The riots of summer 2011 – How did we come to this?


Listen to the audio from this session

The public discussion in the aftermath of the riots focussed mainly on criminal behaviour – on the lootings, violence and other criminal activity. In the first session in the Academy’s seminar on the riots, chair Professor Dame Janet Finch AcSS, 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 [slides], 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 between the panel and the audience 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.

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

Some Further Reading

  • Contemporary Social Science: the journal of the Academy of Social Sciences – Special Issue on ‘Crowds’ forthcoming November 2011. website
  • Jon Silverman, Crime, Policy and the Media (Routledge, October 2011)
  • Steve Reicher AcSS, Mad Mobs and Englishmen ( imminent publication as ebook here )
  • Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies almost always do Better. (2009).
  • Mike Hough and JV Felitzer, ‘Measuring public attitudes to criminal justice’ in Sage Handbook of Criminological Research Methods (2012)
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation report: the lessons to be learned from the Riots (pdf)
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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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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. You can read these and add your own thoughts here

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