Sean Carey

Riots and randomness—the search for an explanation 

Sean Carey 

Although Tower Hamlets got off relatively lightly compared to other parts of the capital like Croydon, Hackney and Haringey it was not spared from last week’s disorders. A few days ago, I paid a visit to Roman Road in Tower Hamlets to see for myself where looting had taken place. One shop, Zee & Co, part of a small South Asian-owned retail chain which stocks designer clothing had around £600,000 worth of stock removed by around 100 young people, mainly male but some female. So far, one 15-year-old caught on CCTV has been arrested and can expect a custodial sentence when he attends the youth court next month.

Why did this event and others like it happen elsewhere in London and other towns and cities in England? This is the $64,000 question that everyone from politicians and social commentators want the answer to. I think part of the puzzlement is that so far there has been no consensus about how to classify what went on – for example, it obviously wasn’t a race riot in the conventional sense of either people from different ethnic groups battling it out on the streets, or a specific ethnic group fighting with the police. Nevertheless, there was a racial component — the death of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot by police marksmen in Tottenham—which set off the disorders. That said, it is extremely doubtful whether many of those young people – white, black and Asian — caught up in the looting in Roman Road or many other parts of the UK would have known much or indeed anything at all about this incident.

But the riots certainly had something to do with the acquisition of high and low value goods – the Guardian’s veteran political commentator Michael White dubbed them “retail riots”. Whatever else this and similar incidents replicated in the capital and elsewhere in England (but not interestingly in Scotland or Wales) mean it certainly demonstrates the centrality of consumption in people’s lives in an advanced economy like the UK.

Taking a slightly different line, two academic commentators, Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth writing in the Guardian very sensibly suggested that it is important to distinguish between incidents that spark unrest, and underlying causes which make it likely. Analysing data on unrest from 28 European countries between 1919 and 2009, and in 11 Latin American countries since 1937 they conclude that there is a strong statistical correlation “between expenditure cuts and the level of unrest”. They end the piece with a warning that although social unrest is very hard to predict in terms of timing, things can go dramatically wrong, and the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first experiment with democracy, is cited as an example.

On the other hand, historian Leif Jerram writing on Oxford University Press’s blog argues that disorder in urban areas has been a semi-regular occurrence. He cites gang violence in Glasgow and Manchester between the wars, the anti-Semitic riots in Liverpool in the post-Second World War period, the moral panic about violence between mods and Rockers in British seaside towns in the 1960s, and so on. Jerram then goes a step further and suggests that terrible as the recent disorders have been “maybe they’re just one of those random things that happen in all sorts of societies from time to time”.

He adds:

“Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome.”

I quite like the idea of “randomness” as an explanation of some of the things that happen in societies. However, in the case of recent rioting and looting in some parts of the UK, I don’t think this is the place to start. Far better to assume as Ponticelli and Voth argue that there are causes and then try and find out what they are.

For example, we know that most looters were young people — although the behaviour of older people caught up in the disorders also requires explanation — so therefore it seems sensible to look at the behaviour of those involved in terms of age, ethnicity, gender and social class. My guess also is that explanations will vary to a greater or lesser extent even within different parts of London — that is there will be interesting differences between what happened in Ealing, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Tower Hamlets. But I would be very surprised if there were no explanation, and that randomness had to be invoked as the major explanatory variable.

A version of this article has also appeared on the New Statesman blog

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem), Roehampton University

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