The Ideology of the Madding Crowd: Learning Lessons from our History

August 4, 2012

Given their scale and intensity, perhaps the most surprising thing about the 2011 summer ‘riots’ is how quickly they have slipped into the past and how little has been learned from them. Perhaps this vacuity of understanding flows from the almost immediate political consensus about underlying cause: that the confrontations were not driven by grievances – legitimate or otherwise – but were just a pathological intrusion into the normal social order.

If the political discourse was anything to go by, ‘the riots’ represented a society under attack, either from a distinct cultural ‘underclass’ bent on ‘mindless criminality’ or from others drawn into the apparently random destruction and looting because of ‘mob psychology’. In one way or the other, the dominant idea was that ‘the riots’ were a unitary phenomenon driven by a simple cause.

Discourses of social pathology and criminality always surround major riots. And they are profoundly ideological, for if ‘rioters’ are unrepresentative of the wider community and their actions meaningless, then there is nothing wrong with ‘us’ but something profoundly wrong with ‘them’. In turn, such analysis presents a powerful legitimisation of reactionary social control through the courts, prisons, curfews, water cannons and ‘rubber bullets’. No surprise then that, following ‘the riots’, one of the only formal consultations undertaken by the UK Home Office has been on creating curfew powers. The same organisation has also recently spent £427,000 on procuring ‘rubber bullets’.

The claim by politicians and media commentators that the riots were simply criminal or simply meaningless was based in part on official statistics. However, closer scrutiny sheds doubt on these statistics. On the one hand, there was the use of arrest figures to support the claim that most rioters were already ‘criminals’. This ignores the biasing of those figures due to the fact that the vast bulk of detainees were arrested following the disturbances on the basis of CCTV images. Therefore, there was a strong prejudice toward the arrest of those already well known to the police. On the other hand, there was the assertion that rioters ‘turned on their own communities’. However, the data on property damage shows clear selectivity of targets rather than indiscriminate and ‘mindless’ destruction.

So if the riots were not ‘mindless criminality’, how do we explain their development and what it was that people did?

In recent years, we have had some success in explaining patterns of behaviour in crowd conflict events – ranging from the St Paul’s riot in the 1980s to the No M11 anti-roads direct action in the 1990s – using the concept of social identity. This social identity approach recognises that people act collectively in crowd events on the basis of shared understanding of who they are and how they relate to others. This psychology of shared social identities among crowd participants both enables collective action and defines its limits. From this perspective ‘rioting’ is always a meaningful reflection of participants’ perceptions of themselves and the surrounding social context.

Crowd events like riots almost always involve interacting groups (for example, rioters and police). The definitions of appropriate conduct that people in crowds adopt are therefore not fixed, but relate directly to the perceptions of legitimacy and power that flow from crowd members’ common – but potentially dynamic – relationships with those other groups. Consequently, crowds are a place in which normally subordinated identities can change through empowerment to allow for the expression of underlying antagonisms in ways that other more mundane circumstances do not allow.

The authors of this article have undertaken an extensive study into the 2011 riots using video and interview footage. Our findings stand at odds with the dominant simplistic analysis and are more in line with the social identity approach. First, as with other riots, we found that patterns of collective action reflected underlying grievances and collective self-definitions. For example, the riots in Tottenham and Hackney can be characterised as ‘anti-police riots’, since here the aim appeared to be to get control of the streets through direct collective confrontations with the police. In contrast, the riots in Croydon and Ealing reflected class-based antagonisms, since the targets were posh shops and locations of wealth, and the police were generally avoided rather than confronted.

Thus far from meaningless explosions of random criminality, the 2011 riots seem to reflect grievances that grew from social relationships within the background context. It is highly significant that these riots developed after the shooting of Mark Duggan. This incident represented for many within the community their ongoing antagonistic relationship with the police. This antagonism fed into the events on Saturday 6th August, but only after Mark’s family was left officially uninformed of his death for two days and a peaceful demonstration about this fact was essentially ignored. The rioting on the High Road intensified following police responses to the initial outbreaks of conflict. The events then escalated elsewhere and over the coming days, due to a growing sense of empowerment among those who identified with the rioters. Shared and antagonistic relationships to powerful groups in society, such as the police and the ‘rich’, were fundamental.

In summary, if one lesson should be learnt it is that riots cannot be adequately understood by abstracting them from their social context; a context that invariantly involves intergroup relationships, including forms of policing. Therefore, the ‘solutions’ to these conflicts do not reside in trying to address the ‘inherent pathology’ of the rioters but to start asking questions about the forms of social relationships that lead to and then amplify their antagonisms.


By Dr. Clifford Stott (@CliffordStott), Aarhus University, Denmark & Dr. John Drury (@drjohndrury), University of Sussex, U.K.