There was an immediate rush to try and explain the August riots. Within days – if not hours – pundits of every political stripe had taken to the airwaves to provide instant, fully-formed theories as to why our cities saw four days of looting.
This is entirely understandable, but it is also dangerous. Public policy cannot be developed by intuition alone.
That's why the JRF agreed to fund the LSE/Guardian project Reading the riots – because we value facts and believe robust evidence is the best way to understand and respond to complex situations. While many groups have done valuable studies into the riots, and the Government has its own Victims Panel exploring the experiences of those who suffered, the Reading the riots project is unmatched in its scale and scope. Thanks to some entrepreneurial reporting, a specially-formed 30-strong research team and access to a wealth of social media data, this project is uniquely rich in results. With so much conjecture flying around about the causes, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
Already, the research is challenging some of the instant reactions:
Some of the most interesting results are in the differences between the causes given by the rioters, and those given by the general public. Rioters were more likely to say that poverty was an 'important' or 'very important' cause than the public (86% compared with 69%). This was the only cause listed higher than policing by those who rioted. And crucially, relatively few said that poor parenting (40%) or wider moral decline (56%) were important causes. These results suggest the riots are defined by deep grievances, galvanised by wanton opportunism. They were not the inevitable result of some long-term collapse in society, but of a temporary suspension of ordinary behaviour – a one-off chance to ignore the rules, smash, grab, and get one over the police.
Over the coming weeks, more of this work will be published. In September, JRF published a review of our research in areas that were linked, rightly or wrongly, to the riots, summarising our decades of experience in the poorest communities in the UK. With the first results from Reading the riots, now we can start to piece together something much better – an accurate picture of the riots themselves. And that picture will be based not on gut feeling, or on intuition, or pre-formed beliefs – but on evidence that will help us all understand why the riots happened and what we can learn from them.