London Brawling: the rational basis of rioting?

Everyone’s been getting in on the act, rushing to explain the causes of the rioting in England.

It’s one thing when Greeks and Libyans take to the streets — after all, hot-blooded Mediterraneans are drama queens at the best of times. But when social discontent rises on the home soil of modern civilization, people sit up and take notice.

We could argue over the causes of the uprisings, and if we did I would argue that the discontents represent a generation of Brits who see little future for themselves, in a society which has invested so little in them that they are very little invested in it, that England’s troubles today are the logical result of Thatcherism a generation ago, just as America’s problems today are the logical result of Reaganism a generation ago.

But what interests me here is the social dynamic at play on the streets, not the political realities the riots expressed.

In an article published online by Scientific American on August 12th — “Rabble with a Cause: Were the London Riots a Spontaneous Mass Reaction or a Rational Response?” — Lauren F. Freidman writes:

A key misunderstanding, however, seems to pervade popular thinking: that mobs are irrational and are driven to violence by a few bad apples. In fact, the scientific evidence shows that individuals in mobs do behave rationally, although not always wisely.

The traditional view of “the mob mentality” is that in the heat of the moment, individuals lose their identity and stop thinking, instead acting emotionally and irrationally, with little sense of self.

Newer research suggests something quite different:

“When people form a psychological group, what happens isn’t that they lose a sense of identity but that they think of themselves in terms of group membership,” explains social psychologist Stephen Reicher of the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. Individuals cannot act with group goals in mind until they see themselves as members of that group.

And rather than forming spontaneously, Reicher explains, mobs form through a more complex process:

Riots are the endpoint of a very long and entrenched process of social sense-making. When an event comes along that clicks in perfectly to this broader social understanding, then suddenly it’s much more likely to make you see yourself as a group member.

In other words, rather than being a mindless mass of minions, following a few “bad apple” instigators, the crowds instead may have been a group of people who felt a common social bond — young, underemployed, with little stake or future in the greater society — and, crucially, shared an outraged, “enough is enough” emotional response to the police shooting of Mark Duggan. In these circumstances, all the key elements of group formation were present, including an identifiable common foe, the police.

As it turns out, many of the first of the arrested rioters who appeared before the courts were, as the Daily Mail reported, people who “led apparently respectable lives.” Thus, as the SA article cites social psychologist Clifford Stott, “One thing science does tell us is that we can’t understand it if we treat it as irrational [or] if we think of these people as a gathering of people with individual predispositions to violence.”

If all of this is true, then the worst way to deal with this kind of uprising is to hit back hard. As evidenced by protests in the Arab world in the last year, the best way to spark further discord is to try to squash the protests — in effect, to reject out of hand any legitimate causes of the unrest. As the article puts it, “the unilateral force that is sometimes used against a mostly nonviolent crowd can backfire, cementing the unity of the group against the now-violent authorities.” As a result, “this newly combative dynamic can change what’s considered acceptable group behavior for everyone and leave group members with an intoxicating feeling of empowerment.”

And, while every group is a complex mixture, a violent response by the authorities can escalate the violence of the group. As Reicher explains, “The response of authorities is to see the group as a whole as dangerous. At that point, precisely those people not originally violent have the experience of being treated with hostility and often physical force. Under those circumstances, they see the police as illegitimate and violence escalates.”

Of course there are some rioters whose only motivation is to use the “cover” of the group in order to get away with individual criminal actions. But these are not the “bad apple” leaders of the group. They’re better seen as individual opportunists, with agendas different from that of the group as a whole. Acting alone, these true criminals cannot spark a riot. Reicher explains that “group identity is a precondition for a riot: people will only riot when they think their actions are aligned with the worldview of the group as a whole.”

How do we stop this “group dynamic” rioting from happening? It’s too late after it’s begun. The key, Reicher says, is to “pre-intervene,” to “regularly engage community members who will publicly oppose violence and looting, shifting the perception of group’s needs and desires in advance.”

But that would mean changing much of the larger social and political climate — from one in which social programs and meaningful employment opportunities are sacrificed to the corporate bottom line, to one in which all members of society felt — and actually were — valued and respected.

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2 thoughts on “London Brawling: the rational basis of rioting?

  1. There might be more than social deprivation involved. An event like the riots brings in various individuals who see an opportunity. UK commentators who have expresses thoughtful opinions (eg Gary Younge in the Guardian) incline also to see individuals rather than mobs each with different purposes in mind so that giving a single description of cause is difficult, even harmful. That means that there are various ills to be addressed or other disasters may follow.

    • I mostly agree, but I think that it’s important to acknowledge that there was more going on than just a spatial conjunction of individual criminals (although those were certainly present). And while it’s true that there were many people with many different agendas, political and social and personal, those people shared a need to vent their anger and frustration.

      In the U. S. in the 1960’s, in cities from Detroit to L. A. to S. F. to Philadelphia, rioters trashed their own homes, businesses and neighbourhoods. It was as illogical then as it is now.

      But the main point of the article I cited, and it’s a point with which I agree, is that it’s both facile and self-serving to dismiss social injustice as a motivator in favour of a more-easily dismissed narrative of juvenile thuggery.

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