A few days after this summer’s riots, I blogged that various commentators were rushing to partisan judgement on the causes. And that social scientists had an important role to play in understanding and communicating the complexity of what had happened.
I had no idea at the time, but Nick Clegg was to announce the following day that research would be commissioned by the government to do exactly that. We felt privileged at NatCen to be trusted with the subsequent commission. The research was published a month ago. I’m very proud of the great job our team did: it was a difficult project, and our researchers committed real personal energy and commitment to producing the results rapidly. And it’s great to see our work being added today by the LSE/Guardian/JRF project. The new study appears to be uncovering very similar themes.
We’ll all remember how shocking the unfolding scenes were back in August – with sometimes tragic consequences. Our research brought to life how taken aback those involved were too. Time and again, young people described the events as madness: witnessing people behaving in unlikely ways; and unlikely people getting involved in the first place. They had simply seen nothing like it ever before, and what’s more, no-one was stepping into stop it. For the young people involved, some were motivated by the sheer thrill and excitement of such extraordinary events; some by a one-off opportunity to acquire ‘free stuff’ with apparent impunity; and for others, it was a chance to vent their anger at the police, borne of long resentment.
Another striking finding was the theme of resentment towards the police among young people. A desire to get back at the police for their attitude and behaviour towards young people was a consistent message across all the areas we interviewed in, including urban areas where there had been no rioting.
And while the research confirmed the role of social media and blackberry messaging in speeding up information flow (an important facilitator, and something which concerned many commentators at the time), another striking finding was the similar importance of a rather old fashioned technology: television. Young people could see the disorder spreading from the grandstand view of their own living rooms.
It’s a fair bet that the vast majority of the British public would say that inequality – whether real or perceived - is no justification for looting and rioting. But it is a part of the story of what happened. Where young people felt they had no stake in society, no stake in the future, and nothing to lose, these thoughts pulled some towards getting involved. Others were protected by a strong sense of right and wrong, a strong connection to their community, and having a strong sense of what important adult authority figures (parents, youth workers) would say. But the prevailing sense of “madness” meant that even where people did have a stake, or a usually strong moral compass, some behaved atypically and recklessly, and made what they soon described as a stupid decision.
For me, our research shows just how important research is in a well functioning democracy. It was the first to hear from those involved in the riots. The new research from LSE, the Guardian and JRF consolidates it. Together, the body of evidence provides a chance to move beyond pre-existing theories. It’s a chance for the commentariat, opinion formers, and politicians to listen to and reflect upon what those involved have to say about why and how they got involved. It doesn’t excuse what happened. But whatever your own politics or perspective, it’s hard to disagree with Nick Clegg’s thoughts on announcing the need for research that we need a ‘thougthful determination’ to understand what happened.