International Debate

The riots of summer 2011 – Just criminals?

October 19, 2011 1035

Prof Ted Cantle CBE

Listen to the audio from this session

Chairing the third and final session at this Academy seminar on the riots, 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 [slides] , a political scientist from the University of Leicester. He began 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 [slides to come] , 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, , 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)

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