are unable to explain their actions articulately, said one speaker. Tracy Shildrick noted the role of community expectations: for example, in a community where passing stolen goods is acceptable and not questioned, looting is more likely to happen. It is important to look at different groups within communities as some members will defy the common behaviour and negotiations result about the trajectory of the actions. She also drew attention to the difficulty for the poor of improving their lives, because of the difficult labour market available to them, and their strong desire to do so. The importance of examining the everyday lives that form the backdrop to big events such as these riots was underlined.

The role of the criminal justice system was also discussed with the difference between the treatment of the MPs caught abusing the expenses system and the looters being highlighted as a source of potential future discontent. Paul Bagguley noted that rioting is a traditional political weapon of those who lack power, being their (perceived) only means of articulating their grievances.

What should social scientists be investigating? We need start by examining who became involved in the riots and why.

Session 3: Just criminals?

Charing the session Professor Ted Cantle CBE, Executive Chair of the Institute of Community Cohesion, began by reading a newspaper quote about the looting of a shipwreck on Sidmouth beach in 2007. There was no mention of “feral youths” or “criminality”, illustrating the point that the mostly likely looters are simply people who happen to be at the right place at the right time – a point made earlier. “Are we all potential rioters, looters or criminals?” he asked.

Professor David Canter AcSS, [SLIDES] a social psychologist from Huddersfield University, focused on getting a better understanding of the psychology of the looter or rioter, returning to the question of why only a small proportion of people sharing common risk factors, actually become involved in criminal activity or public disorder. “Many people, given the right circumstances, will commit crimes,” he said, citing insurance fraud as one example, “and poverty doesn’t automatically turn people into criminals”. He then examined the rules (or norms) that emerge in particular contexts, such as the Kings Cross fire (1988), demonstrating the importance of habit and custom in how people behave in an unexpected situation. Behaviour is often the result of habit and custom: some rioters appeared to adopt normal, orderly ‘queuing’ behaviour as they waited to climb through a vandalised shop window. So, what had changed to make the looting itself acceptable?

He noted that the TV news had been full of images of crowds acting powerfully – in the events of the Arab Spring in particular. Viewers had learned new ideas about behaviour and the police were unable to read the clues. He also cited research showing that people do not understand the exponential increase in danger that actually occurs in such situations. Studies of crowd behaviour also show that, contrary to some opinions, groups don’t come together easily or usually adopt a hierarchical structure. Riots are not part of a “great movement going forward”. But crowd actions do rely on key central contact points bringing groups together. He stressed the need for thorough research: “bad research drives out good research and detailed considerations,” and closed by wondering if it was a mistake to call the events of summer 2011 ‘riots’ at all.

The politics of public disorder was the theme of presentation by Professor John Benyon AcSS, a political scientist from the University of Leicester.Hebegan by showing that violent riots are and concerns about disaffected youth have been a perennial feature in British history, dating back to the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and earlier, and are a regular feature of global news reporting. Despite this, reactions to the 2011 riots produced words such as “surprise”, “horror”, “anger”, “incredulity” and “unprecedented”.

Professor Benyon looked at earlier reports on public disorder events including the findings of the Scarman report on the 1981 riots, the McPherson Report (1989) following the accusations of institutional racism amongst the police after the death of Stephen Lawrence, the Cantle Report on community cohesion (2001). Moving on to the current situation he referred to the contrasting approaches between speakers depending on their political outlook: the more conservative tend to offer “riff-raff” theories based on flaws in human nature whilst the liberals focus largely on social inequality and the lack of voice of those involved, but neither are appropriate ways of explaining the 2011 events. The sense of justice is a key factor. At the moment the social contract is not working and there is a sense of injustice in light of damage caused to key institutions by the behaviour of others in society – the bankers and the MPs – which may have been a trigger for the riots. His concluding observations were not optimistic. There is a lack of authoritative inquiry, a “grab what you can” morality and growing inequality.

The concluding speaker Professor Mike Hough, a criminologist from Birkbeck, University of London, asked why most of us are not rioters. His research had found that people tend not to act as rational calculators in order to maximise self interest. He agreed that images of other riots and an increasing sense of injustice had fractured the ‘habit of compliance’ which usually prevails in our society.

Examining the question of why three quarters of the convicted rioters appear to have pre-existing criminal records, he noted that this was not an adequate explanation for the rioters’ behaviour, as might be inferred by a simplistic understanding of the figures. In fact, a quarter of all males aged 10 to 52 have a criminal conviction and one third of all males will have a criminal conviction by middle age. Unsurprisingly, these figures are higher in poorer areas and it is quite reasonable to assume that the police will have targeted those known to them as they sought to bring rioters and looters to justice after the events. Thus, the figure of 75% is not particularly surprising and yields little if any insight into the motivation behind the events.

Much of the discussion was around the propensity of the media to seek simple “sound bites” and an aversion to more balanced approaches or more complex arguments. The use of academics as expert commentators is becoming scarcer and it is becoming hard to get across the views of social scientists, as journalists turn to other journalists for insight. It was noted that this is not the case in the US, where academics are more regularly asked to contribute to media discussions and reports.

One anxiety was being misquoted by the media and this had led to invitations to provide quotes being declined. David Canter noted that one way forward was to act proactively and write for the print media oneself thereby ensuring an informed balanced view contributes to the debate. Mike Hough proposed that more use is made of NGOs as vehicles for conveying social science insight as they are often experienced in getting messages across to the media. Jon Silverman noted that the national mainstream media was no longer a gatekeeper and he urged social scientists to engage in the national discussion through new media, such as blogs. However, John Benyon noted the central role played by mainstream media, in particular the papers such as the Daily Mail, in supplying the lens through which events are viewed.

The lack of a public enquiry or independent review into the events of August 2011 was regretted by Ted Cantle, noting that findings from previous enquiries had resulted in policy changes. Mike Hough added that there was, therefore, an even greater need for proper independent research to inform the discussion.

The conference was generously sponsored by the social science publishers Routledge and SAGE, with their social science blogging platform, SocialScienceSpace.com , and by the Institute of Community Cohesion.