Sociological Perspectives on the London Riots

The London Riots of August 2011 are a good way of introducing ‘perspectives’ on crime and deviance, as well as the strengths and limitations of studying crime using different methods.

The 2011 London Riots – Background/ Context

Between 6 and 10 August 2011, several London boroughs and other cities and towns across England suffered widespread rioting, looting and arson.

london riots

The first night of rioting took place on 7 August 2011 after a peaceful protest in Tottenham, following the death of Mark Duggan, a local man from the area, who was shot dead by police on 4 August 2011. Police failed to notify Duggan’s family of his death and no senior police officer was available to meet the protest, creating anger at perceived disrespect. The protesting crowd outside the police station set light to two police cars, and the pictures of this circulated on social media attracted other people to the area – what started as a relatively peaceful protest quickly descended into a riot involving mass looting.

The following days saw similar scenes in other parts of London with the worst violence taking place in , Brixton, Chingford, Peckham, Enfield, Croydon, Ealing and East Ham. The city centre in Oxford Circus was also attacked. From 8 until 10 August, other cities in England including Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, along with several towns, saw what was described by the media as ‘copycat violence’.

The riots were characterised by rampant looting and arson attacks of unprecedented levels. As a result, David Cameron returned early from his holiday in Italy and other government leaders also ended their holidays to attend to the matter. All police leave was cancelled and Parliament was recalled on 11 August to debate the situation.

There were a total 3,443 crimes across London linked to the disorder, including 5 deaths and at least 16 others injured as a direct result of related violent acts. An estimated £200 million worth of property damage was incurred, and local economic activity was significantly compromised.

The riots have generated significant on-going debate among political, social and academic figures about the causes and context in which they happened.

Biased Media Reporting on the London Riots

This Daily Mail article on the London riots by Melanie Phillips on is a superb example of  a New Right take on the ’causes’ of the event…extracts below…..

‘ The violent anarchy that has taken hold of British cities is the all-too-predictable outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value. What is so notable and distressing is that this mayhem has been carried out in the main by teenagers and children, some as young as eight. These youths feel absolutely entitled to go ‘on the rob’ and steal whatever they want.’

‘What has been fuelling all this is not poverty… what we have been experiencing is a complete breakdown of civilized behavior among children and young people… We are not merely up against feral children, but feral parents… either they are too drunk or drugged or otherwise out of it to care, or else they are helping themselves to the proceeds, too.’

‘As David Cameron observed yesterday, there are clearly pockets of society that are not just broken, but sick. Most of these children come from lone-mother households. And the single most crucial factor behind all this mayhem is the willed removal of the most important thing that socialises children and turns them from feral savages into civilised citizens: a father who is a fully committed member of the family unit. The result is fatherless boys who are consumed by an existential rage and desperate emotional need, and who take out the damage done to them by lashing out from infancy at everyone around them. Such children inhabit what is effectively a different world from the rest of society. It’s a world without any boundaries or rules. A world of emotional and physical chaos.’

‘This breaking of the family was encouraged by the Welfare State… Welfare dependency further created the entitlement culture that the looters so egregiously display. It taught them that the world owed them a living. It taught them that their actions had no consequences.’

Actual evidence on the ’causes’ of the London Riots’

Melanie Philips no doubt enjoys writing for the right wing daily mail, and her readers no doubt enjoy the sense of righteous moral indignation they feel when reading her articles (they are all in pretty much the same vein!). Unfortunately for them, but more unfortunately the impoverished teenage children of the single parents she lambasts, this is an extremely narrow analysis of the causes of the Riots. Moreover, Philip’s analysis is not supported by the rigorous quantitative and qualitative research carried out by the London School of Economics in the year since the riots. This is not to say that irresponsible parenting and the breakdown of social control didn’t have something to do with the riots – but there are a lot of other factors that need to be considered as well.

The findings below are based on the research findings taken from Reading the Riots Researchers spoke to 270 rioters: 185 people in London, 30 in Birmingham, 29 in Manchester, 16 in Liverpool, seven in Salford and three in Nottingham. Thirteen were in prison.

reading london riots

Who were the Rioters?

