Following the Riots: Research Priorities

During and following the Academy’s conference on the Riots of summer 2011, the speakers were all asked for their thoughts on where the priorities lay for social science research. Here are those thoughts. Add your own thoughts to this debate in the comments below.

Professor Jon Silverman, Professor of Media and Criminal Justice, University of Bedfordshire.

Professor Jon Silverman
An analysis on the role of new media/ social network tools etc in galvanising group actions would be a fruitful line of inquiry.

Professor Richard Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham and co-author of The Spirit Level.
Professor Richard Wilkinson
It would be good to have more research on the social consequences of income inequality on the social fabric of society.

Professor David Canter AcSS, Director, International Research Centre for Investigative Psychology, University of Huddersfield
Prof David Canter AcSS
I would like to see detailed studies of exactly what happened, what the police did and what the crowds did to complement all the chats with people about why they did what they did. I see this as parallel to government enquiries into major disasters rather than surveys of attitudes that in fact we already know a lot of about. To me the crucial question is why it happened when it did as the general socio-political issues have been around for at least a decade.

Professor Tracy Shildrick, Director Youth Research Unit, Teesside University.
Professor Tracy Shildrick
We need proper research which engages in depth with those who participated in the riots and which takes proper and detailed account of their views and perspectives. It is important that research focuses not just on the riots as discrete events, but attempts to situate an understanding of what happened and why, alongside a broader appreciation of the lives of the young people who participated. One key thing which we have learned from our extensive research with young people in Teesside is that it is impossible to understand one event or aspect of young people’s lives without understanding what is happening elsewhere in young lives, in terms of family, education, employment, health and leisure experiences. In-depth research of this sort, with those directly involved in the riots, would provide invaluable insight not just about the riots themselves but also about where the events fit within a much bigger picture of life for young people in Britain today.

Dr Paul Bagguley, Reader in Sociology, University of Leeds.
Dr Paul Bagguley
I think it is important to understand the local contexts and histories which John Solomos highlighted. There could be a fruitful search as to what these areas share other than the more general accounts of social inequality.

Regarding what happened in Tottenham and the police response – I think there is considerable potential here for looking at police strategy and tactics both in response to major events such as the death of Mark Duggan but also crowd control tactics and how they evolve in interaction with changing crowd behaviour – has the Met become too used to dealing with organised political protest so that these events caught them unprepared? Are the issues to do with new media use by crowd members? Was the police’s command and control effective or did it fail?

There is clearly a lot of data on those arrested. If it could be accessed then a more detailed and sophisticated analysis of this would be useful (it may be that the Ministry for Justice is doing precisely this beyond its published summaries). This would be useful to examine who was involved, in what kinds of offence, in which localities, etc.

The role of new media in the circulation of information amongst those involved as well as those who were not involved is worthy of research. Precisely how people find out about ‘a riot’ and become involved is not that well researched. Exactly how people were using mobile phones and new media is really quite unclear. The focus so far has been on their use to ‘recruit’ people to the disorders, but in one instance in our Bradford research a rioter was called up by his wife to tell him to come home! The point is the use of new media could be quite diverse.

Looking at the emergence and spread of the riots empirically is centrally important – how they spread beyond Tottenham and ultimately beyond London. There are many well rehearsed theoretical perspectives on urban disorders, riots and collective violence but there has not been any great theoretical  advance in recent years. Many are rehearsing ideas that have been around since the 1980s with only relatively minor modifications. Time for some new thinking. Ultimately complexity theory and more subtle ideas about identity and action lie behind our thinking on the 2001 riots but we have not pursued or written about this systematically.

Academy of Social Sciences

The Academy of Social Science’s mission is to promote social sciences in the United Kingdom for the public benefit. The academy is composed of individual academicians and learned societies; it responds to government and other consultations on behalf of the social science community, organizes meetings about social science and seminars on topics that span social science disciplines, and sponsors a number of efforts that promote social science and enhance its value to society.

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