We are still none the wiser about what happened during the English riots. Only an in-depth empirical study will tell us
THROUGHOUT history, one of the first casualties of riots has always been scientific understanding. From the French Revolution to modern-day riots such as those that caused chaos in English cities last month, concerted attempts by authorities to limit the ways events are explained make empirically grounded understanding virtually impossible.
One of the common methods that politicians use to strangle debate is to pass description off as explanation. Prime Minister David Cameron's statements in the days following the English riots are a classic example of this. On 11 August, the day after order returned to the streets, he asserted to the House of Commons that the disturbances were "criminality pure and simple". Later, at a youth centre in Witney, he stressed the events were not about race, social welfare cuts or poverty. "No, this was about behaviour."
Of course, he was right in characterising looting, arson and violence as criminal acts. Equally, the riots were self-evidently about behaviour. But what caused this behaviour? To insist that it is enough to apply the criminal label is to prevent us even asking these essential questions.
Another way in which politicians have restricted explanation is by intimating that any reaction other than condemnation is tantamount to condoning violence. The UK's education secretary Michael Gove reacted furiously to the suggestion by Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, that government policies limiting youth opportunities might have had some relevance, castigating her for "making excuses for what has gone on here". In this context, whole academic disciplines become suspect: in political vocabulary, "sociologist" and "jihadi" have acquired a kind of moral equivalence.
It is worth noting that much contemporary social science - including my own discipline of social psychology - arose out of an attempt to understand the Holocaust. Many of the leading post-war social psychologists were Jewish scholars. Their aim was not to condone but to gain practical insights that would give substance to the slogan "never again".
Those politicians and pundits who have tried to outlaw societal explanations of the English riots have advanced alternative theories, largely blaming the violence on the pathology of the rioters. Cameron's declaration that they are inherently criminal and lack moral standards is one variant of this. Another is the common suggestion that the rioters lost their moral standards in the crowd; that they were mindless, swept up by the contagion of the moment or perhaps preyed upon by unscrupulous agitators.
These theories translate into convenient solutions. In the short term, don't try to reason with rioters but use a big stick to repress them; in the longer term, look at the sickness within their communities that has turned them into amoral beasts. That only leaves the question of which communities are dysfunctional and in what ways. Thus Cameron locked horns with former prime minister Tony Blair over whether we should be talking about a broken society or a narrow but recalcitrant underclass.
The first problem with all this is that we do not yet know exactly who participated in the riots, what sections of society they came from, why they participated and what they did. How can we explain an event when we do not know the true nature of it? The second problem is that explaining the disorder in terms of the pathologies of those who took part - they must be either mad or bad - flies in the face of all we know about crowds and riots.
Perhaps the greatest investigation into the nature of riots was the Kerner Commission, established by US President Lyndon Johnson to find out the causes of the civil unrest that erupted in Detroit and other US cities between 1965 and 1967. The commission sent teams of investigators into the affected communities to study those who had taken part. What they found challenged many preconceptions about what had happened.
For example, the investigators acknowledged that many people took advantage of the disturbances to pillage and settle scores, and that this increased with time. But they also discerned clear patterns in the events. They showed that the average rioter was not marginal or part of an underclass but was generally better educated and socially integrated and had less of a criminal record than the norm in their communities.
Furthermore, the rioters did not act mindlessly and randomly, rather their targets reflected communal grievances. This reflects the finding from crowd psychology that crowd members do not lose identity or become "deindividuated". They act meaningfully in terms of the collective identities, values and understandings shared by their communities. Finally, the commission found no indication that the riots were directed or planned by organised groups, despite Johnson's conviction to the contrary.
The UK government needs to instigate a Kerner Commission of its own - an independent, in-depth investigation of this summer's riots that will tell us about the people and communities involved. So far it has resisted calls for anything beyond deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's "victims' panel", which will take evidence from residents in affected areas. When it comes to root causes, all we have been offered is a choice between a lack of explanation, uninformed explanation and mis-explanation. This approach might serve the short-term interests of those in authority, but it is unlikely to generate solutions that work in the longer term. For that, we need solid evidence and sound science.
Stephen Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews. He has advised the UK police and government on crowd psychology
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