Re-reading the 2011 riots: ESRC beyond contagion interim report

Drury, John, Ball, Roger, Neville, Fergus, Reicher, Stephen and Stott, Clifford (2019) Re-reading the 2011 riots: ESRC beyond contagion interim report. Project Report. University of Sussex, Sussex.

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Background to the 2011 riots
• While an extraordinary amount has been written and said about the 2011 English riots, very little has been based on systematic evidence. The present interim report summarizes findings so far from a research programme based on a comprehensive data-set, which seeks to develop a new way of talking and thinking about the process by which riots spread from location to location.
• Some of the dominant accounts of the riots - as mindless destruction or ‘criminality pure and simple’1 - obscure understanding and feed into flawed policy responses.
• This study drew upon multiple archive sources, interviews with rioters (gathered as part of the Guardian/LSE Reading the Riots project), contextual information about riot locations, and police crime data. We used these data to construct histories of some of the most significant riots in August 2011, to test predictive models, and to analyse participants’ experiences.

Myths of the riots
• The idea that those who participated were overwhelmingly convicted criminals or that their actions were typically indiscriminate are not supported by the Home Office’s data.
• Like many other riots, the rioting in Tottenham happened after a drawn-out process rather than a single ‘spark’. In each location, conflict with the police and power-reversal in a local deprived estate was often the point at which smaller skirmishes became a mass event.

Motives for the riots
• There were significant differences between London boroughs that saw rioting and those that did not. Immediately prior to the riots, the former had significantly more deprivation, many more police ‘stop and searches’, and more negative attitudes to the police.
• We found that anti-police sentiment among participants was a significant factor in who joined in and what they did. One reason given for this hostility was experiences of ‘stop and search’ in the community.
• Shared anti-police sentiment formed the basis of a common identity, superseding ‘postcode rivalries’, and enabling coordinated action against police targets.
• In addition, many people saw themselves in opposition to a societal system they perceived as unjust and illegitimate; this made looting acceptable to many of them.

Understanding the spread of the riots
• To explain waves of riots, in place of the concept of ‘contagion’ - the notion that people simply copied others in a mindless and automatic way - we propose a new model of riot spread as identity-based collective empowerment.
• Rioting spread in various different ways. The first spread - from Tottenham High Road to Tottenham Hale and Wood Green - occurred as police dispersed rioters yet were unable to prevent their actions.
• Here and elsewhere, there was a pattern whereby community or anti-police rioting was the basis of subsequent commodity rioting (involving looting) as well as attacks on wealth.
• Close examination of the spread of rioting from North to South London suggests that Brixton participants often identified with Tottenham, and were influenced to riot out of anger and a sense of injustice at the killing of Mark Duggan. This would explain why Brixton was the first place to riot in South London.
• Many more of those in Croydon and Clapham, however, were more influenced by the perception of police vulnerability across London. The impact of police vulnerability in providing ‘vicarious’ empowerment for those who identified as anti-police may have been a general process, explaining riot spread across England.
• In all the locations we looked at, local identities and networks mediated the impact of rioting in other locations: most people interviewed were influenced by what they thought relevant others locally were prepared to do.
• Some police tactics seem to have inadvertently facilitated spread to different locations. These tactics included clearing town centres of shoppers and using proactive methods in those locations they feared would riot.

Item Type: Reports and working papers (Project Report)
Keywords: Crowds; riots; contagion; social psychology
Schools and Departments: School of Psychology > Psychology
Research Centres and Groups: Social and Applied Psychology Research Group
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
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Depositing User: John Drury
Date Deposited: 04 Mar 2019 11:24
Last Modified: 05 Mar 2019 12:42

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Project NameSussex Project NumberFunderFunder Ref
Beyond contagion: Social identity processes in involuntary social influenceG1842ESRC-ECONOMIC & SOCIAL RESEARCH COUNCILES/N01068X/1