Reading the riots – challenging the received wisdom

5th Dec 2011

What caused the riots? Who was involved? Julia Unwin looks at emerging findings from research.

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:

  • The extent of reported hatred of the police is remarkable, and surely beyond anything anyone suspected. Some 85% of the rioters said that policing was a major cause of the disturbances, and the apparent and intense dislike of the police is clear in the interviews. Even if Mark Duggan's death was identified as an immediate spark, it seems clear the riots were somehow an expression of a deeper – and darker – set of perceived injustices and feelings about the police.
  • Many were quick to blame gangs. But for the duration of the riots, they actually worked together – suspending hostilities in the face of an opportunity to loot, and united in opposition to the police. In 2008, the JRF studied territoriality among young people, showing the strength of highly local loyalties, and conflicts with groups from other areas. This was not the case in August; the gangs suspended business as usual.
  • Many of the rioters and looters were young. But the age spread is probably wider than expected, and in particular, the image of exclusively early teenage rioters doesn't remain intact. Of those interviewed, 70% were over 18 – and about one-fifth (19%) were over 25.
  • Social media was quickly identified as key to the spreading of riots, and there were even calls to temporarily suspend some social networks. Some of the most memorable jail sentences were for organising riots online. But Facebook and Twitter didn't have the organising and coordinating role that many assumed. Far more important was the (private) network of BlackBerry Messenger.

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.