Dismissing riots as ‘meaningless criminality’ a mistake, academic warns

The oft-repeated claim that the riots that have broken out in London and other cities in recent days are “mindless” and “meaningless” is mistaken, an academic expert has said.

August 9, 2011

Credit: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Clifford Stott, senior lecturer in crowd psychology at the University of Liverpool, said today that “to render the riots meaningless is actually to deny the opportunity that we must take to understand them”.

His comments came as the Prime Minsiter David Cameron announced that Parliament was to be recalled on 11 August for a one day debate on the civil unrest, which has spread from the capital to Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.

Professor Stott said: “What dominate at present are vitriolic debates loaded with moral indignation that are as much about pathologising crowd action, attributing blame and denying responsibility as they are about truth and objectivity.

“But this transition from peaceful to riotous crowds is, of course, one of the fundamental questions of crowd psychology.

“In addressing it over the last 30 years my colleagues and I have made some important advances in scientific understanding of how and why riots come about.

“Of central importance is that we know that ‘riots’ cannot be understood as an explosion of ‘mob irrationality’. Nor can they be adequately explained in terms of individuals predisposed to criminality by nature of their pathological disposition.

“To render crowd action as meaningful and driven to a large degree by contextual issues is not to act as an apologist for these riots. Nor is it to accept as legitimate the attacks against ordinary working class people, businesses, homes and families.”

He said work at Liverpool on the effective policing of riots had shown that the best approaches rely not on the reactive use of force, but instead “prioritize proactive interventions based upon dialogue as a means for building and maintaining police legitimacy”.

Professor Stott added: “Our argument is that to render the riots meaningless is actually to deny the opportunity that we must take to understand them if we are to take the appropriate measures that will prevent them in the future.”


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