Riots and rationality

Riot police 9 August 2011

The rioting and looting in London and other cities has led to shocked reactions from residents and victims, while the Prime Minister has vowed to "restore order to Britain's streets".

"Political reaction denouncing the London disorders as 'wanton criminality' or 'copycat rioting' have an understandable but distressingly familiar ring. Those involved in the disorders will undoubtedly have a variety of differing motives for engaging in such action," says Professor David P. Waddington at Sheffield Hallam University.

"However, we can be virtually sure that the 'flashpoint' or triggering incident which ignited the Tottenham disturbance and subsequent disorders will have crystallised widespread and enduring grievances concerning relations with the police and other sources of social disaffection."

Professor Waddington has researched policing of public order and riot behaviour over several years.

In the ESRC-funded research project A Comparative Analysis of Recent French and British Riots he led a series of workshops looking at the 2005 and 2007 riots in the French banlieues and the 2001 riots in West Yorkshire and East Lancashire. After the 2001 riots, there were many suggestions of possible causes for the unrest – including ethnic segregation, lack of cultural integration, police misconduct and  youth alienation.

Nineteenth-century French academics suggested that the 'group mind' of a rioting mob could explain acts of collective violence, emphasising the inherent suggestibility, amorality, and destructiveness of crowds.

In the Sociology article The Madness of the Mob? Explaining the ‘Irrationality’ and Destructiveness of Crowd Violence Professor Waddington rejects this theory in favour of an analysis which demonstrates how even the most destructive acts of collective violence are typically underpinned by a restraining rationality.

Rioting is often seen as simply irrational. People have reacted to the London riots as being "senseless", "mindless violence" and "without any reason or logic to it".

"There is concrete academic evidence to show that institutions such as the police (not all of them but certainly junior to middle ranks) tend to think of rioting as irrational behaviour," Professor Waddington points out in The Browser.

"There is this view that when people are in crowds, they are suddenly enveloped by the red mist. This kind of perspective is actually very unhelpful, not least to the police themselves."

Professor Waddington also comments in the BBC News article England riots: What could the police do to stop the disorder?

Crowd behaviour and public order policing has also been the research area for Dr Clifford Stott, senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Liverpool. In the ESRC-funded project Crowd Dynamics, Policing and 'Hooliganism' at Euro2004 he looked at interaction between football fans and police. His research on behaviour at football matches has been included in a European Union handbook on controlling violence at international football matches.

Dr Stott spoke about the riots on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight on 9 August.

He also wrote an article for The Independent: Getting into the mindset of a mob mentality