  • They ranged in age from 13 to 57
  • A third said they had never been found guilty in court or cautioned
  • The overwhelming majority said gangs played little or no part in what happened.
  • About three-quarters were aged 24 or under, only a small minority, people over 40.
  • Around 80% of interviewees were male, although anecdotal evidence from observers of the riots, suggest the proportion was nearer 90%
  • They came from a wide range of ethnic groups but A slightly larger proportion were from an ethnic minority (50% black, 5% Asian) or of mixed race (18%); this also varied by area: the ethnic makeup of interviewees in Salford and Manchester overwhelmingly white.
  • The general attainment levels were lower than those of the population as a whole: of the adults, a third had no qualification higher than GCSE , one-fifth of the rioters claimed to have no educational qualifications at all, one in 20 said they had a degree.
  • Most had prior experience with the Criminal Justice System – only 32% said they had never been found guilty in a court or been cautioned.

What were the main causes of the riots?

Based on the above interviews, the rioters themselves stated the following five main causes (percentages reporting this as a factor in brackets)

  • Poverty (86%)
  • Policing (85%)
  • Government Policy (80%)
  • Unemployment (79%)
  • The shooting of Mark Duggan (75%)

Of course, if you conducted the research again using a broader sample and different methods, then you might get different results. But based on this evidence, there does not appear to be any support for the New Right’s perspective on what caused the riots…

Sociological (/Criminological) Perspectives on the London Riots

Asking about the ‘causes’ of crime is only one aspect among many in the crime and deviance course. Some of the perspectives on crime look at crime much more broadly.

 Functionalism – argues that society needs crime. Rather than looking at crime as a purely negative phenomenon, crime also has positive social functions. The riots, for example, lead to a temporary suspension of inter-gang violence, and, as a media event, it gave the rest of us something unite against, thus increasing unity in society more generally.

Bonds of Attachment Theory (Functionalism) – The cause of deviance is the breakdown or weakening of informal agencies of social control such as the family and community. Criminal activity occurs when the individual’s attachment to society is weakened. This theory would blame poor parenting as the main cause of the riots.

Consensus Subcultural Theory – argues crime is a collective response to the above situation of frustration – If you can’t gain status by getting a job, you seek status by some other means within a subculture (possibly a gang) and riots can offer you an opportunity to gain status by ‘going further than the next person’.

Traditional Marxism – Argues that crime is a response to a Capitalist system that breeds materialism, greed and selfishness. They also point out that many members of the Elite classes are criminals themselves, but it is generally only the powerless that get punished for their criminal acts, while elites tend to avoid punishment. The rioters were largely teenage youths living in poor areas and many got disproportionate punishments for their involvement in the riots, while politicians engaging in criminal acts often get away without punishment.

Interactionists – See criminal behaviour as a response to labelling by agents of social control – mainly the police. Focussing on the riots – Interactionists would argue that police racism over the last 3 decades has led to black youths being disproportionately targeted by stop and search – and it was this history of negative attention from the police that sparked the riots.

Right Realists – Argue that the riots were caused because of a basic breakdown of both informal and formal social control – weak communities and too few police on the streets, and society not being tough enough on crime. Rioters had too much freedom and felt like they could get away with their crimes.

Left-Realism – Argues there are two main causes of crime – Marginalisation and Relative Deprivation – largely borne out by the Guardian research above.

Post-modernism – Argues that the riots are a response to a postmodern society characterised by consumerism, an obsession with self-identity and a quest for excitement. For many the riots were a ‘scene’ where they could ‘play a game’ – engaging in vandalism and challenging the police provide both status and excitement – much more than any nightclub could offer.

flawed consumers

 Explore the ’causes’ of the London riots in more depth…

They’re all pretty left wing, so redressing the balance of the right-biased mainstream media…

  1. The Moral decay is as bad at the top of our society as it is at the bottom by Peter Oborne –
  2.  and Zygmunt Bauman – The London Riots – Consumerism coming home to roost as the World’s leading critical sociologist – he’s got to get in somewhere near the top..
  3. ‘ Look whose ruling now’ – London Rioters speak out
  4. David Harvey – Feral Capitalism is to blame!
  5. Another post focussing on consumerism – Let them yearn for Tatt
  6. A nice Balanced view from the JRF – What do we actually know about the riot areas and rioters?
  7. Guardian article – the rioters – young, poor and unemployed
  8. Some Observations on the Riots by Mark Metcalf – a view from someone familiar with the area
  9. It wasn’t just youths involved in the riots
  10. The Guardian data maps – a nice visual resource!
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